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ORLANDO, Fla. — Before the start of the United States women’s soccer match with Canada on Thursday, the teams put aside their ferocious rivalry and acted like colleagues, all for the good of their sport.
In a show of solidarity in the pursuit of equal rights in soccer, the players gathered at midfield before their SheBelieves Cup match to form what looked like a giant heart. In one way or another, they all wore the color purple after coordinating the effort the previous day. The Canadians explained on their players’ union Twitter account that purple “has historically been associated with efforts to achieve gender equality.”
With the Canadian team’s equal-rights battle with its national federation intensifying over the past week — getting so heated that the players went on a brief strike — it made sense for the teams to come together to garner public support.
The Canadians wore purple shirts with the words “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH” handwritten on them as the teams stood shoulder-to-shoulder for each nation’s anthem. The Canadian players’ union said the team would continue to wear purple until its federation “has standards in place that ensure equal treatment and opportunity.”
The Americans and the Canadians wrapped purple tape onto their wrists. They also wore white tape with the words, “Defend Trans Joy,” a show of support for the transgender community in Florida.
“Obviously, we’re fierce competitors on the pitch, but the world of women’s football is very small and ultimately we support each other,” Christine Sinclair, the longtime Canadian captain, said, adding that she appreciated the Americans joining their public protest. “Their support has been amazing. They’ve really helped amplify the message and get it going worldwide.”
The Americans won the game, 2-0, after starting fast, with Mallory Swanson scoring in the seventh minute on a cross from Trinity Rodman that bounced off Alex Morgan in front of the goal. Swanson scored again in the first half, knocking in a gift-wrapped chance inadvertently set up by a lazy back pass from Canadian defender Vanessa Gilles toward the goalkeeper.
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The game result might have showed that the Americans were better prepared to start the push to the World Cup, but they also might have just been sharper, both mentally and physically. The Canadians have a lot on their minds these days, and Sinclair admitted that the labor dispute had made it a particularly tough week.
“I mean, we’re just, like, exhausted,” she said.
Morgan empathized with the Canadian players. She said she remembered when the U.S. team was in its equal pay fight with its own federation, and that it drained the team’s focus. It’s one reason the Canadian federation should address the team’s concerns, she said — and quickly resolve them.
“The last thing they want is a burden on their shoulders going into a World Cup,” Morgan said.
On Wednesday, the Canadian players were already thinking about a game day protest when they wore their training jerseys inside out, a public gesture previously employed by the American team during its equal pay fight. Canada did not want to show its federation logo and was opposed to playing at this week’s SheBelieves Cup. Considering how badly the federation had been treating them, they said, the players did not want to represent it at all.
Last week, the Canadian women said, they were dead-set on skipping the SheBelieves Cup, an important warm-up event for this summer’s Women’s World Cup, which Canada — the reigning Olympic gold medalist in women’s soccer — will enter as a favorite.
When they arrived for the tournament, in which they will play the United States (Thursday), Brazil (Sunday) and Japan (Wednesday), the players said some of those inequities they have become used to were glaring. There were fewer staff members than usual, they said. Fewer players in the camp, and fewer days in the ones to come. So the team refused to take the field.
The strike, however, lasted only one day. A meeting with Canada Soccer went poorly; the federation, the team said, threatened to sue the players’ union and individual players for an illegal work stoppage. Saying they could not bear that risk, the players grudgingly returned to work.
Infuriated after Friday’s meeting with the federation, midfielder Sophie Schmidt said she resolved to retire on the spot, and asked the team’s coach, Bev Priestman, to arrange her flight home. Schmidt decided to stick around until the World Cup only after Sinclair talked her out of leaving.
Schmidt and the rest of the Canadians are playing in the tournament under protest, players said, and they vowed to continue to find ways to highlight the equal rights issue with the public.
One bright spot for the Canadian team was that it took the field on Thursday knowing it had an ally in its opponent, the U.S. women’s team, and a blueprint in the Americans’ successful equal pay fight. The U.S. team spent years fighting its federation for equal treatment and equal pay, nearly a decade in which it managed court fights and legal filings while winning two World Cup titles. Though the U.S. team eventually lost its equal pay case in federal court, it emerged last year with a landmark agreement that might be the most player-friendly contract in women’s sports.
But none of it was easy, Morgan said. Or fast.
“Canada’s just getting started,” she said Wednesday. “They know the long road ahead of them because we just went through that and I hope it’s a shorter road for them. We’ll do anything to publicize what they’re fighting for and why they should achieve that.”
American stars like Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn said they had spoken with the Canadians and offered advice on strategies to achieve their goals. One key factor, the Americans said, is getting the public and sponsors involved in applying pressure on the federation to make changes.
“I think they should use that as something that can be galvanizing and motivating for fans and players alike,” Rapinoe said.
And on Thursday night at their match, in front of more than 14,000 fans in the stands at Exploria Stadium, it was clear that the Canadians took the advice — with the U.S. team more than happy to join in.