An emphasis on player-driven leadership has brought encouraging signs in talks for a labor contract between the women's national team and the U.S. Soccer Federation, according to defender Becky Sauerbrunn.
The 2015 Women's World Cup champions have been without a deal since Dec. 31. Talks were stalled when the players parted ways in late December with attorney Rich Nichols, who had been executive director of the U.S. Women's National Team Player Association since late 2014.
The USWNTPA on Thursday night formally announced new legal representation, Bredhoff & Kaiser, in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. The union also confirmed that Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg and Christen Press were elected player representatives at the team's January training camp.
Additionally, the players hired Becca Roux as the union's interim executive director.
''We have committed ourselves to changing the tone of negotiations, and really working with the federation to come to a contract where both sides are going to leave feeling they got a fair and just deal,'' said Sauerbrunn, who has been with the senior national team since 2008.
At a news conference earlier in the day to announce A+E Networks' purchase of a stake in the National Women's Soccer League, USSF President Sunil Gulati said he was encouraged by the progress in talks. The sides met during the training camp and there are several meetings scheduled in the coming weeks.
Gulati said the union is being represented in collective bargaining by Bredhoff & Kaiser's Mady Gilson.
''The tone is just completely different, and everyone wants to get a deal done. The players want to play. We want to have a fair CBA, so I have no doubt we'll get a deal done,'' Gulati said.
Both Sauerbrunn and Gulati expressed hope an agreement could be reached ahead of NWSL openers in April.
The USWNTPA created new committees within its operating structure, including groups to engage alumni and assist new members. A collective bargaining committee, which will be involved in talks with the federation, includes Sauerbrunn, Press, Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Kelley O'Hara, and Sam Mewis. The team felt strongly the approach be player driven, Sauerbrunn said.
Rapinoe said players remain united in their desire for fair compensation.
''I think the tone is really positive at this point,'' Rapinoe said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. ''I think that we're excited to collaborate with U.S. Soccer and hopefully get the best deal, not only for us but for them as well in this partnership going forward. I think we're still very committed to the mission and the goals that we've had from the beginning for this CBA, and that's to get a deal that fairly reflects the work we do on and off the field and our value on the market.''
The negotiations had been acrimonious at times.
Last March a group of players filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that alleged wage discrimination by the federation. The players maintained male national team counterparts earned in many cases far more than they did.
There has been no decision in the EEOC complaint. Bredhoff & Kaiser will join Winston & Strawn in representing players at the EEOC.
The USSF says much of the pay disparity results from separate collective bargaining agreements with each team.
The women's team had set up its compensation structure, which included a guaranteed salary rather than a pay-for-play model like the men, in the last labor contract. The players also earn salaries - paid by the federation - for playing in the NWSL.
The women receive other benefits, including health care, that the men's national team players don't receive, the federation has maintained.
The next major tournament is the SheBelieves Cup, which is scheduled for March. The first SheBelieves Cup tournament was held last year, featuring matches against France, England and Germany in advance of the Brazil Olympics.
Sauerbrunn said the players are not publicly discussing possible CBA terms.
''We're keeping the specifics of the negotiations really internal at this point,'' Sauerbrunn said. ''Hopefully, the next time we talk to the public about it, we'll have the CBA signed and done and we can talk more about the specifics at that time.''