Women’s soccer has had an unusual genesis in the United States. As the 21st century commences, the US finds itself as arguably the top country in the world for women’s soccer, both in terms of participation and in international competition. Yet, women’s soccer got off to a fairly late start in this country. Women’s leagues existed in Europe as far back as 1930, and international competitions date back to the 1950s. In the United States, however, organized women’s soccer did not take root until the late 1970’s, and even this was partly an outgrowth of the Title IX legislation of 1972 mandating gender equity in education. Varsity college teams began to spread in the early 1980’s, and a national squad was only established in 1985. The first national women’s league did not launch until 1995, and it was not until 2001 that the first professional women’s league made its debut.
But when women’s soccer did finally take off in the US, it was with a vengeance, fueled by enormous participation at the youth and amateur levels, rapidly growing interest by mainstream sport fans and the media, and the growing acceptance of women’s sports in general. After two World Cup titles and Olympic gold and silver medals, the US dominates the world in the women’s game, leading the way as it takes root throughout the rest of the world, with all the cultural implications that follow. But the story leading to this pinnacle of success is an interesting one.
For much of its history, organized soccer had been almost exclusively a man’s game. But not completely so. Prior to the establishment of the modern game in the 19th century, and for centuries before that, women often participated in the “mob” games often played by large numbers of participants from neighboring villagers. These were a combination of rugby/soccer type competitions and all-out riot, and were constantly being derided and suppressed by the governing authorities. Little accurate information is available about the true nature of these activities, but it appears that when it was one village against another, most everyone who could use their legs took part.
The early years: European Origins
The modern form of soccer, established in London by the Football Association in 1863, was a refinement of the organized local leagues of the time, and this was an exclusively male pastime. However, many historians describe informal village competitions in England and Scotland of matches between married and unmarried women which took place near the end of the 19th century. By the early 20th century, women were playing informally in scattered areas of Great Britain, France and Canada. Even in central Europe, competition was not unknown, although often in defiance of civil and religious authorities.
During World War I, the Dick, Kerr factory in Preston, England organized a pioneering women’s team which would leave a significant footnote in US soccer history. Female workers often joined the apprentices who made up the company team for soccer matches during lunch and tea time. On one day in October 1917, a time when the company team wasn’t doing so well, some of the female players bragged that they could play the game better. This led to a challenge by men to a men vs. women game. The match was held and duly reported in the press, but the score was not given. Nevertheless, this marked the formation of the Dick, Kerr Ladies team was formed. This team attracted a great deal of attention, at a time when even women working outside the home and not in floor length dresses, was considered unprecedented. Soon other women’s teams were formed, and played against each other, sometimes in front of fairly large crowds, to raise money for charity and to help the war effort. The Dick, Kerr Ladies would continue to play for almost fifty years.
One of the most famous of these games was played on Boxing Day in 1920, at Goodison Park in Liverpool. There, on the hallowed turf of one of England’s greatest soccer grounds, Dick, Kerr Ladies, played another Lancashire team, St. Helen’s Ladies, before a crowd of 53,000 with another 10 to 15,000 fans locked out when the ground was full.
This game, and in particular the size of the crowd, set alarm bells ringing in the headquarters of the austere Football Association in London. Women’s soccer was now seen as a threat to the professional men’s game and something had to be done. So in 1921, under pressure, the all powerful governing body of the game in England barred women from playing soccer for an incredible 50 years.
Unfortunately, this early golden era ended abruptly in 1921 when the English Football Association, long viewing soccer as a male preserve, banned all female competition from its grounds. Ever since a famous game between Dick, Kerr Ladies and Lancashire’s St. Helen’s Ladies played before a crowd of 53,000 on Boxing Day in 1920, the establishment had seen this success as a threat to the men’s game. Since the FA controlled almost all football grounds in the country, this was a knockout blow for the women’s clubs, and crippled their game for decades to come, having repercussions in other countries as well.
A few countries were not seriously affected by this action, and in fact, Italy and France both established women’s leagues in the early 1930’s. But the women’s game was fairly dormant until after World War II, when it began to develop a following northern European countries such as Norway, Sweden and Germany. From this point, momentum was inexorable; Italy formed its national association in 1950, and Germany organized the first informal European championship in 1957. By the late 1960’s, several national and regional federations, as well as national leagues had formed, building on the increasing local club competition taking place.
Despite the obvious trends, it was not until England rescinded their ban on women’s soccer, long after it had become an anachronism and an object of derision throughout much of Europe. By this time, more than 35 countries had national leagues, Mexico had hosted an unofficial (and largely exhibition) world championship, and international competition was becoming common. The game was still seen as little more of a curiosity however, and the level of skill was low, due to lack of needed infrastructure, training and coaching. As these issues were being tackled, the game was finally beginning to have its beginnings in the United States.
For much of the 20th century, women’s soccer had consisted primarily of informational recreational games and intramural college games, particularly at women’s colleges. The first notable exhibition took place in 1922 when the Dick, Kerr Ladies team made a tour of the United States. After having been snubbed by the Canadian association, the team arrived in the States to find that there were no established women’s teams for them to play. So they resolved to play against men’s teams, and these included some of the top teams in the country. They opened with a 6-3 loss to Paterson F. C., but drew with J&P; Coates, and Fall River Marksmen, and defeated New Bedford Whalers, all; of the professional American Soccer League. Overall, their record was 3 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses, an impressive record against such high caliber talent, although the men’s sides were sometimes going easy on the Ladies, much to their chagrin. The Dick, Kerr Ladies would go on to play for 48 years with a 758-46-24 record, impressive by any standards. Unfortunately, the team folded in 1970 the same year as England ended their ban on women at FA grounds.
For most of the first six decades of the 20th century, women’s soccer was confined to gym class, informal pickup games and college intramural competition. One notable exception to this history was the establishment in 1951 of the first organized women’s league. This circuit was established in 1951 by Father Craig of St. Matthew’s Parish of North St. Louis. The Craig Club Girls Soccer League consisted of four teams, and played full schedules for two seasons. Although their history was short, it was a milestone in the history of women’s soccer, although it would be over a decade before the sport began to make a true start in the colleges.
Unlike the men’s game, women’s soccer had much of its early growth in the college game. Although their was resistance to women’s soccer in the college ranks, there was even more at the club level, due to the game’s male-oriented and tradition-bound institutions. The first college varsity team in the United States was established at Castleton State College in Castleton VT in the mid 1960s. Until that time college soccer consisted of intramural and phys ed class activity. Around this time, soccer also enjoyed increasing popularity in high schools as an inexpensive alternative to the other major sports of the time, one that did not require specific physical abilities and would be open to all students. The growth of soccer as a recreational sport among youth grew steadily through the seventies and that growth has continued to this day.
A major factor in the growth of women’s college soccer was the passage of the Educational Amendments of 1972, an omnibus package of changes to the landmark Education Act of 1965. Title IX of these amendments mandated equal access and equal spending on athletic programs at college institutions. As a result, college varsity soccer programs for women began to be established at dozens of colleges and universities throughout the country. This, combined with the accelerated entrance of girls into the burgeoning recreational sports programs provided numerous new opportunities for female athletic participation, and provided the talent pool for the new college teams.
By 1981, there were almost 100 varsity programs established in NCAA women’s soccer, and even more club teams. The AIAW, a women’s counterpart to the NCAA, was established in the mid 1970s and immediately began sponsoring women’s varsity programs, establishing an informal national championship in 1980, won by Cortland State. It became official a year later, and that 1981 tournament was hosted by North Carolina’s young program, which won the tournament.
The following year, in 1982, in a controversial decision, the NCAA began to sponsor women’s sports, and immediately almost all existing varsity institutions switched allegiances. A few programs remained with the AIAW that year, but switched after the season and the AIAW was history. There was considerable controversy over this move. Some saw the NCAA as having the resources and exposure to give legitimacy to the sport, while others decried the more competitive and less holistic approach taken by the NCAA and the loss of influence of women at the administrative level, where often the women’s programs were put in a subservient position to the established men’s programs. This would change over time as the seismic cultural shifts in the country accelerated, but in 1982, there was much trepidation over the move.
One telling difference in the growth of women’s college soccer is that unlike the men’s game, it did not start out primarily in one region of the country and spread through the decades. With the seeds planted by ,men’s soccer, the women’s program was able to take root all over the country at once, and grow from there. However that did not mean there were dynasties. The University of North Carolina, coached by Anson Dorrance immediately took a commanding position in the women’s college game, one they would maintain into the 21st century. Of the first 20 NCAA championships, 16 were won by UNC, including nine in a row from 1986-1994.
This institutional domination did not discourage other programs, and the growth of women’s soccer was dramatic at both the youth, high school and college levels. By 1980, the growth in youth soccer was already dramatic, with almost 900,000 youth participating. By 1985, this was over 1.5 million, reaching 2 million in 1990, three million in 1995 and nearly 2.7 million by 2000. The proportion of girls steadily grew until by now over half of youth participation was female.
At the high school level, participant growth was no less dramatic. In 1976, barely 10,000 girls played in high school, less than 10% of the total. That had quadrupled to 41,000 in 1980, almost 25%. The number topped 100,000 eight years later and by 1990, had hit 122,000, 35% female. By 2000, nearly 270,000 girls played high school soccer, almost 42% of total high school participants. Such a dramatic change was almost unprecedented and was a dramatic indication of both the growth of soccer and the growth in female participation.
The change was no less dramatic at the college level. Although participation numbers are not readily available, a good estimate can be gleaned from the number of NCAA institutions sponsoring soccer. In 1981, men’s soccer was already well established, with 521 varsity teams, compared to 77 for women. By 1985, women were up to 201 teams, by 1990, 318. By then, nearly 40% of NCAA colleges sponsored women, up from 10% a decade earlier. Men had only grown from 521 to 569, and remained steady at 69% of institutions. The growth for women not only continued, but actually accelerated during the late 1990’s, passing the men in 1997, and by 1999, there were MORE women’s varsity programs in the NCAA than men’s, 790 to 719. Women, who could only count on 11% of the NCAA institutions to provide them a soccer opportunity now had a choice from 77% of the colleges, while men remained steady at 70%. This growth was equally dramatic at all divisions, not just at the smaller colleges, and this was an important factor in the attempts to grow the women’s game beyond the professional level.
A number of factors made this possible in addition to the growth in women’s participation. The number of NCAA colleges had grown dramatically from 750 to over 1,000 during this time. Also, the impact of Title IX, which required not only equal expenditures among all men’s and women’s sports, also required equal participation. This had a negative impact on men’s varsity programs because so much of men’s sport participation and expenditure was gobbled up by varsity football that often men’s teams had to be dropped to keep things in balance. Even at that, many NCAA programs were not in full compliance with Title IX even by 2000, although they were making enormous effort and progress.
An unfortunate side effect of this was the disbandment of a handful of men’s varsity programs at some major institutions, and many people have wrongly blamed women’s sports for this, but this sentiment is misdirected. The major problem is the unnaturally large size of football rosters and scholarship commitments, and the need for women’s sports parity is simply too important to sacrifice for the sake of some men’s programs. As it is, men’s varsity soccer was not hurt as much as some other sports such as Lacrosse, Gymnastics, Swimming and Wrestling, which were really struggling by the end of the century.
As women’s college soccer grew, along came the powerhouses and institutions. By the early 12980s, the NJCAA and NAIA launched their women’s championships, and the NCAA added champions in Division 3 in 1986 and Division 2 in 1988. Through the 1990’s, these tournaments all steadily grew in size, culminating in the 2001 expansion of the Division1 tournament to 64 teams, compared to 32 for the men. This simply reflected the greater participation in women’s soccer, which figured more prominently in the national scene than the men’s game.
Throughout this time, teams such as Central Florida, George Mason, Connecticut, Santa Clara, Notre Dame, Portland, UCLA and Penn State became regular contenders for the national title, although they usually lost out to the unbeatable North Carolina in the end. These top teams became a prime conduit of talent for the National Team, and many of the established Nats began their international careers while still attending college.
With the major demographic changes under away in the later 20th century, women finally made their mark in the club scene, with older women wanting to continue playing after college, and as with USYSA and AYSO, women’s clubs and leagues became a major part of the United States Amateur Soccer Association (USASA), and their growth was no less dramatic than it had been at the lower levels.
With the explosive growth of women’s college, and the rapidly growing presence of amateur leagues, the next step was to establish a national team. By this time, women’s soccer already had a reasonably long history in some European countries, but was still seen as a novelty in much of the rest of the world. However, the United States was one of the few major soccer countries without a national team. Some preliminary attempts were made in the early 1980s, but it was not until 1985 that the first Women’s national squad was formed. Given the enormous success of the women’s National Team at the dawn of the 21st century, the team actually got off to a very modest beginning.
The women’s national team began in 1985 as a hastily collected roster of unknowns with names like Enos, Boyer, Orrison, Bender and Wyant. There was little practice time, no equipment to speak of, and travel conditions primitive. The press didn’t even notice. Hardly household names today, and the season consisted of nothing more than a quick trip to Jesolo, Italy where they played a quick four games, losing to Denmark, England, and Italy, and only managing a draw in their rejoinder with Denmark. However, one item to note: the first goal scored by the US was by a young collegian from Univ. of Central Florida named Michelle Akers-Stahl, who would go on to make history in the years ahead.
This team disbanded after that series, and the players went their separate ways. The next year was largely the same, a return trip for four games in Jesolo, as well as a three game set back in the States at the new national soccer complex in Blaine, Minnesota. This time, however, the team was coached by North Carolina coaching legend Anson Dorrance, and he brought a more professional coaching regimen, and a bevy of talented players, including many from North Carolina. Joining Akers-Stahl were future Hall of Famer April Heinrichs and NCAA All-American Debbie Belkin, two of the early stars. The improvement was dramatic; the Nats took 3 of 4 in Italy and were 2-1 at home, although their only game against a superpower was taken by Italy. Nevertheless, Heinrichs, Akers-Stahl and Belkin quickly distinguished themselves this year.
In 1987, the USA really took off as five significant players were promoted to the top squad from the U-19 team: Joy (Fawcett) Biefield, Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Linda Hamilton. The schedule was more challenging too, with tours of Taiwan, China and a four game series back at Blaine, with the team pulling off a 6 win 1 draw and 4 loss record, including their first wins against powerhouses China and Norway. The year 1988 was a transitional one; Julie Foudy and Shannon Higgins made their debuts. But the lack of a full-time team with regular practice took its toll. Once again, the team only was together for a couple months, time for quick sets in China and Italy, and they were at .500 quality for the season. Frustration set in, with no real tournaments to play in or goals to strive for, the team lost its focus and sense of purpose. Continental championships in Europe had proved a powerful incentive, but there was no equivalent in the Americas, and the US had no interest in the unofficial women’s championships that seemed little more than exhibition exercises. The team basically disbanded at this time, regrouping in 1989 only for a scoreless match against Poland.
The struggles at the national were endemic in the 1980s; the men’s team was in a similar fix; teams were hastily assembled for tournaments or friendlies with little practice time. With no overarching purpose, the teams had lost focus and were disheartened by the lack of success at tournament levels. The USSF underwent major changes after they successfully landed World Cup 1994, and began in earnest to establish a full-time men’s team to prepare for the big event. But the women were left behind, waiting for a raison d’erte of their own. They would not have to wait for long.
Everything changed when FIFA established the Women’s World Championship, quickly dubbed the World Cup. Finally, there was the goal to fight for. The first event would be held in China in 1991, and the women would finally have an opportunity to prove how far the US had come.
The team did not jump to life right away though. Coach Dorrance took his time, evaluating talent. With the exception of Hamilton and goalkeeper Mary Harvey, Dorrance already had an established roster, and he put them through the moves in a light summertime schedule, with three games at Blaine, 3 at Canada. This time however, there were signs of a superpower coming to life. The opponents were some of the top women’s teams in the world, including Norway, Soviet Union, and West Germany, and the US swept all 8 games, with 3 shutouts, including a 8-0 thrashing of the Soviet Union.
The real test would come in 1991. Dorrance assembled his squad in April, fortified by newcomers Brandi Chastain and Wendy Gabauer, and immediately put them through a five game tournament in Bulgaria, which was swept by the Americans in five consecutive shutouts. The qualifying tournament was their first test of strength in the North American Region and quickly established the US as the only superpower in CONCACAF, in fact the only power at all. Five more shutouts, with only Canada able to hold the US to less than ten goals. A typical game would show 4 players scoring multiple goals, and Chastain scored 5 against Mexico in the opener.
Dorrance then tested his strength against tougher competition, and showed that the Cup was anybody’s game. Despite several losses to Norway, China, and Denmark, the US always played a close game, even if they weren’t invincible. But this series was a coming out party for several players who would become world leaders for the rest of the decade, including Akers, Hamm, Chastain, Lilly, Foudy, and Jennings. The Cup was attended by large crowds in China, averaging almost 20,000 per game. The scene marked a triumph for the women’s game as the world’s best finally competed in a sanctioned world tournament. And the USA didn’t disappoint. After a close 3-2 opening win against Sweden, the US cruised through pool play and the quarterfinals with powerful shutouts against Brazil, Japan and Taiwan, with Michelle Akers scoring 5 goals in the last game. The semifinal put the US against powerhouse West Germany, and Jennings enjoyed a hat trick as the Nats moved into the final against Norway, China having already been eliminated. Norway was perhaps the finest team of the time, and the game was close and tenacious, but Michelle Akers goal in the 88th minute put the US ahead for keeps, and they took the Cup to reach their pinnacle.
Although the tournament did not receive much press notice outside of China, it was certainly noticed in the US soccer community, and it can’t be understated what an impact this triumph had on the entire women’s program. No mountain was too high to climb, the sky was truly the limit. And there would be many more triumphs to come, and this time the nation, and even the world, would notice.
The team had a hiccup, however, after this triumph. With no other major tournament on the horizon, the team was dispersed for a well deserved rest, only regrouping briefly for two friendlies in late August 1992. Perhaps out of practice, the US lost both. Meanwhile much attention was being focused on the upcoming Men’s World Cup in 1994 and the advent of a men’s professional league known as Major League Soccer.
In 1993, the team regrouped, this time with Tiffeny Milbrett and Tisha Venturini fleshing out the ranks. Over the next two years, play consisted of participation in tournaments interspersed by scattered friendlies. But the US had a special advantage with the enormous pool of talent made possible by the burgeoning youth and college programs and the growing amateur leagues to keep older players in shape. The US cruised through their schedules, including a major tournament in Hamilton, Canada and their initial foray into the Algarve Cup in Portugal in 1994. They did still have trouble frequently against the other big three, namely Germany, Norway, and China, often splitting the results. The World Cup in 1994 was an enormous financial and critical success, giving unprecedented attention to soccer in the US, and even the women’s team was attracting more attention. Shortly after Brazil took the Big Prize, the women began qualifying, which again was an embarrassment of 1-0 and 11-0 walkovers. Mia Hamm was quickly showing her scoring prowess, on her way to running away with the all-time scoring records.
A key gap in the women’s soccer landscape was filled this year by the United States Interregional Soccer League. The USISL provided a base of support with their division 3 outdoor league, acting as a farm system for the A-League and the soon to be born Division 1 Major League Soccer. Seeing themselves as the foundation supporting the top levels, the USISL established the W-League, a national amateur league that would provide playing time for the top players. Although many of the top National squad remained with their colleges or the USSF full-time, the W-league would sign many of the remaining top players in the country and several international stars, while allowing active college players an outlet to gain additional exposure and continue their careers. They played a brief exhibition schedule in 1994 and launched for real in 1995 with 19 teams spread nationwide in a very successful debut. In another recognition of the growth of amateur soccer, the US Open Cup launched their women’s competition in 1994.
The same could be said about the USA’s performance in the 1995 Women’s World Cup, despite their disappointing loss to Norway in the semifinals. This loss to Norway was a bitter pill to swallow, and marked the launch of a fierce rivalry, but nothing could be taken away from the players’ performances. They were second to none, and the game could have gone either way. The fact was that there were four superpowers, no final victory was assured. The US had again swept through most of their tournaments and friendlies, only faltering in the final rounds of the Algarve Cup and T.I.F. cup in France. But that was against those same teams that dominated the final rounds of all major tournaments. It game the women more hunger for victory, and incentive for 1996, which would prove to be a seminal year for the program. The year ended with another major lodestone for the future. In recognition of the rapid strides in the US game, and the great success of the 1994 World Cup, the 1999 Women’s World Cup was awarded to the United States.
The Olympic year was when the women’s team truly captured the notice of the American public. Women’s soccer had been added for 1996, and immediately attracted the lions share of attention in the US. The men’s competition was seen as secondary to the World Cup, and the US men had a disappointing run. But the Women took the Gold. Soccer always draws well in Olympic competition, and this was no exception. Even the smaller women’s crowds, 16,000, 20,000 were unprecedented compared to the homey 3-5 thousand the team was accustomed to. The crowds built throughout the competition, culminating in over 76,000 for the final. NBC gave no coverage at all to the women’s competition to the chagrin of many, but the fans adopted the team as one of their own.
The Americans started the year by sweeping the B.S.C. tournament in Brazil; that was followed by a grueling series of exhibitions against teams big and small, with only a loss to Norway marring an incredible winning streak of 21 games leading right into the Olympic tournament. The US’s final three games were against the other Top Three, with a draw to China being followed by identical 2-1 victories against Norway and China, giving the US the Gold. The WWC 91 prize was sweet, but this was even sweeter. This time, the country noticed. But there was an even bigger victory to come.
In another sign of the growth of the program, the USSF launched the women’s USA cup to complement the men’s cup now entering its fifth year. Not surprisingly, the USA swept the inaugural tournament. Also, women’s U-21 and U-18 teams were launched in the late 90’s, to help train the next generation of players.
After the Olympics, the national team took another rest, not regrouping until February 1997. Now the task was not just keeping the team going, but making plans for the 1999 World Cup, which had the potential to be an even bigger blockbuster than the Olympics. If FIFA would allow that however. Some traditional male sentiments remained among much of he world, and FIFA envisioned a small regional tournament, ideally held in high school stadiums that would not create too much attention and fuss. Hank Steinbrecher, of the USSF would have none of that. Declaring that “The future of women’s soccer is feminine”, he was determined from the start this would be a full-blown tournament, in large stadiums coast to coast. And that it would be. Full advertising and marketing budgets, large stadium crowds, and world attention were to ensure the tournament would get the press it deserved and be taken seriously, and that was the word from day one.
Meanwhile, the national team continued to beef up on talent and conquer on the field. Cindy Parlow and Shannon MacMillan joined the already talent laden roster, the US played a dizzying schedule, winning 16 of 18 games that year. Not much tournament play this time, most were friendlies, but the team did sweep an Australian tournament as well as USA Cup ’97. The W-League enjoyed a successful second season. Although attendance was low, it was not much different than at the amateur men’s division of the USISL, and was already expanding to more cities, and quality of competition was quickly improving. Coming on the heels of Major League Soccer’s successful debut, there were soon calls for the establishment of a professional women’s league to be in place before the 1999 World Cup, and soon a group was organizing what would be the National Soccer Alliance for 1998. They received commitments from a number of major World Cup veterans, bit financing fell through and the effort collapsed. People felt it would be better to make an attempt after the cup with more solid financial footing. For now, the W-League would suffice, although the west coast teams broke away and joined with top amateur clubs to form the west coast based Women’s Premier Soccer League.
The playing schedule grew ever more grueling in 1998, but that appeared to simply make the players more determined. With few players active in the W-League, it was essential to give the team as much experience as possible, and they didn’t disappoint. The Nats set a new record with 22 wins in 1998, against only 2 draws and 1 loss. Nobody could stop the Americans, with the one exception of Norway, which spoiled the teams return appearance in the Algarve Cup. They got the bronze though, and took the Guangzhou cup for good measure. They also took the USA Cup, highlighting their performance with a 9-0 thrashing of Mexico in which Mia Hamm scored two goals and gave at least four scoring opportunities to teammates, even as she denied herself her 100th goal.
As World Cup neared, the schedule did not let up. They played right through the winter, with another winning run married only by a 1-2 loss to the FIFA All-Stars in San Jose and a loss to China which denied them yet again the Algarve Cup championship. To help publicize the World Cup, the team launched the Road to Pasadena series, a set of games against major opposition which drew large crowds coast to coast. Once again, the US was almost unbeatable, dispatching Japan, Canada, Denmark and others, once again losing only to China.
If the 1996 Olympics captured the attention of the US public, the Women’s World Cup 1999 captured their hearts. WWC ’99 was easily the most significant event ever for the women’s program, a triumph that brought the game not only to the US, but to the world. When that final penalty shot went in to give the US a victory over China after a hard fought scoreless tie, a threshold had surely been passed. The team made the covers of major magazines, and the front pages of the major newspapers. Even normally hostile radio talk-shows had positive commentary. No longer was women’s soccer just noticed by the soccer community and soccer moms. The decision to promote this as a major event paid off handsomely. Attendance totaled 658,000 for an average of 38,000 fans per game, far surpassing the previous cups, and even besting several of the men’s cup attendance averages. TV ratings for the final even surpassed those of the men’s final in 1994.
The US opened with a 3-0 shutout of Denmark, and followed in pool play with a 7-1 thrashing of Nigeria, and another shutout, this time against North Korea. The US had to fight hard to pull out a 3-2 victory over Germany in the quarterfinals, and then held off a surprisingly strong Brazil 2-0 to set up a rematch against China in the final. China had fought the US in the Olympic Gold Medal game, and had won their last two meetings. The game itself, attended by 92,000 screaming fans in the Rose Bowl was as close as it could get. The teams were perfectly matched, no one could gain an advantage and it came right down to the penalty kicks, with Brandi Chastain putting in the winning shot, and putting on an impromptu athletic wear fashion show in front of a world audience.
The tournament itself was surprisingly competitive, and the US had to fight hard for most of their victories. Part of this reflected the fact that women’s soccer was finally taking off in many countries in the developing world, and the big four would be soon joined by a lot of other contenders, even some in traditionally male-dominated cultures. It will be interesting to see how the success of women’s soccer impacts the culture in these regions. It is possible that the US will never be in such a commanding position in the future as the game grows. The team was also facing the fact that many of its veteran stars were approaching retirement, and urgency was coming to the forefront as the team struggled to develop its next generation of stars. But many of the players were determined to hang on until the 2000 Olympics.
In the fall, the team went on a victory tour playing major opponents. This tour was very well attended, averaging over 34,000 fans per game, unprecedented for friendlies. The fans did not leave disappointed, as the US registered five consecutive shutouts.
After the Cup, the premier players used their new clout to press for a more generous contract. Initially the USSF balked, and the players organized their own unofficial tour playing in indoor stadiums. They received the lion’s share of revenue, and this led to considerable friction with the USSF, but it was the only way they saw to receive proper compensation. Ultimately, the pressure helped, and they received a much better compensation package, although the walkout was lengthy and the US had to compete in the Australian Cup in January 2000 with the 2nd string players. Nevertheless, they got two wins and a tie.
The 2000 Olympics promised to be another major event, but without the attention of 1996, as it would be played in Australia at difficult times of day. But the US still planned for back to back Gold. To prepare, they engaged in a few friendlies as well as the Algarve Cup. This time, the jinx was broken, and after late round wins against Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the Algarve Cup was finally theirs. This was followed by triumphs in the USA Cup, the Pacific Cup and the inaugural CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup. A few more friendlies, and a well attended Road to Sydney series, and it was off to Australia.
This time, the Olympics were a lot tougher. Age was beginning to take its toll, and the team often struggled. Wins came, but they were close, and the US finally fell in a close 2-3 loss to Norway. Bitter memories of WWC ’95. The Men’s team was delighted with their own performance, for the first time, they made a decent showing, losing in the Bronze medal round, but the women were clearly expecting another Gold and the disappointment was palpable. But the performance did indicate again that the team was entering a new era.
The national team was at a crossroads by this point. After the Olympics Michelle Akers and Carla Overbeck retired, and several other veteran members were dropped from the team. The core was there, but from this point, the younger generation would play an ever increasing role in the future of the team. The question was whether they would be able to develop quickly enough to maintain the level of performance fans were accustomed to.
With the Olympics concluded, attention turned again to the establishment of a professional women’s league. This time, there were investors lined up, and proposals abounded. For a time there was the danger that two leagues would be formed; one headed by John Hendricks, CEO of Discovery Corp, and another proposal formulated by Major League Soccer. MLS already had a going operation, but the Hendricks proposal was backed by $40,000,000 from major media companies. Fortunately, sane heads prevailed, and Hendricks was able to get sanctioning for his Women’s United Soccer Association, with a partnership agreement between WUSA and MLS promising to work to the benefit of both parties.
Eight cities were awarded franchises, which spanned the country, and compared to MLS’s rocky launch, WUSA got off the ground very smoothly. A good set of smaller stadiums was secured, as well as an adequate television package. More importantly, nearly the entire national team was signed by the league, and in the draft, many of the top world stars joined the league as well as the cream of W-League talent, and college draft choices. WUSA arranged a farm club agreement with the expanding W-League, and the player development system was off to a successful start. When WUSA finally debuted in the spring of 2001, the final piece of the puzzle was completed for a complete US women’s soccer program.
WUSA started off well, and improved rapidly through the season. Attendance was predicted at 4,000-6,000 per game but averaged close to 8,000, and TV ratings met expectations. More importantly, the crowds were enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and young girls had their own heroes to look up to. Best of all, the women provided excellent role models of sportsmanship which was eagerly lapped up by both girls and boys, and the enthusiastic family atmosphere provided an excellent outlet for people wanting a pleasurable spectating experience. The play was initially rocky as the players got to know each other and team plans got settled. The top players had to adjust to the inevitably lower standard of play, but had to accept the fact they would never have such a bountiful calendar of national team fixtures.
With the advent of WUSA, the women’s team took a much lower profile, and concentrated on developing its young players. Games were considerably more infrequent after the torrid pace of the past few years, consisting of the Algarve Cup (ended with two disappointing losses), some exhibitions and the ill-fated USA Cup which was aborted after the first weekend because of September 11. The team had its first losing season since the late 80’s. But at this time, WUSA was where the major action was, at least until the next World Cup, and perhaps that’s the way it should be.
The National team’s fortunes revived in 2002 as preparations were made for World Cup 2003, which would prove to be the last one for many of the veterans who had played on the WC 1991 championship squad. The team received a boost when China withdrew as host of Womens World Cup 2003 because of the SARS epidemic. Looking for a place that could quickly set up to host the games, the United States was chosen, and quickly set up venues, and the team prepared to make a good run in the games.
There wasn’t much time to prepare for the games, and crowds weren’t quite as big as before. Nevertheless, WWC ‘03 was an impressive event. The US was not as dominant this time around, and in fact fell in the semifinals, having to settle for a 3rd place finish.. This could be attributed in part to the enormous strides made in the women’s game in many countries. At least five countries could easily vie for bragging rights at the top, and other countries, such as Brazil, Japan and Mexico were improving rapidly.
A major setback occurred just before the start of the games when the WUSA suspended operations because of financial difficulties. The league may have started out too big and tried to grow too quickly; financial losses were enormous. But the seed had been planted, and the league began organizational efforts to raise money and relaunch in a different form in the near future. In the meantime, WUSA players dispersed to the W-league and overseas as the national team prepared for Olympics 2004.
The 2004 Olympics would be the true swan song for a core of veteran players, and the USA put on a magnificent show, winning the gold medal, and allowing the players to bow out in style. They finished the year with a successful victory tour of the country.
Women’s soccer development was an example of ascending from one triumph to another, and the steady growth and finally explosion of women’s soccer into the hearts and minds of Americans is truly astonishing. It is easy to forget than a mere fifteen years ago, the national program didn’t exist, professional leagues didn’t exist and people actually wondered if women’s soccer would be more than a college and recreational sport.
Some of the change in perceptions can be attributed to changes throughout the country, both cultural and demographic. Women are moving into all aspects of US society, even the traditionally patriarchal sports world. The 90’s saw the maturation of women’s college programs, and great success in basketball, hockey and other traditionally male pastimes. Professional leagues have been established in softball, football, basketball and hockey. Soccer may have been the last sport to launch a women’s pro team, but the seeds of this were long in coming.
In many ways, the creation and growth of women’s soccer in the US was a process of assembling the components. College soccer, the youth programs, amateur clubs, the national team, tournament success, the US Open Cup, farm clubs and finally a professional league. But once it was done (and at an amazingly quick pace at that), the US had gone from a latecomer to the premier women’s soccer program in the world, and is a spearhead that inspires the growth of the women’s game throughout the rest of the world.
After the 2004 Olympics, the task of rebuilding the National team began in earnest. Fortunately many talented players had undergone development during the last years of the legendary players. Beyond the National Team, opportunities for female players lay either with the overseas professional leagues, or at home in the W-League and the WPSL. The WPSL began growing dramatically in the latter half of the 2000’s, expanding nationwide and soon becoming the premier women’s league for the country. There was a notable ebb and resurgence of activity at the national level in these days; after the Olympics, the team typically took it easy the following year, with only the Algarve Cup and a few friendlies to keep the players occupied. Much work was limited to training and conditioning. The team had a full schedule of tournaments in 2006, winning the Four Nations Cup, Peace Queen Cup and CONCACAF Gold cup, while losing in PK’s in the Algarve Cup final.
The women’s juggernaut continued in 2007 with the team winning the Algarve Cup, Four Nations Cup and every opponent who dared play them en route to a 19-4-1 record, the only loss being in the semifinal of the World Cup, forcing them to settle for 3rd place. This performance led to possibly their busiest year ever in 2008 when they went 34-1-1, again bowk,ing over almost every opponent who came in the way. During this stellar year, they won the Algarve Cup, the Four Nations Tournament, the peace Queens Cup, and the Gold Medal at the Beijing Olympics. This was capped bu a triumphant victory tour across the country.
By this time, major efforts had paid off to establish a new professional women’s league, and Women’s Professional Soccer was established, finally completing the pyramid of the infrastructure. Once again, the best female players would have a league of their own, and soon nearly the entire National Team as well as an impressive array of top international stars were on the rosters. WPS operated on a smaller scale than the WUSA, with strict financial controls in place in the single-entity circuit to prevent overspending from dooming the league. But there was no shortage of talent; although crowds were more modest during the 2009 inaugural season, the league had a successful first year, adding two teams for the sophomore season. The national team took it easy in 2009, but began to gear up in 2010 as they prepared for the upcoming World Cup and Olympic tournaments. Although the women weren’t getting as much attention these days as they were during the WWC 1999 and WUSA heyday, they were definitely building a solid organizational foundation that would serve them well in the glorious days that clearly lie ahead.