(L-R) Kadidiatou Diani battles for possession with Crystal Dunn during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup quarterfinals match between the United States and France on June 28, 2019 in Paris.
LYON, France -- Well before the U.S. women’s national team established itself as a world power in soccer, the team mentality already was in place.
Julie Foudy was just 16 years old when she joined the U.S. national team in 1987, and she still remembers being surprised and taken aback by the environment under then-coach Anson Dorrance and team captains April Heinrichs and Lori Henry.
“Oh, my gosh, these women are ruthless,” Foudy said to herself back then.
“They would do anything to win, and that was always the foundation,” Foudy told TeamUSA.org Monday from Lyon, where she’s covering the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup for ESPN.
“Anson used to say, ‘I respect talent, but I admire courage.’”
Heinrichs, Henry and Foudy have long since retired, but the mentality has carried on to 2019, where the defending champion U.S. team overcame host France in a highly-anticipated quarterfinal match last week and will now face England in a semifinal Tuesday at Parc Olympique Lyonnais. The survivor will meet the winner of the Netherlands-Sweden semi at the same stadium in Sunday’s final.
Phil Neville, the England coach who carved out an excellent career with English Premier League power Manchester United and Everton, marveled at the way the U.S. has gone about its business.
A familiar word surfaced in his remarks.
“I’ve got to say America’s got that ruthless streak of wanting to win,” he said at a Sunday press conference. “The last five minutes against France, the game management was fantastic. They took the ball into the corner. They knew what it took to win, and they celebrated like winners. And that’s what I admire.”
The U.S. certainly does know how to win, having reached at least the semifinals at every World Cup and Olympic Games except one. Winners of a record three World Cups, the Americans are now aiming to duplicate Germany’s achievement of back-to-back crowns (2003 and 2007), to go along with an unprecedented four Olympic gold medals.
Watching this team, Foudy sees that same ruthless mentality created more than three decades ago.
“It’s always been in our fabric that the one thing that we always control and what we talked about what that mentality to grind it out,” said Foudy, a former team captain who stood out for two World Cup two Olympic champion sides. “We considered ourselves very blue collar, gritty and took a ton of pride in that. That largely is that first group, is Anson. He set that foundation: ‘I’ll put my team on my back if I need to. My teammates got me.’ So, it was that communal grind that was so valued and respected.”
And it was passed down from that first U.S. squad that captured the very first Women’s World Cup in China in 1991 to today’s team.
Now, the mantle has been passed to a new generation of players, such as goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and forward Christen Press, who understand that never-say-die attitude.
“That is inbred in us,” said Naeher, who has allowed just two goals in five games so far. “That is the root of the U.S. women’s national team. That’s always been the U.S. mentality, and that’s something that every veteran player has instilled in all the new players as we’ve come in. It’s now our job to carry that through. They’ve set the example for us. Through all years back then and now, it’s how we continue to carry forward.”'
Press, too, has lived through a couple World Cup cycles and had gotten to understand the U.S. mentality.
“I would call it more belief,” she said. “I would characterize it as optimism that we’re going to win, but there is a ruthlessness to it, and that’s win at all costs. That means tactically adapt in a way we never have in four years. You have to do that to win.”
That was the case against France, when the U.S. went from a four- to a five-player backline to thwart the French in the second half.
“It’s incredible,” Press said. “It’s incredible that we can change and still be so solid.”
Even before the French put on their late charge, American players were throwing their bodies around Parc des Princes, blocking shots.
One prime example was left back Crystal Dunn, a playmaking midfielder with the National Women’s Soccer League champion North Carolina Courage. Dunn has attacking instincts, but her feistiness was on display on Friday.
Tussling with France forward Kadidiatou Diani, Dunn gave away four inches — she is 5-foot-2 and Diani is 5-6. But more importantly, she gave away no goals.
“I’m exhausted,” Dunn said. “Diani is an amazing forward and she definitely gave me a run for my money tonight.”
Dunn was far from perfect, sometimes missing a tackle, allowing the forward to get past her, but she usually recovered and battled some more.
“Dunnie, she was just on point,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “Her 1 v 1 defending. She watched films; she studied. She’s very diligent. I chatted with her a couple of days ago earlier in the week. I said, ‘Dunnie, you’ve grown so much, you are so ready for this moment.’ I thought she stepped up big time.”
Having helped lay the groundwork for past, present and future teams, Foudy has been proud that team has continued to grind out wins when needed with a ruthless attitude. Remember, there were plenty of questions whether the defense could hold up in the knockout round, especially against a quality side such as France.
"In that environment, to play like they did, defensively as well, when we’ve been talking this whole time in this narrative on how this backline is going to do, to step up the way they did,” Foudy said before switching thoughts to Megan Rapinoe, who has scored all four of the Americans goals in the knockout round. “And for Megan Rapinoe, given the week she had, to respond the way she did. For them, this distraction, this circus, is nothing. ‘We’re embracing that, we’re going.’ It’s everything this team’s built on.”
Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.