The annual revelation that Vlatko Andonovski’s salary was less than 30% of Gregg Berhalter’s provoked a complicated conversation in American soccer. Andonovski, the now-former U.S. women’s national team coach, made around $400,000 per year, according to tax filings; Berhalter, the men’s coach, made over $1.3 million. Critics pointed to the gulf as persistent evidence of disparities between the two programs. Realists counter-argued that coaching was a free labor market, and, well, if U.S. Soccer could get its USWNT coach of choice at a mid-six-figure price, why would it charitably pay $1 million extra?
And so, in the aftermath of historic failure, U.S. Soccer ponied up to shatter the entire concept of availability, and lured an elite coach away from a plum job by paying her what she’s worth.
U.S. Soccer confirmed Tuesday that Emma Hayes, the longtime boss at Chelsea, will become “the highest paid women’s soccer coach in the world” when she takes charge of the USWNT in May. The federation did not release contract details, but multiple sources told Yahoo Sports that Hayes’ salary will come close to matching the roughly $1.6 million that Berhalter now makes atop the USWNT.
The exact seven-figure number will become public in 2025 or 2026, and it will reframe the pay equity debate. It has also sparked speculative questions, primarily related to U.S. Soccer’s motives: Did it smash previous salary records to make a righteous statement? To quash criticism? To avoid internal friction, or even another lawsuit? To step forward as a pioneer?
Perhaps, but the primary reason is probably straightforward: A record-breaking salary was necessary to poach a prized leader for a program at an inflection point.
Four years earlier, during the USWNT’s 2019 coaching search, such a splashy hire seemed unthinkable — in part because the concept of paying a seven-figure salary was hardly considered, according to a source familiar with U.S. Soccer’s process. Then-USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf approached international coaches, including Sarina Wiegman, multiple sources told Yahoo Sports; Wiegman wasn’t interested, sources said, and that was that. She was under contract with the Netherlands. Joe Montemurro, another foreign coach pursued, was at Arsenal and unavailable for an interview. Markgraf and U.S. Soccer settled for two domestic finalists, Laura Harvey and Andonovski.
But less than a year later, when the English Football Association offered Wiegman a best-in-class salary and a flexible timeline, she jumped at it — and promptly led England to a European championship and a World Cup final.
This, in 2019 and now, is precisely the approach U.S. Soccer should have taken — especially because best-in-class salaries on the women’s side were fractions of even the standard rate on the men’s side.
And that, of course, is where the conversation gets complicated. Men’s soccer is economically mature; women’s soccer remains systemically suppressed and nascent; and their respective coaching markets reflect those differences. Wiegman’s roughly $500,000 annual salary, per reports, pales in comparison to the $6 million that England reportedly pays Gareth Southgate, its men’s coach. But Southgate’s millions were likely necessary to retain him. Wiegman’s thousands were sufficient to woo her. Similar dynamics existed across the Atlantic, where Andonovski’s salary — like that of his predecessor, Jill Ellis — was initially the most lucrative in women’s soccer, while Berhalter was essentially paid as a top MLS coach.
Those broader disparities, of course, are not U.S. Soccer’s fault; they are products of the ecosystems in which U.S. Soccer exists, and part of broader problems that inhibit non-male coaches throughout the sport.
U.S. Soccer’s fault, though, was aligning with the market rather than exploiting its inefficiencies.
The federation, after a yearslong fight with USWNT players over equal pay and working conditions, agreed last year to pay and treat its men’s and women’s teams on nearly identical terms. It trumpeted the collective bargaining agreements as concrete proof of its industry-leading commitment to gender equity. Implied in all the fanfare and grand declarations was a simple value statement: We care about our men’s and women’s programs equally.
Implied in the value statement, of course, was also an unfortunate truth: Globally, most national soccer federations (and professional clubs) don’t value their men’s and women’s teams equally.
Which, for U.S. Soccer, represented opportunity.
Its values, whether innate or coerced by lawsuits, dictated its willingness to pay for a women’s coach. Its price range, therefore, was stratospherically different than its competitors’. Neither of its apparent top two choices, Hayes and Tony Gustavsson, was available. But it made at least one available by offering seven figures, and by relaxing at least one of two principles that inhibited the 2019 search: 1. The coach must live in or near Chicago; and 2. The coach must take the reins immediately.
Hayes, instead, will see out the 2023-24 season at Chelsea. Twila Kilgore, a former Andonovski assistant, will remain the interim coach until May, when Hayes takes over on a full-time basis.
She has been hailed as a near-ideal hire, a potential visionary and disruptor, a coach of choice. There are broader questions that will linger, such as: How impactful can a national team coach really be? And if the answer is “not very” — Spain, after all, won the 2023 World Cup with an unqualified coach whom players hated; and the USWNT won in 2019 with an oft-criticized coach whom players tried to oust — then: Why is U.S. Soccer, a national governing body with a finite budget responsible for the sport’s entire American landscape (including cost-prohibitive grassroots programs and the malfunctioning pipeline that feeds the USWNT), paying two coaches seven figures apiece?
But hardly anybody posed those questions when Berhalter was hired or rehired. If anything, critics asked why U.S. Soccer hadn’t ponied up for someone better.
In that sense, Hayes, widely viewed as a top-three coach in women’s soccer, is clearly worth a fraction of the millions that would be necessary to tempt her men’s soccer equivalent.