Women’s soccer has another pay gap issue: The gulf between USWNT and NWSL

ISI Photos-Jane Gershovich

When life as a U.S. national team player is over, the sobering reality of women's professional soccer sets in.

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SEATTLE -- Keelin Winters cracked under the strain of it all.

From the time she was a little girl, her life was directed toward a singular purpose: a spot on the U.S. women’s national team. Her adolescence was spent on soccer fields. She attended summer school throughout college at the University of Portland in order to graduate a semester early with a jump on her peers.

Winters smiles thinking about her younger self during her rookie season with the Boston Breakers of the now-defunct WPS. She was a professional athlete, living in a new city and free of the burdens of adulthood.

Before I had the contract, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was just going for it, and I was playing pretty well. As soon as I got that contract, I had something to lose.

- Keelin Winters

“I loved it,” Winters said. “I had no worries. And then the season ended, and it was, ‘Now what? How am I going to make money?’ That’s when life really kicked in.”

Her long-sought shot with the national team came just in time. In 2012, just months after the WPS folded and following a standout performance at camp, Winters earned a contract with U.S. Soccer.

“With that contract, suddenly I had stability,” Winters said. “Suddenly, I knew I had a paycheck every month for as long as I was good enough to maintain my contract. So, talk about pressure. … And if I’m being completely honest, some of that pressure absolutely got to me. I had a hard time dealing with that.”

The intensity of U.S. women’s national team camps is legendary. Most national teamers have given up trying to explain it, shaking their heads with dark humor that suggests that, if you haven’t experienced the gauntlet for yourself, you’ll never fully understand.

As incendiary as anything else is the issue of pay.

For players on the fringe of the national team, they’re competing for more than just a roster spot -- they’re fighting for their livelihoods. U.S. Soccer salaries allow for a relatively comfortable living, with the new CBA paying players six-digit salaries between their national team and National Women’s Soccer League salaries. Many other NWSL players struggle to make ends meet; the league minimum is $15,000, up from $7,200 last year.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

For so long, the national team had been Winters’ all-consuming goal, and suddenly she had it. She had security that came with it, too.

“Before I had the contract, I felt like I had nothing to lose. I was just going for it, and I was playing pretty well. As soon as I got that contract, I had something to lose. I think that psychology led to the slump that I found myself in.”

Fretting over her standing led to a pair of ill-fated career moves, as well. Advised by then-U.S. coach Pia Sundhage that, to stay in the fold, she would be best served looking abroad, Winters jumped at the first opportunity – even if her gut warned her that Germany’s Turbine Potsdam, under notorious taskmaster Bernd Schröder, wasn’t the right fit.

She was called into national team camp under Sundhage’s replacement, Tom Sermanni, early the next year, and despite playing hurt and with fragile confidence, Winters went anyway.

“I was wrecked. But I was on contract and I felt so much pressure,” Winters said. “‘OK, I’ll come in.’ I played like crap. I wish I would’ve told Tom that I was in a bad place. ‘You can take my contract, but I don’t want to come in.’”

It might not have mattered. Shortly after that January camp, Winters was dropped from the team.

Winters soldiered on for four more seasons with the Seattle Reign, where she was named captain as the heartbeat of back-to-back regular-season champions. When it became apparent that she was unlikely to ever get another serious opportunity with the national team, though, she began plotting her next move.

She spent most of last season rushing home after practices to change into a business suit for one job interview or another.

Winters, who goes by Keelin Pattillo in her post-playing career and following her 2015 marriage, retired this past offseason at the age of 27. She has since been hired by the Kirkland Fire Department in the Seattle suburbs. She’s currently working as a probationary firefighter in what is essentially a yearlong tryout.

The decision brought her peace, and not only because she finds her second act so fulfilling.

“My whole pro career was thinking about what’s next, and what I was going to do after soccer, purely for the financial reason,” Winters said.

Would she still be playing if that last part wasn’t such a pressing concern? “There’s a good possibility,” Winters said. “I don’t think I would’ve been as quick to make my decision to move on from soccer.” 

NEXT: Getting dropped means lost money, health insurance and more