Revealed: how the pay gap at US Soccer goes all the way up the ladder

Caitlin Murray
·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP</span>
Photograph: Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

When the US Soccer Federation confirmed it had hired its first-ever general manager of women’s programming, the announcement was an odd one.

Former player Kate Markgraf was selected for the role, which was hailed as a step forward for the US women’s national team program. Indeed, her hiring had been expected after US Soccer revealed plans to recruit a women’s GM more than a year earlier. But siphoning away some of her spotlight was a surprise announcement that came at the same time: Earnie Stewart, who became the federation’s first men’s GM about a year earlier, had been promoted to sporting director and would immediately become Markgraf’s boss.

Multiple sources tell the Guardian that leading up to the announcement there was concern inside US Soccer over Stewart’s much larger salary compared to Markgraf’s for the same “general manager” job title. That disparity, some executives and board members worried, wouldn’t look right, especially while the federation was defending itself in the USWNT’s high-profile equal pay lawsuit.

When Stewart was hired as men’s GM in 2018, his starting salary was $700,000, not including bonuses, according to several sources. Markgraf, meanwhile, started her role as women’s GM in 2019 on a salary of around $500,000.

Related: The USMNT coach almost earned World Cup winner Jill Ellis's annual salary in a month. Why?

That large pay gap could perhaps be explained by Stewart’s long resume of technical experience compared to Markgraf, who would be new to a GM role. But the men’s GM role was also much smaller in scope and, when Stewart was first hired, he was only expected to oversee the men’s senior national team. Markgraf, meanwhile, was tasked with not just the women’s senior team but all youth programming on the girls’ side as well.

By the time Stewart was elevated to become US Soccer’s first ever sporting director, his primary accomplishment after one year as GM had been the hiring of USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter. The hiring had been a slow and less-than-rigorous process, which prompted detractors to wonder why it merited a promotion for Stewart. But in his new role, which came with a salary increase to around $800,000, Stewart was put in charge of every aspect of the federation’s soccer operations, despite no prior experience in the women’s side of the sport.

Multiple sources cite the GM salary disparity, which would have eventually become public in the federation’s tax filings, as a factor in the timing of Stewart’s promotion. The federation had been dogged not just by the USWNT’s ongoing equal pay lawsuit, but reports of World Cup-winner Jill Ellis being paid less than her male counterparts, prompting discussions over the optics of the discrepancy.

Sources close to the federation push back against that, saying there had indeed been discussions about the potential negative publicity over such a large pay gap between the two GMs, but there were separate conversations about whether Stewart and Markgraf should report to US Soccer’s CEO or a new technical director. Ultimately, US Soccer decided to promote Stewart and felt it made sense to have Markgraf report to him immediately.

When Brian McBride was hired last year as the new men’s GM to replace Stewart, sources add, he was hired at less than $400,000, a significant drop from Markgraf’s salary, which sources say prove many factors aside from gender determine salaries.

But the optics of the pay disparity between US Soccer’s first two GMs and the internal admission that it may be an issue – along with the ill-timed announcement of Stewart’s promotion as Markgraf’s boss – play into the larger perception of a double standard. It is also a perception that won’t be going away anytime soon.

That is because, by the end of February, US Soccer must report some of its 2019 spending on compensation, and those reports will yet again show Ellis, who has won two World Cups, earned less money than her male counterpart, Berhalter.

That comes after years of similar disclosures. Last year’s tax filings showed Berhalter earned in one month almost as much money as Ellis had made in an entire year. The year before that, filings showed Ellis had earned less than a youth coach and a USMNT assistant coach, and Jürgen Klinsmann had been paid nearly 11 times more than Ellis, despite not working for the federation since 2016 and being part of the USMNT’s failed campaign to qualify for a World Cup.

The federation’s argument in defense of paying Ellis so much less than coaches on the men’s side is the same one for hiring Markgraf at a lower salary than Stewart: market value. It cost more money to lure Stewart away from his sporting director job at the Philadelphia Union after similar stints for Dutch clubs than it cost to hire Markgraf, who had worked outside of soccer in academia.

That speaks to another aspect of market realities: there aren’t that many general managers in women’s soccer, and US Soccer would almost certainly have to hire someone who had never done the job before. McBride, notably, has also never held a front office job in sports – but if US Soccer felt that was a necessary requirement on the men’s side, they would have had plenty of other candidates to choose from, who may have demanded higher salaries.

Whether market realities can explain away the pay gaps or not, US Soccer over the years often hasn’t done enough to earn the benefit of the doubt.

Even if the blatant disregard for the women’s game that was apparent in the 1990s is no more, lingering discrepancies between the men’s and women’s teams have often only been fixed after someone complained, as was the case in US Soccer promising equal playing surfaces and hotel accommodations for the USWNT last year. Fueling the USWNT’s headline-grabbing equal pay lawsuit was a handful of petty, indefensible and unnecessary discrepancies, like giving male players a $75 per diem while female players got $60.

If there is a reason to believe US Soccer may finally be able to find a way to escape the constant narrative of a double standard, it’s this: all of these controversies started under previous regimes that are largely no longer in place.

Carlos Cordeiro, the president of US Soccer when both Markgraf and Stewart were hired, is gone. After promising to be the agent of change who would repair US Soccer’s image, Cordeiro was forced to resign after two years when US Soccer’s lawyers admitted the federation viewed female players as inherently inferior to male players. Former CEO Dan Flynn, and his right-hand man, Jay Berhalter, are also long gone.

Now it’s up to president Cindy Parlow Cone, a former USWNT player and US Soccer’s first female president, and CEO Will Wilson, who both took over last year just as Covid-19 hit, forcing layoffs across the federation and a screeching halt to what would have been a busy year for the sport. To that end, both Parlow Cone and Wilson face the difficult task of moving US Soccer forward after just about everything went off-course in 2020.

But for too long, US Soccer has seemingly been on autopilot when certain decisions are made: like paying unequal salaries or filing sexist legal arguments. And only after the fact comes the realization that it looks bad and should be addressed somehow. After a year when autopilot just wasn’t possible, perhaps a change in how decisions are made will be part of US Soccer’s path back.