How Soccer World Champion Jessica McDonald Juggles Her Career, Motherhood, and Fighting for Equal Pay

A photo to accompany a story about Jessica McDonald U.S. Women's National Team Players Association
U.S. women’s soccer player Jessica McDonald is pictured with her 9-year-old son, Jeremiah, holding the 2019 FIFA World Cup trophy.
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Jessica McDonald is a FIFA World Cup champion with the U.S. women’s national soccer team, a three-time National Women’s Soccer League champion, and a two-time NCAA champion.

She’s also a single mom and a side hustler. Since becoming a pro soccer player in 2010, McDonald needed to take on odd jobs to supplement her athletic earnings, from packing Amazon boxes for 10 hours straight to training younger girls for soccer.

Some might wonder why one of the best female players in the sport would also be working side hustles along the way. McDonald’s reasons are as simple as they are relatable: to make ends meet for her and her son Jeremiah, now nine years old. 

“There were training sessions where my kid would just be sitting in a stroller by himself, and I just didn’t know if I was doing things right as a parent,” says McDonald, 33. “I was broke, working these side hustles for long hours, training. I was exhausted and about to break mentally.”

McDonald’s commitment — to her soccer career, motherhood, and pay equality — eventually paid off, culminating in a 2019 appearance on the ultimate stage for women’s soccer: the FIFA Women’s World Cup. The U.S. women’s national team brought home a trophy that year, but the victory symbolized something much bigger, McDonald says. It symbolized a movement for equity and equality between men and women, particularly in regard to pay. 

Roughly three months before that tournament, more than 20 players on the team, including McDonald, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation seeking equitable pay and treatment compared to the men’s national team. It was the first lawsuit of its kind since athletes on no other women’s sports team had sued their employers before. A federal judge dismissed the claim in May 2020, but the soccer players have since appealed the decision.

McDonald is still involved in the team’s fight for equal pay, even though she’s no longer a member of the national squad and didn’t go to the Tokyo Olympics this year. While the U.S. women’s national team competed in Japan — winning the bronze medal early Thursday morning after defeating Australia — McDonald spoke with NextAdvisor about why she’s fighting for equal pay, her own relationship with money and her career, and raising her son as a single mother.

Fighting For Equal Pay

Two years ago, McDonald did everything her sport and her country asked her to. Wearing a red, white, and blue jersey on the field in France, she helped the United States women’s national soccer team secure its fourth World Cup title.

Jessica McDonald started playing soccer when she was 12 years old.

After the game, McDonald says, fans started chanting “Equal Pay!” in support of the gender discrimination lawsuit against their employer. It was a stark reminder that the U.S. women’s national team — who have won the World Cup four times — still don’t earn as much as their male counterparts, who have yet to win a single World Cup. 

“We’re talking about a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. It’s all of us (companies) together who are deciding how we value women’s work,” says Missy Park, founder and CEO of Title Nine, a women-owned apparel company that recently donated $1 million to the players to support their fight for equal pay

The $1 million represents the maximum pay gap between what the women’s team was paid and the men’s team would have been paid for winning six matches this year, according to the company. “It is a small down payment on the huge debt that we owe these women who have been these towering figures on the international stage,” Park says. 

In just about every industry across locations and job positions, men earn more than women. Women in the U.S. take home 82 cents on average for every dollar earned by men, according to the National Partnership For Women and Families. For women of color, that gap is even wider: Black women make about 63 cents on the dollar compared with men, while Latina women make 55 cents. 

That means a Black woman must work this year until Aug. 3, approximately, to make what a white man made the previous year, while a Latina woman must work until Oct. 21. 

“It’s too far in the 21st century for this to be acceptable. I didn’t know a lot of these things until we filed the lawsuit, and then I personally started hearing more facts about women being underpaid and how women of color are even more underpaid,” says McDonald. “I’m in this historical battle to fight for not just all the females out there but also the women of color because I represent them as well.”

Making a Career in Soccer

McDonald came into the spotlight at age 31 during the U.S. women’s national team’s latest World Cup run, and quickly became one of the team’s defining voices for Black women. But soccer had long been a part of the Arizona native’s life.

Soccer was McDonald’s ticket to long-term success and financial stability. It opened new doors and opportunities that otherwise might never have been available, she says.

“I knew we didn’t have much. We couldn’t afford to play club soccer growing up, but my club gave us a scholarship and paid everything for us,” she recalls. “Without that, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”

For McDonald, making it on the international stage was not just for herself, but also for her family, son, and for all the other moms out there who are pursuing their career goals.

“I’m driving one day and out of nowhere my son asks, ‘Why don’t they pay you guys the way they pay the men? You guys just won a trophy,’” says McDonald. “So my son is realizing the things that are happening around the team and realizing the facts. It’s just a beautiful thing to see him talking about it, and this is where we pave the way.”

The Ultimate Balancing Act: Working and Parenting

McDonald joined the National Women’s Soccer League in 2013 as a single mom and fought to provide for her son on barely a five-figure salary for years. Contrary to popular belief, the financial status of pro women soccer players is far different than many other professional athletes, especially their male counterparts in Major League Soccer. 

Currently, the minimum player salary for the 2021 NWSL season is $22,000 and the maximum player salary is $52,500, a 10% and 5% increase, respectively, from the 2020 season, according to a report by soccer news outlet The Equalizer. By comparison, the average player in Major League Soccer earned nearly $400,000 for the 2021 season. It’s not until female soccer players make it to the international stage, such as the World Cup or Olympics, that they start to see more money.

“I was a mom the first day the National Women’s Soccer League became a league. I was making $15,000 in the first few years while being a mom, and I had to start somewhere. At the time, it was for the love of the game. I wanted to be on the USA team, so that was a goal of mine,” says McDonald. “But there were a couple of times that I thought about quitting.” 

Like so many women in the U.S., McDonald has struggled to find the balance between her career and motherhood. Over the years, she ran straight into all-too-recognizable barriers — exhaustion, juggling too many responsibilities at once, and above all, paying for child care. 

“In 2015, I was literally standing on my feet for 10 hours packing Amazon boxes. I’d then go and train kids, and then I’d go train myself. I’d get home and have to cook dinner for my kid and me,” says McDonald. “I wasn’t getting the amount of sleep I should’ve been getting that year.”

Too often, mothers are forced to make career decisions based on child care considerations rather than in the interest of their financial situation or career goals. According to a recent study by the Center for American Progress, mothers are 40% more likely than fathers to report that they had personally felt the negative impact of child care issues on their careers.

For McDonald, finding that balance improved with time, but it continues to be an ongoing challenge. “I had to learn really quickly to not spend money on myself, and I still don’t,” says McDonald. “It all goes to my kid, bills and necessary things that we need.”

After winning a World Cup, one of the most prestigious championships in professional soccer, she says she’s finally doing “OK” financially.  According to the New York Times, a United States women’s player collects around $250,000 for playing in and winning the World Cup tournament.

Her involvement in the 2019 Women’s World Cup win helped her secure more sponsorships and deals, and she co-owns a company called Soccer Resilience, which focuses on mental training for young athletes. The 33-year-old forward continues to play for her club team, the North Carolina Courage, in the National Women’s Soccer League. In the offseason, she also runs soccer camps for kids and works as a private coach.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say I love where I’m at financially, but I’m comfortable. If I were to retire today, I do have next things going on in my life,” says McDonald. “I firmly believe in spreadsheets. That’s definitely helped me out in the long run.” 

While there’s no such thing as a perfect balance when it comes to work and parenting, McDonald is proud to be an example that women can do both.

“A lot of people in my life, especially my mom and dad, used having kids as an excuse to not continue their career. And I was trying to do that at one point, too. But it’s all about finding that balance and saving up as much as you can every month. The side hustles haven’t stopped,” says McDonald. “Know that it’s possible no matter how much money you’re making.”