How the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Found Strength in Numbers: We 'Fight for Each Other'

When Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe hoisted the 2019 Women’s World Cup trophy high in the air on July 7 — the team’s fourth and record-setting title — it was the culmination of a month-long display of domination.

It was also a time for celebration, and all 23 players on the team very publicly and joyfully did just that in the days that followed. But more than anything, the win helped make the women’s case to win the other fight they had started just three months before the cup: their lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation over pay inequality with male players.

On March 8, 28 players from the team’s pool filed a class-action suit against the federation overseeing them for “institutionalized gender discrimination,” arguing they receive less pay and poorer treatment than the less-successful men’s team.

Even with one major fight just beginning, the players didn’t let the case derail their bid for a back-to-back World Cup trophy.

• For much more on PEOPLE’s Women Changing the World 2019, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

“We all have so many exciting projects and opportunities off the field and we are not strangers to pressure,” says Morgan, 30, one of the team’s captains along with Rapinoe, 34, and Lloyd, 37. “The lawsuit is another example of not only not letting this affect our play, but it has in fact helped the team on and off the field as we’ve had to fight for each other and with each other in a bigger way than ever before.”

Rapinoe, the team’s star forward this summer who picked up FIFA’s award for the best women’s soccer player last month, thinks the team’s strength is sheer numbers.

“We’re in a unique position and a very lucky position different to a lot of other women who are elite in their field,” Rapinoe tells PEOPLE. “Usually it’s just a one or a very few number of people that are at the top of their field if you’re a woman. We have 23 women all the time, which really empowers us in a big way.”

Mediating talks between the team and U.S. Soccer quickly broke down less than a month after their return from France, forcing the case to go to trial. (The federation disputes the players’ contention that they are discriminated against in their pay, arguing among other things that the women agreed to different pay structures than the men. The women’s team has dismissed what they call misleading conclusions used to obscure their argument.)

The case is now set to be heard in May 2020, three months before the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo — a clear parallel to the pressure the players faced this past summer.

Lloyd, the team’s longest-serving veteran and the oldest, has been in this fight for decades and is ready to continue it in the later years of her illustrious career.

“We’re always going to have to push to make things better,” she says. “We have to continue to push the barriers. No fight is easy, and there are some uncomfortable moments, but I think the power of this team is huge and it’s our job to continue to pave the way and make it better.”

The team celebrating Rapinoe's game-winning goal in the 2019 Women's World Cup final

Pushing barriers is part of a legacy that stretches all the way back to the 1999 team that captured the country’s heart for the first time. Julie Foudy on the ’99 squad that won the world title on home soil, and she admits that watching the 2019 players continue their fight for equality 20 years later inspires a “maternal feeling.”

“We had a ’99ers text chain going on during the entire world cup and it’s almost like a maternal feeling, like your kid is growing up,”  says Foudy, who was a member of the team from 1987 to 2004. “It’s come full circle and you’re like, ‘Oh, the baby’s going to be okay.’ “

And when it comes to the future, Foudy thinks the women on the team will continue to make an impact long after they step off the pitch for the last time.

“Advocacy is in their blood,” she says, “They set a standard that a lot of other women’s sports will want to emulate. I don’t think this is the last time we hear from this group.”

The players agree.

Ultimately, the purpose of their fight, Rapinoe says, is “for little girls to know their worth — and to know that they can dream bigger.”

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