How USMNT players agreed to equal pay without formally entering the negotiating room

CINCINNATI — The U.S. men’s national soccer players agreed to equal pay without formally entering the negotiating room.

While women’s players regularly joined lawyers and representatives from all sides at bargaining sessions, according to sources, the men instead relied on their longtime executive director, Mark Levinstein, to secure a deal that will compensate the USMNT and USWNT on “identical” terms — and that, while mostly hailed as a historic win for the women, also makes the men one of the most well-paid national teams in the world.

Levinstein communicated primarily with Walker Zimmerman, a late-blooming defender who became an on-field leader throughout 2022 World Cup qualifying, and who simultaneously became the chief organizer within the men’s players association. But behind the scenes, dozens of players partook in transatlantic Zoom calls, in-person meetings and group chats. And here in Cincinnati for their first camp since the collective bargaining agreement’s ratification, several described “relief” in labor peace.

Zimmerman and others have said, and reiterated this week, that they’ve long believed “in the whole premise of equal pay,” which headlined the deal. But they also believed last June that they had a deal with U.S. Soccer, separate from the women — until, suddenly, they didn’t. Zimmerman told Yahoo Sports that the deal “fell through.” Three sources familiar with the situation said that Levinstein and U.S. Soccer CEO Will Wilson had agreed to it, but U.S. Soccer’s board of directors refused to approve it.

That deal, according to two sources familiar with it, offered the men 90 percent of the 2022 World Cup prize money that U.S. Soccer would receive from FIFA. U.S. Soccer, instead, called on the men to pool their prize money with the women and share it evenly. The men weren’t opposed to the concept, but Levinstein balked at proposals that offered the men less than what they’d already been offered in June. Merely pooling prize money would, in every scenario, have netted the current team less World Cup cash, because FIFA will distribute $440 million to 2022 men’s World Cup participants and likely $60 million after the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

The men ultimately agreed to equalize World Cup prize money in part because they secured other concessions that will, on the whole, potentially net them more 2022 World Cup-related money than the June deal would have, according to information released publicly and a source close to USMNT players. They sacrificed upside — they will be giving up money if they reach the quarterfinals or beyond — but likely raised their floor in the event they crash out at the group stage.

Walker Zimmerman (3) and the USMNT reached an equal pay agreement with the USWNT in May. Here's how it benefits them. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Walker Zimmerman (3) and the USMNT reached an equal pay agreement with the USWNT in May. Here's how it benefits them. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

USMNT stands to become one of world's most well-paid national teams

Although the federation had long argued that gender disparities in World Cup bonuses were products of similar disparities in FIFA prize money, previous CBAs featured fixed numbers, not percentages. The last men’s CBA, for example, which ran from 2011-2018, gave $2 million in total to players who participated in the successful 2014 qualifying campaign; $55,000 to each player who made the World Cup roster, and $5,500 to each player per game; and $175,000 in total per group-stage point. There were then bonuses for advancing to the Round of 16 ($3.6 million), the quarterfinals ($4 million) and beyond.

Under those terms, a group stage exit with three points would have netted the men $4.2 million in 2014. In 2018, that hypothetical number rose to $5.2 million. As they entered negotiations for a new CBA, they considered this three-point scenario and targeted a jump to $8 million — $4 million to the players responsible for qualifying, and $4 million to the players at the tournament itself — according to a source close to the players.

The 90 percent that U.S. Soccer offered last June, therefore, became a different route to a similar outcome. FIFA has promised $9 million to each 2022 group-stage loser. The USMNT thought they’d locked in a $8.1 million floor.

When that offer disappeared, and any deal became contingent on sharing with the women, the floor fell to a projected $4.5 million if the women suffered stunning early upsets in 2023, and a projected $6.8 million even if the women won a third-straight title. The men, instead of receiving 90 percent of their own World Cup prize money, would receive 45 percent of their own and 45 percent of the women’s — a significantly smaller sum, because FIFA has indicated that the 2023 prize pot will be just 13.6 percent of the 2022 men’s pot. (FIFA has not yet announced the payout scheme for 2023. The projections, with 32 teams now sharing an expected $60 million, are based on a minimum payout of $1 million and a maximum of $6 million.)

The eventual collective bargaining agreement struck last month, however, included two buckets from the old compensation structure on top of the 90 percent equally shared by men and women. The men received a $2.5 million qualifying bonus for 2022, just as they would have in 2018. Both men’s and women’s players will also receive $10,000 apiece per World Cup game.

Those bonuses raised the men’s 2022 floor by $3.2 million, and the worst-case scenario — originally $8.1 million, a number the men liked last June — became a range: $7.7 million to $10 million. With the women far more likely to advance deep into the tournament than exit early, the men, if they don’t survive their group, could actually receive more under this equalized deal than they would have under the separate deal they thought they had last June.

If they advance to the Round of 16, and the women win it all, the men would still be slightly better off.

If the women slip, or the men win a knockout match, the men will have given up money, and they know that. But they’ll still have made more than most, if not all of their foreign peers. And besides, they say, they believed in the principles on which these side-by-side deals were based. They don’t care that, over the totality of a four-year cycle, the women might make more than them, and might become the highest-paid national team in the world.

“We decided early on that equal pay was something that we really needed within the group,” defender Aaron Long said Monday. “We think that it was gonna be something that was gonna change the landscape for a lot of different organizations, a lot of different countries. That was at the forefront of our minds.”

Why no USMNT player participated in joint bargaining with USWNT

With a deal hashed out then rejected last summer — “we had agreed to terms,” Zimmerman told Yahoo Sports — many structural aspects were already in place by the time Levinstein returned to the table in the fall. The USMNT, however, and even more so its union, was in a state of transition. It hadn’t elected new player reps since 2018. Three of the six — Brad Guzan, Michael Bradley and Wil Trapp — were out of the national team picture.

In 2021, Tim Ream had unofficially taken charge, but he’d stepped back after June, and he, too, faded from the picture that fall. Zimmerman, at the time, was a fringe player, initially left off the October roster. But he had the trust of a wide range of USMNT players, especially as he became an every-game starter. “Walker, throughout the process, slowly climbed to the top,” Long said.

Their informal leadership group, though, had expanded as the player pool evolved. Zimmerman mentioned Matt Turner, Sean Johnson, Zack Steffen, Long, Paul Arriola, Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie as others who’d been involved in group discussions, but anybody who wanted to could be. With half the team in Europe and half stateside, and some navigating nine-hour time differences, scheduling those discussions outside of international breaks was tough. “You're kinda limited to a few-hour window,” Zimmerman said. They’d sometimes schedule multiple calls or use email to relay summaries, Long said.

Walker Zimmerman helped lead equal pay negotiations behind the scenes, across time zones and communication methods. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Walker Zimmerman helped lead equal pay negotiations behind the scenes, across time zones and communication methods. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

In part because of those scheduling difficulties, perhaps, no player ever participated in a joint bargaining session with the women, according to several sources. Some felt the men’s players, with their more lucrative club salaries, simply didn’t care as much. Others felt the streamlined process, through Levinstein via Zimmerman, worked optimally for the men, but Zimmerman acknowledged the women had more to fight for.

“They were working to get things that we already had,” he told Yahoo Sports — things like “equal staffing” and working conditions.

But the men also fought. And Levinstein, whom sources describe as an unyielding negotiator who despises the federation, fought on their behalf. Zimmerman confirmed that there were discussions around “commercial and event revenue sharing,” with percentages and structures constantly being tweaked. He also said that “retroactive pay” — for the nearly three and a half years that have elapsed since the previous men’s CBA expired — “was an absolute must. We were not gonna move forward at all without full retroactive pay.”

But they did want to move forward. “We were pushing to get it done before the World Cup,” Long said. They’ll meet with lawyers and reps on Friday in Kansas City, “just to go over more of the specifics for the whole group,” Zimmerman said, but the deal is done. It officially goes into effect Wednesday.

“Obviously there's a sense of pride, and relief, and congratulatory messages on reaching this agreement,” Zimmerman said of the mood in camp. “Because it really is historic.”