In April, when U.S. Soccer and the women’s 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 team’s 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 team’s input and concerns. The unhappiness also has resuscitated long-simmering complaints about fairness, respect and equal treatment with the men’s national team, which has played only one home match on artificial turf since the start of 2014.
“We feel that it’s not their top priority to put us on grass,” Rapinoe said, “so they don’t.”
The problem, the women’s team is finding, is that both sides’ 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. Soccer’s hands in venue selection, thwarting what it calls its “mission” to send the team to as many markets as possible. But the players didn’t 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 “health and safety of the players as an important factor in the federation’s selection of facilities” and that “the federation prefers to play games on natural grass.” But the women’s 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 Vancouver’s B.C. Place in November, was not U.S. Soccer’s 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 women’s players — including members of the American team — sued unsuccessfully to have turf fields replaced by grass at the 2015 Women’s 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.
“Moving forward, we expect that U.S. Soccer will take into account our input on venue selection in addition to being more respectful of our players’ health and safety,” Becca Roux, the interim president of the players’ 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 second’s 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 women’s 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 “consider players association input” on where games would be hosted.
“We do understand that we can’t — or the federation is unwilling to — put every single game of ours on grass,” Rapinoe said. “But the expectation is that wherever we can, and with their best efforts, they will try to put us on grass.”
In fact, the women’s 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 federation’s president, Sunil Gulati. “We screwed up,” Gulati said at the time. “It won’t happen again.”
The women’s 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 — after a C.B.A. mentioning a preference for grass was approved.
“The 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,” Becky Sauerbrunn, a team co-captain, said in an email, referring to the women’s team and the men’s team. “It 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.”