(L-R) Kelley O Hara, Alex Morgan and Allie Long celebrate after winning the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup on July 07, 2019 in Lyon, France.
On a hot night in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, the U.S. women's national team beat Canada 1-0 on a penalty kick to win the 2022 Concacaf W Championship.
“It just always feels good to be called a champion,” said forward Alex Morgan, who scored the penalty kick in the 75th minute.
Perhaps more important than the crystal trophy, the USWNT also earned a berth for the Olympic Games Paris 2024 soccer tournament — the second team to do so behind host team France. They had already earned a 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup berth by making the Concacaf semifinals.
Next year, the USWNT will strive to win its third consecutive world cup title and fifth overall. In the eight world cup tournaments since the first in 1991, the USWNT has never finished lower than third.
Then in Paris in 2024, the USWNT will aim to win their fifth Olympic gold medal and sixth medal overall since women’s soccer made its Olympic debut in 1996. The team has only been left off the podium once in Olympic competition — at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. And at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, they won the bronze medal.
Beyond their trophies and medals, the USWNT has long had an impact on women’s soccer and on women’s sports across the board. Here’s a look at how the early USWNTs in the 1990s — with stars like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Michelle Akers-Stahl, Brandi Chastain and Carin (Jennings) Gabarra — established a legacy that has impacted the entire women’s sports playing field.
The Start of the USWNT Legacy
Like many women’s sports, soccer did not gain a foothold as a women’s sport in the U.S. until the 1970s. The Title IX amendments that passed in 1972 mandated equal access to and spending on athletic programs at federally funded colleges. This legislation helped fuel a boom in women’s collegiate soccer programs. But it took years to filter down to the grassroots level.
“Where I grew up [in Texas], it was mostly coed teams,” said Hamm on an episode of Julie Foudy’s Laughter Permitted podcast celebrating the 50th anniversary of Title IX. “There weren't as many girls-only teams until you got to like 13, 14.”
“I remember you and Lill [Kristine Lilly] both specifically talking about playing on boys teams growing up,” responded Foudy, who in addition to her podcast is a celebrated TV commentator.
Cara (Jennings) Gabarra was one of few who played for all-girls teams in her youth. She moved to California with her family in 1973 when she was 8, and her mother signed her up for soccer.
“My mom saw girls and soccer uniforms,” recalled Gabarra, “and she knew I was always running around chasing my brother, so she signed me up.”
But she had no female role models in sports and never had a female coach until she made the national team in college.
“I grew up pretending that I wasn’t an athlete, hiding the fact that I was because [athletic] girls weren’t popular or weren’t looked upon in a promising way,” said Gabarra, who has coached the United States Naval Academy women’s soccer team since 1993 and turned it from a club program into a NCAA Division I team.
In college, players like Hamm, Foudy, Lilly and Gabarra played for growing women’s soccer powerhouses like the University of North Carolina (Hamm and Lilly) and Stanford University (Foudy). Recruited by UNC, Gabarra chose the University of California, Santa Barbara, because she wanted to help the women’s program grow.
“If today's high school national team players are looking at colleges, they would have 300 options for scholarships, at least at the [NCAA] Division I level,” said Hamm to Foudy during the Laughter Permitted podcast. “I had four or five [colleges] that I was looking at because the others just didn't have scholarships.”
The first U.S. women's national team, established in 1985, was conglomeration of the top college players at the time, with UNC’s legendary coach Anson Dorrance at the helm in ensuing years. Back then, the national team was pulled together for a series of international matches and disbanded afterwards; the women’s soccer schedule lacked major tournaments.
Then in 1991, FIFA established the first women’s world championship (soon renamed the FIFA Women’s World Cup). Twelve women’s soccer (football) teams from around the world convened in China from Nov. 16-30, 1991, for the world cup tournament, including strong teams from Norway, Germany and Sweden.
Soccer culture in the U.S. had yet to be established, but the USWNT was “in it to win it,” said Gabarra.
“We thought we could win something like that,” she added. “We had a great staff. We had great players. We had a lot of support from our families. And we had a purpose. So yeah, we believed we could [win it].”
Their belief was borne from the persistence needed to overcome the adversity that each woman on the team had faced as an athlete back then.