For U.S. Women’s Team, Higher Bonuses Raise the Stakes for Each Match

LOS ANGELES — When the members of the United States women’s national team negotiated their current collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer in 2017, they secured what seemed to be a significant victory on match bonuses.

In addition to seeing those bonuses increase as much as sixfold for winning certain games, the players no longer needed to win to collect the extra pay. For the first time, they would also earn bonuses even if they tied matches against top-tier opponents.

The compromise — ceding some guaranteed compensation from salaries in exchange for higher performance bonuses — helped break a deadlock in negotiations amid a broader fight over pay equity and working conditions, a battle that recently moved to federal court. But the players also decided the arrangement was a calculated risk worth taking: Playing for one of the world’s best teams, they view every game as winnable. And with each victory set to be worth as much as $8,500 per player, the bonuses brought the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in extra income.

Yet two years after striking their deal, the players are coping with the reality that winning isn’t always entirely within their control. Experiments with roster selections, starting lineups, tactical formations and even substitutions by Coach Jill Ellis — all within her purview and part of the normal evaluation period between major championships — have led to uneven performances and to frustration within a team that now has large payouts on the line every time it takes the field.

During the two years since the new C.B.A. took effect, in fact, the team has missed out on roughly $1.7 million in performance bonuses — sometimes as much as $200,000 for a single match. For some players, that is as much as $74,250 each. The analysis of bonus pay is based on figures contained in the team’s C.B.A., which has not been released publicly.

“We have a very bonus-heavy structure, purposefully — we win a lot of games and expect that we’ll win a lot of games,” forward Megan Rapinoe said. “That is part of the balance, understanding that we have a lot of money tied to wins and especially wins against top teams.”

The payments, which for the first time are based on the quality of a given opponent, are worth a maximum of $8,500 per player for a win against the four top-ranked teams in the world, plus Canada, and up to $1,750 for a draw. Against a tier of opponents ranked Nos. 5 through 8, wins are worth $6,500 and draws $1,250. If the Americans beat a team in the lowest bonus tier, like Sunday’s 6-0 thrashing of Belgium, each player on the roster earns a bonus of $5,250.

Lose, though, for any reason, and the players on U.S. Soccer contracts get no bonus at all.

Asked about how experimentation may cost the team short-term results — and thus, bonuses — Ellis said her priority has been looking long term and leaving no stone unturned before the World Cup.

“You want to win,” Ellis said, “but I’d rather get every box checked.”

It is also worth noting that the team isn’t losing more than it has historically; from the end of 2017 to the start of 2019, the United States even went on a 28-game unbeaten streak. But with each result now carrying a higher price tag for each player, the unpredictability created by abrupt experiments by Ellis has been unsettling to some in the locker room.

Ellis’s experiments have varied, including using three-back systems that featured a midfielder, Allie Long, as a center back, or others that pushed wing Mallory Pugh into a central midfield role for the first time against several of the world’s top teams. Once, Ellis asked Crystal Dunn to play three positions in a single match.

When there was a reprieve from such tests during the team’s World Cup qualifying tournament last year — Ellis kept her approach simple as the United States bulldozed through the event — the players noticed.

“You’ve seen a lot more consistency in the lineups and within the roster, so we’re seeing more consistency on the field and on the score sheets,” Alex Morgan said at the time.

But once the Americans clinched their spot in France, the tinkering resumed, and it has continued, even as the World Cup nears.

“Sometimes it’s O.K. to sacrifice results in terms of performance to get the best out of the team and figure out what that is,” Rapinoe said last week, “but we’re probably past that point — or we should be.”

The players were aware of the potential downside of their new C.B.A. even before they ratified it two years ago: A month before the players approved the deal, which retroactively covered all results in early 2017, they had been trounced at a new tournament, the SheBelieves Cup, while struggling to adapt to a new tactical system.

The team lost the SheBelieves Cup again this year when continued tinkering by Ellis resulted in draws against Japan and England. Because the tournament also offers a $5,000 bonus per player for a first-place finish — another carrot in the new C.B.A. — the team missed out on a total of nearly $400,000 in combined bonuses over a single two-week period.

“The paycheck was a little light last month, that’s for sure,” Rapinoe joked last week. “Unfortunately.”

Those paychecks, though, represent the optimistic stance the team took in its C.B.A. negotiations in 2017. With U.S. Soccer unwilling to increase guaranteed salaries, the team sought other ways to increase its compensation and maximize the upside of future success. Unlike their men’s counterparts, however, the women’s players do not have large club salaries to fall back on if they get injured, fall out of favor or — in a worst-case scenario — miss out on the biggest bonuses by failing to qualify for the World Cup.

That made the women’s new C.B.A. a stark departure for a team that had prioritized the stability of guaranteed pay. But it also means that a single poor performance now stings far more than it used to, even if it helps Ellis collect valuable insight.

Ultimately, though, the prize that matters most to the players is winning the World Cup. If they successfully defend their world title this summer, all the dropped results and experimenting will have been worth it.

“If we just breeze through and beat every team, 2-0 or 3-0, we’re not going to learn anything,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn said. “It’s good to get players who don’t have a lot of experience playing time. It’s good to play different formations and see if it works, or not, against the top teams in the world.

“I see a lot of value in the losses, the wins and the ties.”

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