USWNT remains on center stage, even before taking the field

PASADENA, Calif. -- Two decades ago, the Rose Bowl was the backdrop when the U.S. women's national team showed that gender has nothing to do with how much a game matters. Again in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains, the current version of that team stepped onto the same field Saturday night to play its first game since winning the 2019 World Cup.

What transpired this time wasn't even the biggest news of the week for the most influential team in women's sports.

The USWNT's 3-0 win against Ireland on Saturday was as much an afterthought as an exclamation point to the week that was. And that felt about right. This summer's World Cup showed that the United States can still play the kind of soccer that subdues the rest of the globe and captivates its own country. But the ups and downs of the days preceding this game, from a fight for equality to a sport's changing landscape to the sudden search for a new coach, showed how far this team's reach stretches beyond results.

That might be the biggest difference between the fourth star and those that came before it. Winning this World Cup was, in some ways, always intended to be a means to a greater end.

"When we won in 2015, we were shocked," Christen Press said. "We were shocked at the reception. We were shocked -- not that we won, but just how much people cared. Then we worked so hard from 2015 to 2019 to set ourselves up to be in a different position -- in terms of the cultural impact that we could have and in terms of growing the game and what we could do for the future of the game. So when we played in 2019, we knew the weight that it held.

"We got to play knowing that we weren't playing just for soccer, just for ourselves or just for a World Cup, which is a dream of every single soccer player in the world ... but we were actually playing for cultural change and women everywhere."

That fight, rather than the upcoming game against a team that has yet to qualify for a major tournament, was where the week began. No issue is as synonymous with the team's activism as equal pay. So when U.S. Soccer did its best Wile E. Coyote impersonation last Monday with a public letter outlining the ways in which it felt it was already more than fairly compensating the women, the focus shifted. Rather than anything the players did on the field, the focus again became what they seek off the field ahead of mediation in the lawsuit brought by 28 members of the player pool.

The chants of "equal pay" that rang out on multiple occasions during Saturday's game, as they did after the World Cup final in Lyon, France, suggested U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro's recent missive fell short of convincing a substantial portion of its audience. No matter Cordeiro's numbers, no matter even the results of mediation, U.S. Soccer loses every minute it fights against an opportunity to lead.

"It sort of missed the whole point of everything," Megan Rapinoe said of the letter. "I was surprised, in that we had sort of agreed not to publicly talk about it -- mediation. So yeah, it surprised me."

It wouldn't be the week's only surprise. Tuesday, hours after the union representing players on the men's national team came out in support of their female counterparts on the issue of equal pay, headlines shifted to Jill Ellis' decision to step down as coach after two World Cup titles.

Ellis reiterated in Pasadena that she felt the time was right to leave from both a soccer and family perspective. But that also leaves a void just months ahead of Olympic qualifying.

"It's a great way to kind of end a legend career as a coach," Becky Sauerbrunn said. "I'm sure she'll have plenty of offers in the soccer world or outside of it. I think the world is her oyster right now."

Both Ellis and Pia Sundhage won their first major tournament with the U.S. women after taking over on short timetables, Ellis ahead of the 2015 World Cup and Sundhage the 2008 Olympics. It is hardly insurmountable. But any thought as the week began that the United States would look identical in trying to become the first team to win the World Cup and Olympics in successive years vanished with the start of the highest-profile coaching search in the program's history.

"It will be interesting if it's someone that we all know or if it's kind of an outsider," Sauerbrunn said. "I'm just really excited because I think, either way, they're going to have to come in here and really put their stamp on things and how they want things run. They're going to have to start evaluating payers. So it's going to be an interesting end of the year."

Then, as if to underscore exactly how big the job has grown for the next coach, FIFA on Wednesday announced the field for the 2023 World Cup would increase from 24 to 32 teams. FIFA president Gianni Infantino announced that ambition just before the World Cup final, citing the success of this year's tournament as reason to expand for the second time in three cycles.

Success that it is impossible to imagine without the U.S. team pushing the sport forward.

Infantino was in attendance Saturday night in the Rose Bowl, by his account on vacation rather than in the kind of official capacity he filled in the preceding U.S. game in Lyon. He spoke glowingly about the reaction to the World Cup he encountered since its conclusion. He said he believes FIFA will more than double the prize money for the 2023 World Cup, upping the goal of $60 million he set in France (if presumably still not coming anywhere near the $440 million in prize money for the men's tournament in 2022).

It was all positive, effusive praise for a sport he said had a "before and after" transformation in the World Cup. It was also all words for now.

Ellis said she enthusiastically supported expanding the World Cup field. She also said what just about anyone listening to Infantino's grand plans and big talk will be thinking.

"In terms of the money," Ellis said, "Yeah, you want to see the growth in that department for sure."

Infantino during the World Cup pledged a $1 billion investment in the women's game, doubling a previous pledge. But he offered no specifics on how that money would be spent. Nor did he Saturday, although he again mentioned plans for a Club World Cup and world league. Even ceding him, for argument's sake, the best of intentions, there will be a struggle between increasing the value of the women's game as a property and growing the sport. FIFA is excellent at one of those.

Put another way, repeatedly qualifying for the World Cup hasn't done much for countries such as Argentina or Nigeria. Not the way it did for France or the Netherlands. The difference is money.

"I would love to see FIFA make its investments in countries that don't even have a women's side," Sauerbrunn said. "In programs that are just kind of starting out or have historically been there [and] just haven't done well because of a lack of money and lack of funding to do scheduling. I would like to see a lot of that investment go to those countries. I think expanding the tournament, that's great, I think it's now making sure that every country that [participates] in the World Cup is getting the adequate funding to make sure that they're ready and prepared to compete in the World Cup."

The U.S. won Saturday's game at a saunter, piling up possessions and chances from the outset and scoring all three goals in the opening half. And there was a celebratory atmosphere, the crowd of 37,040 not enough to fill the place like in 1999 but enough to be the largest domestic crowd since the start of the victory tour that followed the 2015 title. Fans roared when familiar heroes such as Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd scored. They roared when new stars such as Rose Lavelle checked in. They roared when the big screen showed Rapinoe and Alex Morgan relaxing on the bench, both unavailable due to injuries. It was meant to be a party. And it was.

All of that felt familiar with a team that has those four stars and four Olympic gold medals. As Sauerbrunn said, a lot of the past few weeks felt familiar for players who were around four years ago, from the parade in New York to the trip to the ESPYS to the general adulation. But this isn't the same world as 2015, let alone 1999. Not for them, not for the sport, not for women.

"Everything is different," Rapinoe said. "It's just so much bigger, the tournament was so much bigger. The tournament transcended sport, so then the tournament feels sort of secondary to everything else that's happening. So much more exciting, and it feels like so much more high stakes now. It's like everything is different. Nothing feels the same as last time."

The U.S. women returned to the field Saturday. But only after a week that confirmed that is far from their only stage.