The seventh edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off Saturday in Canada, and the U.S. women’s national team begins its quest for a third championship — and first sine 1999 — on Monday, when it plays Australia in Winnipeg. The tournament continues until the final on July 5 in Vancouver.
In preparation for the World Cup, we look back at nine key moments in USWNT history.
9. Title IX Changes The Trajectory Of U.S. Women’s Sports (1972)
On June 23, 1972, President Richard Nixon signed Title IX of the Education Amendments into law. As more girls begin playing school sports, more schools — notably the University of North Carolina — invest in girls’ and women’s sports, including soccer. By 1985, the U.S. Soccer Federation joins the small list of countries to create a women’s national team program. And before long, this U.S. team built from these school-trained players proves to be the best in the world.
8. The Fab Five Begins (1987)
On a summer day in Tianjin, China, teenagers Mia Hamm, 15, Joy Fawcett, 19, and Kristine Lilly, 16, stepped onto the field for their first game with the fledgling U.S. women’s national team (a 2-0 win over China on Aug. 3). The next summer, fellow teenagers Brandi Chastain, 19, and Julie Foudy, 17, followed. Over nearly two decades together, the “Fab Five” won two Women’s World Cups and two Olympic gold medals together, while setting the foundation for the sport in the United States.
7. Olympic Gold (2008)
No Kristine Lilly? No Abby Wambach? No problem. After 96 scoreless minutes, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd broke open the gold-medal game with a blast from outside the box. The U.S. women held on to beat Brazil 1-0 in extra time and defend their Olympic gold medal. And they did it without Wambach, the team’s best scorer, who broke her leg in a friendly earlier that summer, and Lilly, the team captain and all-time caps leader who took the tournament off to give birth to her daughter.
With just five minutes remaining and desperate for an equalizer, Japan’s Mana Iwabuchi pounced. U.S. goalie Hope Solo pounced faster. When Iwabuchi tried to drill a wide-open, close-range shot to Solo’s far post, the U.S. keeper dove to her left, fully extended and forced the ball away with both hands. The “Save Heard ’Round the World” might have been the biggest play in an Olympic Games full of them. Days earlier in the semifinals, rising U.S. star Alex Morgan scored in the 123rd minute to clinch a 4–3 comeback win against Canada. Team USA had to come back three times in the win. Then in the final, in front of 80,203 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium, Carli Lloyd was the U.S. hero for the second consecutive gold-medal game, scoring both goals in the 2-1 win that reversed the result from the previous year’s Women’s World Cup final.
The “Fab Five” era was coming to an end. Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Mia Hamm had announced that the Athens 2004 Olympic Games would be their last tournament. And after falling short in the 2000 Games and 2003 Women’s World Cup, they were determined to go out on top. Fittingly, they did go out with a gold medal — and it came courtesy of Abby Wambach, the then-24-year-old forward tasked with leading the next generation. Wambach headed the game-winning goal into the net in the 112th minute, and the U.S. women held on to beat Brazil 2-1. “It’s a fabulous way to win an Olympic gold medal,” Wambach said. “And it’s an even better way to send off these women, because they’re what this is about. This is not about me, or the younger players. It's about them.”
Most fans met Michelle Akers in 1999, when the curly-haired workhorse had settled into a midfield role, setting the table for superstar strikers Mia Hamm and Tiffeny Milbrett. Yet just eight years earlier, Akers was that lethal striker — not just for the U.S. national team but for all the world. The focal point of a dominant three-woman forward line, Akers scored 10 goals in the inaugural Women’s World Cup, including both in a 2-1 win over Norway in the final. Sometimes overshadowed by the bigger names in the 1999 World Cup, Akers undoubtedly sits among the best women’s players of all time, and never was she as dangerous as she was in 1991 in China.
Women’s team sports don’t sell, they said. Nobody will watch, they said. Of course, the conventional wisdom was turned upside down when women’s soccer (and softball) made their Olympic debuts in 1996. It began when 25,303 fans showed up to watch Team USA beat Denmark 3-0 in the opener at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. More than 55,000 came to Miami’s Orange Bowl for game three, a 0-0 draw with China. Attendance rose to 64,196 for the semifinal win at Sanford Stadium on the University of Georgia campus. And the tournament culminated with a women’s record 76,489 crowd at Sanford Stadium for the final against China. Tiffeny Milbrett sent home fans away happy with a 68th minute goal to seal the 2-1 win. And with that, the stage was set for the landmark 1999 Women’s World Cup to be treated as a major event.
The U.S. women’s soccer team was struggling. Once the world’s powerhouse, the team barely qualified for the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany. Now, with mere seconds remaining in extra time of the quarterfinals, the United States trailed Brazil 2-1. That’s when Megan Rapinoe coolly lofted a crossing pass 40 yards across the field to the back post, where Abby Wambach was waiting to nail it with a header. The 122nd minute goal forced a shootout, won by the Americans. And the team’s subsequent run to the final brought women’s soccer back to the forefront of American sports.
U.S. organizers gambled that the 1999 Women’s World Cup could be treated as a major event. The U.S. players delivered. When 78,972 fans showed up at Giants Stadium for the opener, it was on. The team kept winning, and the bandwagon kept growing. David Letterman took the lead, regularly chirping about the team on his “Late Show.” The First Family climbed aboard, too, when they showed up for the quarterfinal win in Maryland. Then, more than 73,000 fans celebrated Independence Day with a U.S. semifinal win at Stanford Stadium. But what became iconic was the finish. After 120 minutes of scoreless soccer at the sold out Rose Bowl, U.S. defender Brandi Chastain completed the fairy tale when she slipped the ball past China goalie Gao Hong in the shootout. Instinctively ripping her jersey off and falling to her knees in elation, Chastain provided not only the winning goal but the iconic image for one of the extraordinary events in U.S. sports history.