For US Women’s Soccer, The Fight On The Field And Off Is Teaching A New Generation

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<p>Hart Van Denburg/CPR News</p>
<p>Women&#039;s National Team member Mallory Pugh of Highlands Ranch meets the press at Dick&#039;s Sporting Goods Park on April 2, 2019. She opted to skip college and turn pro in 2017.</p>
Photo: US Soccer Women Pugh 1 HV
Women's National Team member Mallory Pugh of Highlands Ranch meets the press at Dick's Sporting Goods Park on April 2, 2019. She opted to skip college and turn pro in 2017.

Lindsey Horan strides onto a practice field in bright blue training gear, with the vibe of an elite athlete — tall, strong, confident. She’s 24, a midfielder, and she’s from Golden.

Horan is on track to be a key part of the 2019 U.S. Women’s National soccer team World Cup squad, along with another Coloradan, 20-year-old forward Mallory Pugh, from Highlands Ranch.

“She’s like my little sister, and I think any time now we’re back in Colorado we train together,” Horan said. “It’s kind of a very cool feeling having someone from your hometown that’s part of this national team.”

The team plays a warm-up tonight against Australia at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. It’s a warm-up match for this summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in France — a tournament the team won four years ago in Canada. And as they fight to be repeat world champs, they’re also in a high-profile fight with their employers for pay equity.

For Colorado, it’s the classic local girl makes good story, times two. Both Horan and Pugh grew up playing soccer in Colorado, watching the U.S. women play on TV, and eventually climbed a competitive path to reach the peak of their sport. Pugh expresses gratitude to be a part of it all. “I get to come out here in my home state and play on this field with the people I want to play with and playing the game that I love,” Pugh said. “For me that’s the most important part.”

Photo: US Soccer Women Horan 2 HV
Women's National Team member Lindsey Horan of Golden on April 2, 2019.

Pugh and Horan are now part of a great sporting tradition, playing on one of the most talented and accomplished squads in history. The team has captured three World Cups and four Olympic Golds, and they have a winning percentage that not just rivals but exceeds the likes of the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys.

The team has also captured its own iconic place in U.S. cultural history. In 1999, the women won the World Cup on U.S. soil. Pugh was 1, Horan was 5. The team played before sold-out stadiums, became the talk of the nation and helped launch millions of youth soccer careers.

Then in 2015, another classic moment as Carli Lloyd became a household name, scoring a hat trick as the U.S. won the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada, beating a Japanese team that had beat them four years earlier in the final.

It’s a legacy that lives on in a lot places. In Denver, passion for women’s soccer is palpable.

At an indoor soccer center in east Denver called The Eddy, a coach with the Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club directs the ‘08 Girls Select squad, a team of 10-year-olds.

The girls hustle up and down the turf field, working hard on passing, dribbling and shooting the ball. During a break, they rattle off the names of their favorite U.S. players.

“Alex Morgan! Carli Lloyd! Mallory Pugh! What about Tobin Heath, #17? I have her autograph!”

Laura Ault says she and her teammates are heading to Dick’s Sporting Goods Park Thursday night to watch the U.S. and Australia women compete. And she says for her and her fifth grade teammates, the U.S. players are more than just ordinary athletes.

"They are great role models, because they are women,” Ault said. “I look up to them and they are strong and they are powerful.”

That power isn’t just on display on the field. As an example of that power, the girls say they know about a legal fight the U.S. women have mounted against their employer, the U.S. Soccer Federation. The women’s national team players say they are paid far less than their male counterparts, and that their team is more successful than the men’s.

One 10-year-old player, Ella Gollis, says she knows what it’s all about: equal pay for equal work.

“They should get equal pay cause they’re equally as good,” Gollis said as her teammates chimed in: “They’re better, they’re way better!”

Another player, Liza Cathey, says she’s doing a school report on the emerging court showdown between players on the U.S. team, including Coloradans Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh, and the U.S. Soccer Federation.

"Since they've been fighting so hard, I would like to play professionally someday,” Cathey said. “It's like they're kind of fighting the battle for me.”

Back at the U.S. women’s team training session, forward Megan Rapinoe, a veteran leader on the team, reflected on where the game has come. She remembers attending several of the ‘99 Women’s World Cup games, including the semi-final.

“I see us as much progressed, and much further along, and on much more stable ground, but still very far from ultimately where we’d like to be in terms of having a robust stable league. And obviously with the lawsuit and everything, we’re not fighting the exact same fights, but in a similar strain,” Rapinoe said. “I think we can look back and see that we’re building on many of the things that (the ‘99 team) fought for and sort of standing on their shoulders. But we still have a long ways to go.”

Photo: US Soccer Rapids Girls JD
Members of a Colorado Rapids Youth Soccer Club team of 10-year-old girls stand and wait for instruction from Coach Ash Hopkins.

“It was a tough decision,” veteran defender Becky Sauerbrunn said of the move the file the lawsuit. “We didn’t want people to think that we were going to be distracted by it going into the World Cup. It was also time sensitive, so we really had no choice,” Sauerbrun said. “We also know that we are professionals and we are very capable of multitasking. But we are 100% focused on winning the World Cup, and this is something that we can pursue afterwards.”

The history of the women’s team and its “smart” leaders over the years is a big advantage, said Alexi Lalas, a Fox Sports soccer analyst, and former member of the U.S. Men’s National Team. “They understand their leverage, they understand how the media works, they understand timing and they understand the opportunity and the platform they have going into a World Cup,” said Lalas.

He said the team has gained from past battles for equity and against discrimination.

“They’ve made not just the Women’s National Team, not just women’s soccer, not just women’s sports, but sports better for their efforts,” Lalas said.

Meantime, Horan is focused on the battle ahead on the field. She knows the stands will be packed with young, hometown fans watching their every move on Thursday night.

“It’s such a cool experience for them and to see two top teams performing and playing against each other. It’s just awesome for any youth players.”

And as usual for the U.S. Women’s National Team, tonight’s game is expected to be sold out.