(Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

For the nearly 20 months Cindy Parlow Cone has been president of U.S. Soccer, the sport has been heading toward multiple inflection points. While the U.S. men’s national team tries to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and find stability before playing host to the 2026 tournament, the women’s national team has been in an ongoing and very public legal battle with the federation over equal pay.

All of that is hanging over negotiations with the men’s and women’s player associations for new collective bargaining agreements. For the USWNT, that deadline is approaching quickly, with their current CBA set to expire at the end of the year.

As those proceedings unfold, Wednesday provided a jolt of positivity.

U.S. Soccer announced it has reached a long-term agreement with Nike to extend its partnership that began in 1995. The deal, which will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2023 once the current contract ends, marks the largest commercial agreement in U.S. Soccer history and one of the largest investments in soccer globally. While specific terms were not provided, a pillar of the partnership is the growth of the women’s game, an issue that is dear to Parlow Cone’s heart.

“They’re just top class in marketing and they’re a global brand, and their values and vision just align perfectly with ours here at U.S. Soccer,” Parlow Cone told Just Women’s Sports.

“The men’s game has continued to grow at a steady pace, but I feel like the women’s game is poised for exponential growth, and with that, commercial growth for the organizations as well as the players themselves. I think we’re at a point in time where we can quite literally invest in the women’s game to help change the world for the better.”

Parlow Cone played for the USWNT from 1995-2006, winning two Olympic gold medals and a World Cup with the 1999 team that helped change the trajectory of women’s soccer in the U.S.

Now 43 and years removed from the sideline, she believes her history with the program has allowed her to connect with the players in a way previous administrations might not have been able to. Carlos Cordeiro, Parlow Cone’s predecessor, resigned in March, 2020 amid intense scrutiny over U.S. Soccer’s handling of the USWNT equal pay lawsuit. In court filings, the federation argued that women “do not perform equal work” based on the physical differences between men and women.

“They know that I’m not a politician … and I get where they’re coming from,” Parlow Cone said. “And I understand that, in the end, we’re on the same team. Everyone at U.S. soccer wants the women to continue to be the best in the world and to win every day. So I think there’s a solution there, and I’m hopeful that we can come to it sooner rather than later.”

On Sept. 10, Parlow Cone penned an open letter to the unions of the men’s and women’s national teams asking them to reach an agreement that would allow the USWNT to earn the same FIFA World Cup prize money as the USMNT. Currently, the financial discrepancy between the men’s and women’s World Cups is gaping: FIFA awarded $400 million to the 32 teams at the 2018 men’s World Cup and $30 million to the 24 teams at the 2019 women’s tournament.

“We want to find a way to equalize the World Cup prize money, and we can get creative on how that happens,” Parlow Cone said. “But until FIFA actually equalizes their own prize money, I would love for the men’s team and the women’s team to come together with U.S. Soccer to find a solution.”

Since releasing her letter, Parlow Cone said the men’s and women’s teams haven’t had discussions together with U.S. Soccer. At the time, the USWNT Players Association criticized the federation’s plan to make equal contract proposals to the USWNT and USMNT, calling it one of their “PR stunts” as tensions escalated on social media.

“We continue to have discussions with both teams in parallel,” Parlow Cone said. “Our goal is still to come to one agreement, but the only way that can happen is if we all get into the same room together.”

Parlow Cone said she is hopeful that U.S. Soccer will reach new CBAs with the teams and solve the USWNT litigation outside of court by the end of the year, even as the holidays threaten to slow down negotiations.

“My ideal vision is for FIFA to equalize not only the World Cup prize money, but to equalize their investment in the women’s and girls’ game,” she said. “It’s a broader vision for me than just solving the litigation — although I would love to just solve the litigation, too. But until FIFA equalizes it, it’s up to us. And by us, I mean U.S. Soccer, the women’s team and the men’s team coming together to find a solution.”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.