The inside story of how the USWNT became the most dominant force in women's football
by Caitlin Murray
With four Olympic gold medals, more World Cups than anyone else, and having spent 10 of the last 11 years ranked as the world’s no.1 team, the U.S. Women's National Team has become synonymous with dominance in global women's football. And this summer in France, they will once again be tagged as favourites.
Their success isn’t the result of a long-term project, either. The Americans made their mark on the women's game right from their conception – and they did so by defining a DNA right from the very start, constructing an identity around will, by pushing themselves to the very limit with what has become their signature never-give-up attitude.
Their formation, in 1985, however, was almost by chance. With few women's national teams competing around the world at the time, the U.S. were invited to compete in a one-of-a-kind tournament in Italy called The Mundialito. U.S. Soccer officials hastily assembled a squad, plucking the best and brightest from regional teams around the country to compete on behalf of a nation.
One year later, the arrival of coach Anson Dorrance saw the USWNT's identity truly take shape. And there was one player from that inaugural national team in 1985 who stuck around longer than everyone else and who helped, perhaps more than anyone, define a lasting American style: Michelle Akers was the physical, marauding central-midfielder who allowed the team to control games and dominate their opponents. "I play hard and people just bounce off me or I go through them. I don't notice it until after I get hit in the face,” she once revealed.
The Americans, particularly in the early years, were often technically outmatched by their European counterparts, who had longer footballing histories and distinct tactical identities. Germany's style focused on combination play, for example, while Norway saw a lot of success playing direct. But the Americans decided that their willingness to fight and scrap right to the final whistle, to out-work their opponents, would be the difference – and it was that philosophy that brought them the first-ever Women's World Cup in 1991.
"If you would’ve compared us player-for-player, we might’ve been a bit more athletic, but it was really our mentality," Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, who first joined the U.S. team in 1987, says in The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer. "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."
And that fight wasn't just reserved for the battle on the field.
In the early years of the program, USWNT players made little-to-no money from playing the game, and so remaining part of the national team required a dogged determination that carried over onto the pitch. Players patch-worked their lives to make ends meet in order to continue to represent the United States, unable to both work full-time and fulfil their schedules as a USWNT player. Carin Jennings-Gabarra, for instance, quit multiple marketing jobs in order to remain a part of the squad. "We were getting $10 per day," Tracey Bates-Leone says in The National Team. "There was absolutely no ulterior motive other than dying to represent your country." Once the USWNT started winning trophies and football exploded as a participation sport for young girls, the lack of financial opportunity slowly started to change.
It wasn't long after the first World Cup that Mia Hamm, the USWNT's goal-scoring star, caught the attention of Nike, a company that was only just on the cusp of getting into football in the United States. But the commercial opportunities for the USWNT didn't really explode after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, which drew a massive crowd for the USWNT's gold medal match against China PR, and before the 1999 World Cup on home soil, when a grassroots campaign from USWNT players drummed up unprecedented anticipation for the tournament.
Hamm became a star, in part due to heavy-rotation of adverts in the run-up the World Cup, including one in which she appeared alongside Michael Jordan. Hamm and her teammates also starred in Nike commercials together, and the USWNT became the first female sports team to capture the country’s attention.
The World Cup that followed made an indelible mark on the sporting landscape in the United States. The tournament drew record audiences – both on TV and in the stands – to watch Brandi Chastain's iconic spot-kick see off China on penalties. Suddenly, a country that was yet to embrace football or women's sports in general, became believers. Relatable, devoted to their craft and, perhaps most importantly, winners, the public jumped on board.
And as the USWNT looks ahead to the 2019 Women's World Cup in June, the influence of those pioneers is readily apparent. USWNT players are now full-time professionals thanks to numerous campaigns and standoffs over a fair wage, and many are now household names. Alex Morgan, who has been scoring goals at one of the fastest rates since Mia Hamm, has made millions from endorsement deals alone. She has her own line of books, starred in a movie and appears in heavy-rotation Nike ads, too. And, unlike Hamm to her generation, Morgan is anything but an anomaly.
Most importantly, however, the foundation of the USWNT's success remains the never-say-die culture that was cultivated in the early days. Coaches and players have come and gone over the years, but the USWNT's relentless tenacity has remained the constant.
Some of the most iconic moments in women's football include the Americans fighting back from seemingly insurmountable odds. In 2011, when a controversial red card left them a woman down against Brazil, Abby Wambach’s 122nd-minute equalizer - the latest goal in World Cup history - propelled the U.S. to the final. The following year, Alex Morgan scored the latest goal in Olympic history after coming back on three separate occasions to topple Canada during a dramatic 4-3 victory.
Brazilian legend Marta was once asked why the Americans were so hard to beat. When she pointed to her head, the reporter thought she was saying they had a strong aerial presence. "No, no," Marta interjected. "It's the mentality."
When the U.S. beat Japan in the 2015 World Cup final thanks to a show-stopping performance from Carli Lloyd it was a just reward for a memorable campaign. The Americans had started poorly but scrapped for results as they worked their way into the tournament. They were crowned champions in front of a television audience of 26.7 million, smashing the USWNT's record set in 1999.
Now, with the 2019 Women's World Cup likely to be the most competitive iteration of the tournament ever, the Americans will need to show that fighting mentality once more. Crucial to their chances will be players like Julie Ertz – not quite an Akers-esque defensive midfielder, but her ball-winning and disruptive attributes will be key – while they have plenty of depth in the central midfield, including Lindsey Horan, the best midfielder around in the National Women's Soccer League last year. Ertz is the only World Cup veteran and, despite playing the 2015 tournament in defence, she will offer a steadying presence.
That will be necessary because if there's any concerns for the Americans, it's a defensive unit that hasn't quite gelled. Centre-back Becky Sauerbrunn is the only defender from the 2015 USWNT squad that went 540 minutes without conceding a goal, and she will likely be paired with either 25-year-old Abby Dahlkemper or 20-year-old Tierna Davidson.
There is also a change of goalkeeper. The 2019 World Cup will be the first since 1991 which won’t feature either Briana Scurry or Hope Solo, two legends of the women's game. Alyssa Naeher will likely take her place between the sticks and has some big gloves to fill. The U.S., then, might have to score goals to make up for a defence that is very unlikely to go all tournament without conceding.
Luckily, the Americans have always been an attacking team and that won't change in France. With Alex Morgan up top and in excellent form, she will be flanked by two of the best creative wingers in the world in Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe. Both can beat defenders 1v1 with flair and invention, and create space that seemingly didn’t exist. The three-pronged attack of Rapinoe-Morgan-Heath has excellent chemistry and the firepower to propel the U.S. all the way.
As the women's game evolves and more countries develop their programs, however, it'll be as hard as ever to win a World Cup.
Luckily for the USWNT, winning is in their DNA.
Caitlin Murray has written a book about the U.S. women's national team called The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, which was released this week. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.