In April, when U.S. Soccer and the womenâs national team announced they had agreed to terms on a new C.B.A., they ended a public fight that had been framed largely as a dispute over the issue of equal pay. But each side also heralded the deal as something more valuable: the start of a new partnership, one that gave the players a bigger voice in their teamâs day-to-day affairs.
Now, however, the players are accusing U.S. Soccer of ignoring that understanding and of making scheduling decisions without fair consideration of the teamâs input and concerns. The unhappiness also has resuscitated long-simmering complaints about fairness, respect and equal treatment with the menâs national team, which has played only one home match on artificial turf since the start of 2014.
âWe feel that itâs not their top priority to put us on grass,â Rapinoe said, âso they donât.â
The problem, the womenâs team is finding, is that both sidesâ preference to avoid the surface whenever possible is often eclipsed by other obstacles, like stadium availability, scheduling rotations to avoid frequent trips to the same market and even weather.
The lack of a specific ban on turf in the collective bargaining agreement was by design; it would have tied U.S. Soccerâs hands in venue selection, thwarting what it calls its âmissionâ to send the team to as many markets as possible. But the players didnât want one either, since it would have ruled out established markets like Portland, Ore., and Seattle, for example, and emerging ones like Cincinnati.
Language in the collective bargaining agreement specifies only the âhealth and safety of the players as an important factor in the federationâs selection of facilitiesâ and that âthe federation prefers to play games on natural grass.â But the womenâs team played on artificial turf at CenturyLink Field in Seattle during a tournament in July, and did so again in Cincinnati on Tuesday. In October, it will play at the Superdome in New Orleans, another football stadium with artificial turf. (The venue selection for another turf game, against Canada at Vancouverâs B.C. Place in November, was not U.S. Soccerâs decision.)
While compensation was the biggest sticking point in the C.B.A. talks, the standard of fields and facilities also was a major concern for the players. Many of them view artificial turf as inferior to natural grass, both for playing quality and safety, and the issue particularly rankles at the international level, where top womenâs players â including members of the American team â sued unsuccessfully to have turf fields replaced by grass at the 2015 Womenâs World Cup. That, along with disagreements about wages, is why the national team filed a workplace discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2016, a case that remains unresolved.
Despite those issues, veteran players have said, the team and its union chose to concede some specific points during C.B.A. negotiations in order to pursue something they thought would be more valuable in the long term: a degree of leverage with U.S. Soccer about where, and on what, they play. The problem, the players and their union say, is that they do not feel their points are being heard.
âMoving forward, we expect that U.S. Soccer will take into account our input on venue selection in addition to being more respectful of our playersâ health and safety,â Becca Roux, the interim president of the playersâ union, said in a statement.
The team, in fact, had repeatedly pressed to avoid the turf in New Orleans, in particular, going so far as to propose several alternative sites with grass fields for the match. The union said the federation rejected them without seriously exploring alternatives; a U.S. Soccer official said none of the proposed alternatives were found to be viable options. One stadium was unavailable; a secondâs playing surface, now configured for football, was too narrow for international soccer; and another was being held in reserve as a potential site for a future womenâs match.
Those explanations did little to mollify the players, who successfully pushed for language in the new C.B.A. that U.S. Soccer would meet with the union to âconsider players association inputâ on where games would be hosted.
âWe do understand that we canât â or the federation is unwilling to â put every single game of ours on grass,â Rapinoe said. âBut the expectation is that wherever we can, and with their best efforts, they will try to put us on grass.â
In fact, the womenâs team has seen the number of its home matches played on artificial turf shrink since December 2015, when the players boycotted a match in Hawaii during their World Cup victory tour. In the days before that match, Rapinoe tore her anterior cruciate ligament on a grass practice field, and when players saw the poor condition of the artificial turf at Aloha Stadium the day before the match, they refused to play.
The incident was a major embarrassment for U.S. Soccer, and prompted an apology to the team and its fans from the federationâs president, Sunil Gulati. âWe screwed up,â Gulati said at the time. âIt wonât happen again.â
The womenâs team played only two home matches on artificial turf in 2016 under the old C.B.A., which made no mention of playing surfaces. But that may be why players are so upset to be finishing 2017 with three of their final home matches on turf â after a C.B.A. mentioning a preference for grass was approved.
âThe federation has agreed with the players association that turf is not the preferred playing surface, and yet still the WNT plays on turf far more than the MNT, including three of our final six games this year,â Becky Sauerbrunn, a team co-captain, said in an email, referring to the womenâs team and the menâs team. âIt is a stark disparity in working conditions, and one of the many issues we hope to remedy through our pending E.E.O.C. charges.â