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New U.S. Soccer leadership: Equal pay 'top priority' but no settlement talks yet

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New U.S Soccer Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone said that settling the equal pay lawsuit with players on the U.S. women's national team is "one of the federation's priorities," but that no settlement talks are currently scheduled.

Cone and new USSF CEO/General Secretary Will Wilson both expressed hope that there will be a path forward to settle the lawsuit.

"I think that is one of our top priorities right now," said Cone during a conference call with reporters. "I don't think a trial is good for either party or for soccer, both in this country or internationally. Obviously, I want to see the best team in the world. And I hope that we can find a resolution before this goes to trial."

Wilson added, "It's a priority, and finding a solution would be the best way forward."

The lawsuit was first filed last year, with 28 players from the U.S. women's national team alleging that the USSF engaged in "institutionalized gender discrimination" toward the team. The lawsuit was filed under the Equal Pay Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

Molly Levinson, a spokesperson for the players, said in response to Cone's sentiments, "The solution here is clear, simple, and unequivocal: Equal. Pay."

Cone said that there are no settlement talks scheduled, though such efforts have been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're hopeful that we can schedule [a meeting] very soon," she said. "I think it's challenging right now, with the backdrop of coronavirus and I'm a big believer in getting people in the same room and finding resolution."

The lawsuit has been at the forefront of the USSF's agenda ever since a legal filing on March 9 disparaged players on the U.S. women's national team, saying they "do not perform equal work requiring equal skill [and] effort" because "the overall soccer-playing ability required to compete at the senior men's national team level is materially influenced by the level of certain physical attributes such as speed and strength."

In the wake of a public backlash over the language, Carlos Cordeiro stepped down three days later as president of the USSF and was replaced by Cone, who had been serving as vice president.

Cone confirmed that there was a special Litigation Committee formed by Cordeiro, which was tasked with overseeing the lawsuit in conjunction with law firm Seyfarth & Shaw. Board members Patti Hart and Tim Turney also sat on the Litigation Committee. Cone said that neither she nor any other board member -- including Hart and Turney -- saw the legal filing before it was submitted to the court. Cone explained that this was down to an "error" in the USSF's internal processes. It is not clear whether chief legal officer Lydia Wahlke saw the filing, but sources confirmed to ESPN that she has been placed on administrative leave. The law firm Seyfarth & Shaw has been replaced on the case by Lathan & Watkins.

Yet the USSF's legal strategy had remained largely consistent over the past year, with the federation's legal team contending that its men's and women's national teams performed different jobs. Cone said that in the recent filing, the language had changed, and that was what she took issue with.

"I think it's one thing to argue that men and women play in different tournaments and play against different teams," said Cone. "And it's all together a different statement in there [that] the women carry less responsibility or have less ability. And I think that is where I was personally put off in that didn't really appreciate the language in there."

The conference call came on the same day that the International Olympic Committee announced it was postponing the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Cone said she felt it was the "right decision," and that she had been in communication with players and coaches.

"We don't want to put anyone's health at risk, either the athletes or the fans who would be going over to Japan," she said.

Per the USSF's bylaws, Cone is up for re-election in 2021, but she said she hadn't decided yet whether she will run.

"With so many things going on [with] the federation and in the world right now, I'm literally working day and night to ensure we have a smooth transition from Carlos to me as president, and with the hiring of Will as our CEO," she said. "As you can imagine, I didn't plan to find myself in this position. So the decision to run for president will come in time. Right now, I'm focused on onboarding Will as quickly as we can and getting ready to hit the ground running."

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