The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer

by Caitlin Murray

Clock Icon 4 minute read
The National Team


“Where Are All These People Going?”

When the national team boarded the bus and got ready to travel to the stadium for a game together, everyone had a different routine.

Some players listened to music on their Walkmans. Kristine Lilly would get so hyped she’d need slow, soft music that calmed her down. Kate Markgraf listened to hard-core rap to get pumped up.

Other players, like Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, sat next to each other and just talked. There was no assigned seating, but Hamm and Foudy always ended up together.

Some players read the newspaper or did a crossword puzzle. Others just zoned out and looked out the window. It was always a quick, uneventful trip.

There was something different about this bus ride, though. Even though the bus had a police escort and was driving on the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike, the traffic was so overwhelming that day that the bus could barely navigate the roads.

The players worried they might be late for their game, the opening match of the 1999 Women’s World Cup at the New York Giants’ home stadium.

“It was the middle of the day and we left around 11 o’clock in the morning,” remembers defender Brandi Chastain. “All the sudden, we’re stopped, even though we had an escort. I’m wondering, What the heck? What’s going on in New York City that’s causing all this traffic?

As the team bus turned a corner, it became clear what was going on. The players could now see that the cars clogging the turnpike had slogans like “Go USA!” painted in red, white, and blue on the windows. All the cars that dotted the New Jersey Turnpike were filtering into one destination: Giants Stadium.

For the players on that bus looking out the window, it was a sight they never thought they’d see. All those people—nearly 80,000 of them—were on their way to see the U.S. women’s national team play a soccer match.

“When we got even closer, we saw tailgate after tailgate, from little girls to adults dressed in red, white, and blue playing pickup games and barbecuing in the parking lot,” Chastain says. “I remember thinking to myself, This is such a weird moment. It was very surreal.”

The team’s starting goalkeeper, Briana Scurry, let out a gasp to herself as it dawned on her what was happening.

“They were waving at us and taking pictures. We were waving at them and taking pictures of them taking pictures of us,” Scurry says, laughing. “It was amazing, because we went from, Oh my gosh, where are all these people going? to We’re going to be late! to Oh my gosh, these people are here for us!

For a team that not long before had been playing at high school stadiums and not even selling out, the excitement surrounding their first game of the 1999 Women’s World Cup was something they could’ve never imagined. These were athletes who played on the national team for two primary reasons: They loved soccer, and they wanted to represent their country. Fame, money, and the sort of crowd that was spilling into Giants Stadium were not even remote possibilities in the players’ minds. Most of the players barely made any money from playing soccer, and no one knew their names. But here they were, watching the crowd gather in droves right before their very eyes.

“We were in shock,” defender Kate Markgraf says. “And I started to get terrified, because that’s when I started to understand what it was all about.”

This moment, as it turned out, was a big deal. A team that had been used to flying under the radar was about to be the talk of a nation. They were going to set records, inspire a new generation, and change the landscape of sports in America.

It was a moment that caught the national team by surprise, but whether the players realized it or not, they had been preparing for this for years.

The National Team


“We’re Not Very USA-ish”

It was almost as if the national came together by accident.

In 1985, there was seemingly little reason for a U.S. women’s soccer team to exist. There was no Women’s World Cup and no women’s soccer in the Olympics, and there were no major trophies on the line.

But there was a group of women who had been pushing to change that. With connections to the U.S. Olympic Committee and the U.S. Soccer Federation, Marty Mankamyer, Betty D’Anjolell, and Mavis Derf-linger, among others, pushed decision-makers to take women’s soccer seriously. Their goal was for it to one day become an Olympic sport.

“We warned them on more than one occasion: You can’t brush off recognizing women,” Mankamyer remembers.

In the summer of 1985, the perfect opportunity arose for women’s soccer to take a leap forward in America. That’s when the National Sports Festival, a sort of mini-Olympics for amateur athletes, would be held in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Even though women’s soccer was still a long way off from becoming an Olympic sport, the Sports Festival organizers decided to give it a chance and include women’s soccer for the first time.

A metallurgist from Seattle named Mike Ryan, who coached one of the regional teams there, was approached by officials from U.S. Soccer during the Sports Festival. They wanted him to pick 17 players from those competing at the Festival and coach the U.S. women’s national team in its first tournament, which was due to start in Italy in one week.

The U.S. women’s national team had existed on paper before that—some players remember making a list after regional tournaments in 1982, 1983, and 1984—but now there was a reason for the team to exist on the field. The national team had its first invitation to play in a real tournament, and U.S. Soccer decided before the Sports Festival that they’d pick a team from the players there.

“After the last game, they sat everybody down and said, We’re going to pick a national team and the team is going to train in New York and then you’ll go to Italy. That was the first anybody had ever heard of it,” says Ann Orrison, who made the list and eventually played five times for the U.S. team.

The name of Brandi Chastain, a 17-year-old striker from San Jose, California, wasn’t on the list. She was there in Baton Rouge too but had far less experience than the college players who made the cut. She also didn’t even realize she had missed out on playing for the first national team.

“There weren’t any hard feelings,” Chastain says now, 192 appearances for the U.S. later. “Honestly, I didn’t know anything about it. I had a great time at that tournament—my parents came, and I had lots of friends there.”

The women who did make the list, plucked from the Sports Festival, didn’t form a team so much as a mishmash of players. But it was a start.

They went to New York City and played scrimmages against local club teams from Long Island. The training camp lasted just three days, and then they were set to fly to Italy for the Mundialito, which is Spanish for “little World Cup.”

The players didn’t have any official uniforms, of course, so the federation rounded up some kits, ironed “USA” on the front, and gave them to the players. The uniforms were huge and appeared to be men’s kits. Mike Ryan later recalled: “Everything came around their ankles—they looked like little gorillas walking around.”

So, the night before their flight to Italy, the team was up late, cutting and sewing their uniforms and training gear, trying to make everything fit properly.

“We were trying to figure out who fit into which uniforms best,” remembers Ann Orrison. “Our trainer was hemming warm-up pants so they would semi-fit.”

They managed to make the clothes wearable, but they didn’t look like what a U.S. national team should wear. The sweat suits were blue and pink while the white game shirts had only a little red trim around the collar and shoulders. None of the players had numbers.

“They weren’t U.S. colors,” recalled Michelle Akers, one of the only two players to make that team and keep playing long term. “I remember feeling like, Well, I don’t know what this national team is anyway, but we’re not very USA-ish.”

From New York, the group flew to Milan and then took a bus five hours to Jesolo, a small resort town outside of Venice. That was the site of the Mundialito, a four-team women’s soccer tournament that was one of a kind at the time.

They may have been a ragtag bunch, but the national team was born.

* * *

When the national team’s first games started, it was a rude awakening.

They finished their first official tournament by losing three of four games while drawing one. Having never played the likes of Italy, Denmark, or England before, the Americans didn’t know what to expect—they weren’t prepared for how hard the other teams tackled and tried to disrupt the game.

The U.S. team hadn’t played good soccer, but it was the start of something, and they all knew it.

“We were just so happy to be there,” forward Tucka Healy said later. “While watching the Denmark–Italy game, we grabbed an Italian flag and rushed to the sidelines, where we led a cheer. They were totally shocked that we’d cheer another team.”

There was reason to be excited for all the teams there, though. Women’s soccer had barely existed on a global scale by this point in 1985—these players were at the beginning of not just U.S. women’s national team history but women’s soccer history.

In 1971, only three international women’s soccer teams existed, and just two international matches had been played. Progress was relatively slow from there, and it took until 1990 for just 32 national teams to exist. For reference, today, FIFA’s world ranking includes around 180 women’s teams.

“Women’s soccer worldwide at that point wasn’t very prevalent or supported,” says Marty Mankamyer, who pushed to add women’s soccer to the Olympics. “There were less than a dozen bona fide teams that participated in international games.”

The lack of global women’s soccer was not because women didn’t want to play, though. It was partially because, for decades, they weren’t allowed.

In England, the country that invented the modern game of soccer, women were effectively banned by the English federation until 1971. In Brazil—another famous soccer country known for producing Pelé, one of the greatest players in the history of the sport—it was illegal for women to play soccer until 1979. In Germany, women were finally allowed to play soccer in 1970, and even then, they were required to play shorter games, just 60 minutes instead of 90, and with a lighter ball.

While other countries were in the midst of repealing bans on women’s soccer, the United States was going through a very different policy change. In 1972, Title IX became law and, whether everyone knew it or not, women’s sports in the U.S. were about to undergo a rapid revolution.

Title IX was one sentence—a mere 37 words—tucked in a lengthy law dealing with reforming higher education: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

The words sports or athletics are never mentioned. On the face of it, the clause meant that any universities and schools that receive federal funding, which is most of them, must offer equal academic programming to men and women. But the language also extended to other programming, like athletics.

One of the bill’s primary architects, Rep. Edith Green of Oregon, wanted the language to be subtle and broad. She believed the only way it would be approved was if her colleagues in Congress didn’t actually grasp what it meant. She reportedly told her allies who planned to lobby for the bill: “I don’t want you to lobby, because if you lobby, people will ask questions about this bill, and they will find out what it would really do.”

It would take years before Title IX would start to be enforced, but the new law eventually meant that young women everywhere had access to competitive sports programs. It also offered a compelling financial incentive for girls to take sports seriously: If colleges offered male athletes scholarships, they had to offer them to women too.

With Title IX in effect, women’s soccer exploded. In 1974, only about 100,000 girls across the country were registered with the U.S. Youth Soccer Association. Today, that number is in the millions.

By 1985, when the U.S. women’s national team played its first official matches in Jesolo, Italy, the women of the national team were some of the earliest beneficiaries of Title IX.

Many of the players had been plucked from college teams, like Cindy Gordon, who played at Western Washington University and was on the national team from 1985 to 1986. She took up soccer in 1972, the year Title IX passed. Her brothers had played soccer, and she wanted to play too.

“I asked my mom if I could play, and she said that girls don’t play sports,” Gordon said. “When they passed Title IX, it was a big step forward.”

* * *

After the Mundialito, U.S. Soccer never asked Mike Ryan to coach the team again. Instead, Anson Dorrance won the coaching job through a unique tryout that involved competing head-to-head with other coaches on a series of tests in front of a judging panel.

Dorrance came into the national team job as the head coach of the University of North Carolina women’s soccer team and used his scouting work there to bolster the national team.

That included spotting a special player named Mia Hamm. While she was still in high school, on the recommendation of a colleague, Dorrance flew to Texas to see a 14-year-old Hamm play for the North Texas regional team. He didn’t want to be told which girl she was beforehand—he went to watch the game without prejudice.

With Hamm’s team kicking off, the whistle blew, and she instantly made her presence clear to Dorrance.

“She took off like she was shot out of a cannon, and that was all I really needed to see,” Dorrance says.

He walked along the sideline and pointed to the girl he saw, asking his colleague if she was Mia Hamm. She was.

He continued his scouting and brought other players into the fold to build a team he thought could compete, including Brandi Chastain. Only two players from the original squad who played the national team’s first game in Italy ended up staying on board with Dorrance: Michelle Akers and Lori Henry.

Dorrance wasn’t sure when the first Women’s World Cup would happen, but he wanted to be ready for it.

“We went into everything with guns blazing, with the ambition to be as good as we could be,” Dorrance says. “Back then, we had no idea how far we were behind other teams or what we’d need to overcome to compete. But it wasn’t a big adjustment to envision the possibility of a Women’s World Cup. We weren’t naive about what the potential was.”

In 1988, the world governing body of soccer, FIFA, planned a new tournament as a case study for whether a Women’s World Cup was a viable idea. The event was called the FIFA Women’s Invitational Tournament and featured 12 teams from around the world.

When Dorrance asked a 17-year-old Julie Foudy if she could join the team for the tournament in Panyu, China, she initially lied and said she was busy. She claimed she had summer school classes at Mission Viejo High School, because she wanted to spend her summer at home in California.

“Julie, do you understand what I’m asking you?” Dorrance replied. “I want you to play for the United States of America.”

“What do you mean?” Foudy asked him, confused.

That’s how new and strange the concept of the U.S. women’s national team was. The players who were on it didn’t even know what it was. All Foudy knew was that she kept getting call-ups—first to the state team, then to the regional team, and finally to the national team.

But before Foudy knew it, she was on a plane to China for the first-ever FIFA-hosted women’s tournament. There, the U.S. beat Japan in their opening match and then settled for draws against Sweden and Czechoslovakia, which allowed them to advance to the knockout round. But in the quarterfinal, Norway beat them, 1–0, and eventually went on to win the whole tournament.

Three weeks after the Women’s Invitational ended, FIFA announced it had been successful enough that the first women’s world championship tournament would be held in 1991.

They called the event the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup.” FIFA worried the women’s event might not be worthy of the “World Cup” label. (They’ve since retroactively bestowed it with the “Women’s World Cup” name.) The matches were also planned to be 10 minutes shorter than normal soccer matches, running just 80 minutes each, an indication of FIFA’s scaled-back expectations.

The name was confusing and the rule changes were insulting, but the national team was excited to have a world championship to compete in.

“We were acutely aware of the men’s World Cup, so we were just waiting for our chance,” Dorrance says.

The national team was getting better on the field—they won all six of the games they played in 1990—but that’s not to say everything had been figured out quite yet by the time the first Women’s World Cup got close.

At the 1991 Women’s World Cup qualification tournament in Haiti, the players of the national team were given white roses by U.S. Soccer officials to throw out to the spectators.

“We walked out to throw these roses to the crowd and we tossed them into the stands,” remembers midfielder Tracey Bates, who played on the team from 1987 to 1991. “As we turned around, they threw them back at us. I just remember covering my head and running.”

The effort to win over the Haitian crowd didn’t go as planned—Dorrance urged his players to shake it off and focus on the first game—but by the end of qualification, the crowd was cheering for the U.S. national team anyway. The Americans outscored their opponents 49–0 over five games in Haiti. (Yes, they scored 49 goals, with 12–0 wins over both Mexico and Martinique and 10–0 wins versus both Haiti and Trinidad & Tobago.)

“I remember in the local newspaper the next day, it said something like: The Americans tried to seduce us with white roses, but instead they seduced us with their style of play,” Bates recalls.

The women’s game was still new, and the U.S. Soccer Federation was still figuring out how to navigate it. Alan Rothenberg, who was elected president of the federation in August 1990, admits he didn’t know what to do with the women’s side of the game when he first came into office.

“The blunt truth is, I didn’t even know the women’s side of the game existed in the United States at that time,” he says.

Luckily, Anson Dorrance and his assistant coaches, Tony DiCicco and Lauren Gregg, had been putting together a competitive team, even on a shoestring budget. As the U.S. women’s national team was forming its own identity, it looked to the styles it had encountered elsewhere in the world: Germany’s combination play, Norway’s direct attack, and so on.

When the first Women’s World Cup finally arrived in 1991, the Americans were not the all-around best team. While women’s soccer was still in its infancy around the world, the teams from Europe had technical skills and tactical acumen the Americans did not. But what the Americans discovered in that tournament is something they’ve held on to ever since: a winning mentality.

“If you would’ve compared us player for player, we might’ve been a bit more athletic, but it was really our mentality,” says Shannon Higgins, a UNC midfielder who earned 51 caps for the U.S. from 1987 to 1991. “All of us, we had to fight for what we got. We had a mentality that we weren’t going to lose and we were going to fight.”

The national team steamrolled through the tournament. They won every game and outscored their opponents 25–5 across all six games. The closest match came in the final, when the U.S. beat Norway, 2–1.

It was a standout tournament for April Heinrichs, a forward from Colorado. She scored four goals and drew on her own experience as the head coach of the women’s soccer team at the University of Maryland to be an effective captain of the national team.

“My role is to be the liaison between what the players want and need and feel, and getting that message to the coach,” she once explained. “Occasionally, I help out with coaching decisions: When should we practice? How long should we go?”

Heinrichs helped mold the captain’s role—she was the national team’s first captain, having been appointed to the job by coach Anson Dorrance in 1986. Dorrance coached Heinrichs when she was a student at UNC before the national team existed, and it impressed him how she didn’t ease her way into the team or try to make friends. As he once put it: “She came in and crushed everyone.”

“The thing I admired about April is, she wanted to be liked, wanted to be on a team that got along, but she wouldn’t sacrifice her level of excellence to be like everyone else, wonderfully mediocre,” Dorrance said. “We took her mentality and framed the culture of the national team around her.”

Back stateside, virtually no one knew about the first Women’s World Cup or the fact that the USA won it. The games weren’t shown on television, email was not in widespread use yet, and landline phone calls were expensive, so players sent loved ones faxes to let them know how the tournament was going. Back home, recipients distributed them like newsletters, the early 1990s equivalent of status updates on Facebook.

Midfielder Julie Foudy quips now: “When we won in ’91, we came back and no one even knew about it. There were two people at the airport to greet us—it was our bus driver and our operations guy.”

The players did get some recognition from U.S. Soccer, though. After they became the first-ever world champions in women’s soccer, the federation sent them all cards in the mail.

The note inside went something along the lines of: Congratulations on your success. We’re so incredibly proud of what you and your teammates have achieved. You’re changing women’s soccer forever. Enclosed is a $500 bonus for winning the World Cup.

When Brandi Chastain saw that $500 check, all she could think was: “Cha-ching!”

“I thought, Whoa, this is incredible! And now when I look back and tell this story today, people are like, That is horrible,” Chastain says. “And it was horrible, to be honest, in hindsight. But in that moment, I remember thinking how lucky we were, because I didn’t know anyone who was doing what we did on the national team to make money.”

That’s right: The national team’s bonus for winning a world championship in 1991 was $500 each, and at the time, the players were thrilled about it—even though FIFA offered prize money of around $50 million for teams at the men’s World Cup. The players were thrilled because there wasn’t any money in women’s soccer, and they knew it.

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