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How the U.S. women’s soccer team offers a cultural story, not just an athletic one

The women’s World Cup has kicked off in Paris, with the United States once again considered a leading contender. But there's tough competition, and this year, the U.S. team is playing against the backdrop of its lawsuit for alleged gender discrimination and equal pay violations. Lisa Desjardins talks to USA Today’s Christine Brennan about the athletic and cultural promise of this "veteran" team.

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  • John Yang:

    The women's World Cup kicked off in Paris this weekend.

    And once again, as Lisa Desjardins returns to tells us, the Americans are favored to win it all.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The U.S. team takes the field tomorrow against Thailand in its opening match, with high hopes of hoisting the cup about a month from now.

    The Americans have won three World Cups since the women's competition first began in the '90s. But the competition may be closing in. France, England and Germany are all considered threats. For the U.S., there's also a most unusual backdrop. Members of the team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation this spring over longstanding allegations of gender discrimination and violations of the Equal Pay Act.

    To help unpack all of this, I'm joined by the great Christine Brennan, a sportswriter and sports columnist for USA Today.

    Christine, welcome.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Thanks, Lisa. Great to be here.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let's start with this World Cup.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    All right, the U.S. team has dominated since there were rankings at all. What are their strengths, what are their possible vulnerabilities this year? Tell us about this team.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Lisa, this is a veteran team.

    And I think for every viewer who remembers Brandi Chastain going back 20 years now, Mia Hamm, this is the next generation. And they are strong, and they're ranked number one in the world. And they should win the World Cup. Not saying they will, because competition — it's the greatest day in women's soccer today, until tomorrow, in terms of the level of play.

    And that's just around the world, not just the U.S. But this is a veteran team, 12 returning players from the 2015 team that won the World Cup in Canada. The names are Alex Morgan. You have got Megan Rapinoe.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Christine Brennan:

    You have Carli Lloyd, who was the star of the 2015 team.

    Megan Rapinoe is someone who actually took a knee in support of Colin Kaepernick at one game. So, you have got someone who is also very socially active. She is an out athlete and she was the first openly gay athlete to be on the cover of — on "Sports Illustrated" in the swimsuit issue.

    So you have got story lines galore.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Who's the biggest competition?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Without a doubt, it's France. I mean, obviously, they're the host. Lots of pressure on them. They have never, ever gotten to the level where they would win either a World Cup or an Olympics.

    Interestingly, if the U.S. does what it's supposed to do, France does what it's supposed to do, they will meet in the quarterfinals. One of the top two teams, three teams in the world would go out in the quarterfinals.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    What I love about this team, they can strike from up close, but they can strike from crazy far away, like the middle of the field. I will put in a word for my favorite, number 9, Lindsey Horan, who I'm watching.

    But let's talk more about this cultural story. Tell us what these women are trying to do. It is the entire team that has sued U.S. Soccer, saying that they are not given the same treatment as the men and not the same pay. In some cases, they say half the pay, yet they play more games.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Right.

    This is a story line that's been going again really since '99, because right after they won that World Cup, and were the only story ever in the history of stories to be the cover of "TIME," "Newsweek," "People," "Sports Illustrated," all the way back 20 years ago, in the Rose Bowl that beautiful day, July 10, 1999, not that I remember.

    But then, within a few months, they were striking. And this has been a constant battle with their Federation over travel conditions, over pay conditions, over the opportunity to market themselves, and missed opportunities galore.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And the turf, even at some — they sometimes were playing on not as good, Astroturf.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Four years ago, Lisa, absolutely.

    In Canada, the men would never play on artificial turf. The women were forced to play an artificial turf, which you can get more injuries. It's just a tougher surface to play on.

    So, women have been second-class citizens in soccer from the get-go. And in this case, they're very busy right now focusing on soccer. But when they get back, that conversation about gender equity is going to keep coming up.

    And then — and the gap is extraordinary between what the men make and what the women make around the world. And, of course, the U.S. men are nowhere near as good or obviously winning as many titles as the women are.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    U.S. Soccer has said that these are different groups of players with different contracts and doing different jobs.

    The women say that's not true, that they're doing the same job, in fact, sometimes working harder. But, also, you hear sometimes U.S. Soccer officials say, listen, women do not bring as much revenue in, and that's why that they're not getting paid as much. They don't always make that argument, but they have.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Sure they have.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    How do you see that?

  • Christine Brennan:

    Yes.

    Well, what the women's say in return, Lisa, is that they're not getting the opportunities, the Federation is not marketing them, and not thinking of ways to market them. And so, if you're not marketing them, then you may not be making the same kind of money.

    Certainly, worldwide, soccer is that last bastion of male supremacy, and the ingrained sexism and misogyny in European soccer, in South American soccer is extraordinary. And that is exactly the world that the U.S. Federation is in. They have done some good things.

    But I think, because they are in the U.S., they're getting the kind of scrutiny that they should get and that an American audience demands, especially in regards to how we treat our daughters, our sisters as they grow up. And I think that's — that's the reason this conversation — but there — this is a team that wins. This is a team that wins all the time. And that should mean something, I think, in this conversation.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Christine Brennan, always good to have you here.

    And we will watch another U.S. team that could make history on a few levels.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Absolutely.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Thank you.

  • Christine Brennan:

    Thanks Lisa.

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