The United States women’s national team collapsed in the World Cup. Experts say that’s progress

Sophia Smith, Megan Rapinoe, and Lindsey Horan on the field after losing the 2023 Women's World Cup
(L-R) Sophia Smith of USA and Portland Thorns, Megan Rapinoe of USA and OL Reign and Lindsey Horan of USA and Olympique Lyonnais after losing the FIFA Women’s World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Round of 16 match between Winner Group G and Runner Up Group E at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium on August 6, 2023 in Melbourne, Australia. Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images

For fans who have spent the last three decades or so watching the U.S. women’s national soccer team dominate the world stage, Sunday’s loss in the World Cup’s Round of 16 was a shocking, unfamiliar experience. 

After struggling to score goals and looking beatable all tournament, the U.S. women went scoreless against Sweden for 120 minutes before falling on penalty kicks. The deciding ball from forward Lina Hurtig barely crossed the goal line to hand Sweden the victory. 

headshot of Dan Lebowitz
Dan Lebowitz, Executive Director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

This can feel, in many ways, like an inopportune moment for the U.S. team to fall short of expectations. For the Americans, at least, financial and cultural equity with their male counterparts off the field finally has seemed in sight in recent years. Thanks to a 2022 settlement with the U.S. Soccer Federation, the women’s team now has an equal pay rate with the men’s national team for international friendlies and tournaments. 

Members of the U.S. team—winner of four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals since 1991—still make far less money overall than comparable top-tier male athletes in other U.S. sports, but players like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are world-famous stars who make millions each year in endorsement deals. 

While close watchers of the U.S. team have been worried about its chances this World Cup, the women were still the odds-on favorites to win before the tournament, and conventional wisdom assumed they would be playing at the end of August. Their flameout, for some, begs the question: After so many steps forward, has the women’s game taken a giant step back?

Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, says no. Parity for the women’s game around the world, he thinks, is the next logical step toward true equity between male and female athletes—and it’s been on full display this World Cup, more than any previously. The U.S. hasn’t been the only traditional power player laid low in the 2023 tournament.


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“Colombia upset Germany.” he points out. Germany had the second-ranked team in the world going into the tournament, behind the U.S. and is a two-time World Cup winner. “South Africa beat Italy. Jamaica knocked out Brazil. Morocco beat South Korea. Haiti, which never had a team, played amazingly. I think that what you’re seeing is more and more investment in women’s sport globally.” 

Lebowitz and other experts point to Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination based on gender in education, as the seed for the U.S. becoming a soccer superpower. Soccer is a relatively inexpensive sport to play, so as schools added women’s sports programs to comply with the law, soccer programs proliferated at all levels across the country. 

In 1974, less than 7,000 girls played high school soccer in the U.S., according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. By 2019, the most recent year for which statistics are available, it was close to 400,000.    

That early investment gave the U.S. women an early leg up, but other countries are closing the gap. In Europe, a thriving club soccer scene helps nurture players professionally; inspired in part by the U.S. team’s multiyear legal equal pay, international players, backed by organizations like FIFPRO, have been emboldened to demand better working conditions. 

This World Cup tournament is the first to guarantee players basic compensation to participate. Before the tournament, FIFA promised each of the 736 players would receive at least $30,000—more if their teams advanced through the tournament. Since the Ballon D’Or, the top individual prize in global soccer, began giving a women’s award in 2018, only one American—Rapinoe—has won.

“At the moment, you can reasonably put together a World Best XI without a single USWNT player, for probably the first time since the Women’s World Cup was created in 1991,” The Athletic wrote last week.  

Lebowitz thinks the platform the U.S. team’s success has given the players can inspire others to advocate for social change. “When you think about the Olympics and World Cups, there’s a patriotic pride point to that,” Lebowitz says. “Other nations want to be involved and engaged in that.”

Still, there’s a long way to go. Players in the 2023 World Cup will earn 25 cents, on average, for every dollar earned by players in the men’s tournament (in 2019 it was just eight cents). “Social evolution takes a long time to germinate,” Lebowitz says. But once something like equal pay “becomes an issue that’s grown on an international scale, you’re not gonna be able to push that issue back into a box.” 

Schuyler Velasco is a Northeastern Global News Magazine senior writer. Email her at Follow her on Twitter @Schuyler_V.