The US women's national team (USWNT) saw its claim for equal pay thrown out by a federal judge on Friday (1 May).
The two-time reigning football world champions filed the lawsuit in March 2019, alleging that they were paid less than men's national team players.
But in his 32-page summary judgment decision, Judge R. Gary Klausner concluded that any pay disparity was due to the different respective collective bargaining agreements (CBA) agreed by the men's and women's teams with U.S. Soccer.
He wrote, "The WNT rejected an offer to be paid under the same pay-to-play structure as the MNT, and the WNT was willing to forgo higher bonuses for benefits, such as greater base compensation and the guarantee of a higher number of contracted players."
The ruling was informed by US Soccer's evidence that the WNT was paid US$24.5 million, an average of $220,747 per game, against the MNT's $18.5 million ($212,639 per game) from 2015 to 2019.
USWNT spokesperson Molly Levinson said she was "shocked and disappointed" at the decision with Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan leading the response on social media.
Judge Klausner did allow USWNT's claims of discrimination regarding chartered flights, hotel accommodation and medical and training support to go to trial.
He rejected U.S. Soccer's assertion that the men's team had more of a need for charter flights so that they arrived rested for their qualifying matches.
The trial is scheduled for 16 June having been put back from its original date of 5 May due to COVID-19 measures.
U.S. Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone said she hoped a settlement could be made to avoid the need for a trial, but USWNT players are expected to ask the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers California where the suit was lodged, to overturn the decision.
A ruling on that appeal could see the trial delayed until 2021 or beyond.
Why did the USWNT sue U.S. Soccer?
In March last year, 28 players of the USWNT sued U.S. Soccer citing pay inequity and discriminatory working conditions.
The lawsuit was the culmination of years of complaints that the women's team lacked the support and rewards given to the men's team.
The USA's successful defence of their world crown in France last July merely bolstered their case among the public, but the national governing body refused to budge.
Evidence of their polarised standpoints became clear this February when USWNT made a claim for $67 million in back pay and asked Judge Klausner to make a summary judgment.
U.S. Soccer requested that Klausner throw out the case with its lawyers stating, "A reasonable juror could conclude that the job of MNT player requires materially different skill and more responsibility than plaintiffs' job does, while also taking place under materially different working conditions.
"The job of MNT player (competing against senior men’s national teams) requires a higher level of skill based on speed and strength than does the job of WNT player."
Levinson responded that this argument sounded like it was "made by a caveman", and the team - led by Rapinoe - made their own protest by wearing their warm-up shirts inside out before their SheBelieves Cup game against Japan in March.
The backlash saw Carlos Cordeiro - who admitted he did not review the court documents - step down as president.
Parlow Cone - a two-time Olympic gold medallist with USWNT in 1996 and 2004 - has struck a more conciliatory tone since succeeding him, and Klausner ruled largely in favour of U.S. Soccer on Friday despite the USWNT asking she give evidence as a trial witness.
In a statement, U.S. Soccer said, "We look forward to working with the women's national team to chart a positive path forward to grow the game. We are committed to continuing that work to ensure our women's national team remains the best in the world."
Klausner also rejected USWNT's claim that discrimination was behind them playing more games on artificial pitches than the men's team.
He accepted the federation's position that either they were looking "to spread National Team games across various cities" or that the lack of expected revenue from certain matches did not justify the installation of temporary grass playing surfaces.
But he did allow the USWNT claim of unfair treatment in terms of charter flights and hotel accommodation, as well as money towards medical and training staff, to proceed to trial.
While U.S. Soccer argued that the men's team had a greater need for charter flights, Klausner said, "This rationale does not fully explain the gross disparity on money spent on airfare and hotels for the teams."