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Orlando Pride’s USWNT stars share how they hope to grow the sport

U.S. national team players Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger are returning to the NWSL with sights set on improving the league.

United States women's national team stars Ashlyn Harris, right; Ali Kreiger, left; and Alex Morgan address fans Tuesday. (Phelan M. Ebenhack /For the Orlando Sentinel)

SANFORD, Fla. — During her first practice with the Orlando Pride following the World Cup, goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris had one message for anyone with questions about women’s soccer.

“Bet on us,” Harris said. “Freaking bet on us. You won’t regret it.”

On Tuesday morning, Harris returned to Pride practice with her U.S. teammates Alex Morgan and Ali Krieger. It was the first time the players joined an NWSL training session in two months and they returned to the league after winning the World Cup with a renewed sense of purpose.

While the Americans will be fighting to help the Pride move up in the NWSL standings, they will also be fighting for something bigger off the pitch.

In the wake of their World Cup victory, the spotlight following the team has provided the Americans with a platform to advocate for equality for women’s soccer throughout the country. Morgan said the members of the USWNT — many of whom earn endorsement deals along with national team salaries — now feel a pressure to carry the load of pushing progress forward for their teammates who are not afforded the same support throughout the league.

“This is where we play most of our football,” Morgan said. “It’s not with the national team, it’s here, day in and day out. To continue to give women the opportunity to play in this domestic league is so important. There’s just so many success stories as well of world champions who have gone through the league and struggled with barely livable wages.”

A variety of factors play a part in the current system of inequality in women’s soccer, and the three players isolated different concerns that they hope to address.

To Krieger, the lack of facilities and resources for many NWSL athletes is a major concern. With the Pride, she pointed out that athletes have access to the same resources as a men’s team — dietitians, professional fields, recovery rooms.

In order for NWSL athletes to be able to perform a the highest level, Krieger said, they must start receiving the highest level of support from their clubs. Morgan echoed this, pointing to the fact that most of the teams who advanced in the World Cup represented countries with domestic leagues of their own.

Harris focused her attention on the league’s low salary cap. With the ceiling for player compensation at $46,200, many athletes earn less than $20,000 a year playing in the NWSL. That number is well below the poverty line, especially for women who support their families.

“You’re talking about women out here who have children,” Harris said. “That’s not good enough for me. It’s my job to keep pushing the boundaries and the status quo to be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got to be better.’”

Although all three players called for continued improvement in the women’s game, they also shared a sense of accomplishment, of a fight half-way won.

Besides the historical achievement of winning a fourth World Cup — and notching the USWNT’s first back-to-back Cup wins — the players feel the victory has forged another step forward for the game. With the ensuing deals from ESPN, Budweiser and other corporate sponsors, they sense women’s soccer has reached an opportunity for another breakthrough.

“It shows that people want to invest in women’s soccer,” Morgan said. “They see that the return is there if they take a chance on the investment. There was just so much untapped marketing in the World Cup that people could have capitalized more on. Now, I think that people are betting on women’s soccer and it’s going to pay off.”

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