Linda Robertson

U.S. women’s soccer team still competing on uneven playing field

Ali Krieger, right, and Germany’s Anja Mittag battle for the ball during the first half of the SheBelieves Cup on Wednesday, March 9, 2016 at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton.
Ali Krieger, right, and Germany’s Anja Mittag battle for the ball during the first half of the SheBelieves Cup on Wednesday, March 9, 2016 at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton. AP

The uncompromising Tweet went out from Hope Solo with a photo she snapped showing a bald patch of the soccer field at FAU Stadium.

“This is what the top two women’s teams in the world will play on tomorrow night. #SheBelieves#EqualMeansEqual.”

Leave it to Solo, the outspoken goalkeeper for the U.S. Women’s National Team, to pull no punches. Her lament hit social media on International Women’s Day. She was reminding the world that women are still competing on an uneven playing field.

And not just athletes.

On Wednesday night, the U.S. defeated Germany 2-1 in the championship of the SheBelieves Cup. It was a fitting name for an event that showcased four of the best teams in the sport. France and England played to a 0-0 tie in the first game of the double-header.

The field looked fine except for the large rough strip of dirt along one sideline that Alex Morgan said the teams tried to avoid.

But Solo’s message is one that has resonated since last summer’s World Cup in Canada, where the women were forced to play on artificial turf after a gender discrimination lawsuit against tournament organizers failed.

The hard surface is brutal on the body. Players weren’t shy in displaying ugly rug burns on their legs.

Turf also causes the ball to bounce differently and alters the way the game is played.

No men’s World Cup has ever or would ever be contested on turf. That would be an unthinkable devaluing of the men’s talent. But it was expedient for the women’s World Cup, never mind the well-being of players, who felt they were treated like second-class citizens.

The U.S. team revolted during their victory tour and decided not to play on what they said was an unkempt, unsafe field in Hawaii.

What they call the “grass ceiling” issue is symbolic of larger disparities in sport and society, such as unequal World Cup prize money that parallels the persistent wage gap for female employees in the work force.

The U.S. Soccer Federation has sued the women’s team over labor issues, including the right to go on strike.

This incredibly popular team — most Americans are more familiar with Solo, Morgan, Carli Lloyd, the recently retired Abby Wambach and the long-retired Mia Hamm than they are with players on the men’s team — doesn’t get the attention it deserves, including network TV coverage.

But the point of the SheBelievesCup was to inspire girls to believe in themselves and their dreams, no matter what barriers might be in the way.

“A lot of girls struggle with confidence at a young age,” said Morgan, who scored the team’s first goal and won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot awards for the tournament in front of a crowd of 13,501 at FAU. “I know I did and some of my teammates did.”

The fast-paced game against Germany — a rematch of the World Cup semifinal the U.S. won on its way to the title — also showed Coach Jill Ellis that the blending of veterans such as Lloyd and newcomers such as 17-year-old Mallory Pugh is working as the U.S. prepares for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and that “depth will be an asset for us this summer.”

“It’s been fun to see the transition of this team,” Morgan said. “It’s about continuing to climb the mountain and peaking at the Olympics.”

The U.S. has won four of five Olympic gold medals and three straight and is aiming to become the first women’s team to win a World Cup and Olympic gold in back-to-back years.

The World Cup, the Olympics and tournaments like the SheBelieves Cup are the women’s only shot at visibility. Women’s pro leagues are still trying to build an audience.

“We would like to see with the FIFA reform committee more women in higher positions in FIFA and more funding for the women’s side of federations,” Morgan said.

Morgan and Solo said they were happy to be in another confetti shower Wednesday, and happy to be playing on grass. They believe gender equity is a dream that can still come true.

Linda Robertson: 305-376-3496, @lrobertsonmiami

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