The Rise and Rise of the United States Women's National Team
Since winning the inaugural World Cup in 1991, the United States women’s national team has been the team to beat in women’s soccer. Over its brief 20-year history, the team has won two World Cups (1991 and 1999) and an amazing four Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012).
The U.S. is currently ranked No. 1 in the world by FIFA and has held the top spot in the rankings for the last five years.
Here is how the U.S. has come to dominate the world of women’s soccer.
The 1991 World Cup
In 1986, U.S. Soccer turned to University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance to head up the USWNT. Although Dorrance is now widely considered the best coach in NCAA history, having won 23 national championships, at the time, women’s soccer in America was in its infancy.
At the time Dorrance was selected to become the team’s coach, his North Carolina teams had only won four of those 23 national titles. Still, those four titles represented four of the first five national championships awarded, and Dorrance seemed to be the best candidate to take the team forward.
Building a foundation on a core of young players (the average age of the starting XI in 1991 was 23), Dorrance put the team into his now legendary 3-4-3 system, later saying,
We played a 3-4-3 which was like sacrilegious. People thought, ‘you’re not playing a 4-4-2, what kind of tactical midgets are you? You’re going to high-pressure? You can’t high-pressure in an event where you have a game every three days… We were great duelers. We were gritty. We were to some extent irreverent because we didn’t worship at the altar of the 4-4-2 and we didn’t play the ball around in the back for half an hour to show we could possess it. We were different and we scared teams because we were different.
In the tournament, the first women’s World Cup in FIFA’s history, the United States won all six of its games, outscoring its opponents 25-5 and beating world powers Sweden, Germany and Norway in the process.
The foundation Dorrance laid with the 1991 squad with an emphasis on an “American style” also became the backbone for the USWNT’s future success. Dorrance later said,
I think the key element was that we were different. We played a different style. We were very American in the way we approached the game and in our confidence going in to matches. We built our foundation on things like the individual duel. We were going to win every head ball, we were going to win every tackle, and we were going to win every one vs. one contest when we were running at defenses.
There was also an incredible bond among all of the players. Back then we had so few training camps that we really had to rely on this self-coach idea. When our players left the training camp they weren’t going to come back in two or three months, they were going to come back to camp in a year. In this interim period the players had to train on their own. So we had to find the sort of women that had this discipline, when no one cared about them or their game, to get out there and do some work and reach their potential on their own. There are a lot of very unique things about this team and I think the strains of that are still what set the U.S. apart right now.
The 1991 team comprised a who’s who of USWNT legends, including Joy Fawcett, Shannon Higgins, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, April Heinrichs, Carla Overbeck and Carin Jennings.
Akers won the tournament’s Golden Boot award with 10 goals and Jennings won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player.
The 1996 Olympics
Following the team’s 1991 World Cup victory, the reins were eventually handed over to Tony DiCicco, who had been the team’s goalkeeper coach during the ’91 tournament.
After a third-place finish at the 1995 World Cup, a relative failure by the standards DiCicco himself would help set over the next four years, the USWNT went on one of the most impressive runs in the history of sport.
In 1996, for the first time ever, women’s football was included in the Summer Olympic games. Based in Atlanta, the games became an opportunity for the U.S. women to finally show their prowess on home soil.
In the group stage, the U.S. beat Denmark and Sweden and tied China, setting up a semifinal matchup against Norway—the U.S.’ biggest rival at that time. The U.S. had beaten Norway in the final of the 1991 World Cup, but had lost to Norway in the semifinals of the 1995 World Cup, which Norway had gone on to win.
As expected, the match was a grueling affair, eventually going to extra-time with a 1-1 scoreline after 90 minutes. In the 96th minute, Shannon MacMillan, who had started all of the group-stage games, but had been dropped from the starting XI for the semifinals, was substituted into the match. Four minutes later, she would score the golden goal, sending the U.S. to the Olympic final.
The win set up a final matchup against China, the only team the U.S. had failed to beat in the group stage. For the final, MacMillan was restored to the starting lineup and scored the opening goal. Combined with a second-half tally from Tiffany Milbrett, the U.S. won the match 2-1 and became the first women’s football team to win gold in Olympic history.
The 1999 World Cup
Following the U.S.’ success in the ’96 Olympics, the United States was awarded the opportunity to host the 1999 World Cup. Heading into the tournament, expectations on the U.S. were high as the organizers of the tournament knew that unless the U.S. had a successful tournament run, it would difficult to draw fans’ interest.
The U.S. women did not disappoint, opening their tournament play by shredding their group-stage opponents by a combined 13-1 scoreline and knocking off Denmark, Nigeria and North Korea.
The 1999 tournament also saw DiCicco break away from the 3-4-3 that had been imprinted on the USWNT since the days of Anson Dorrance. Wanting to keep the high-pressure of the three-front, DiCicco morphed the U.S. into a 4-3-3. The change also saw DiCicco move Akers from the front line into the midfield, something he had originally experimented with several years earlier.
After surviving a scare against Germany in the quarterfinals and getting past Brazil in the semifinals, the U.S. was set up in a rematch against their 1996 Olympic final opponent, China.
In front of over 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl and 40 million viewers on television, the U.S. and China would play perhaps the most memorable game in the history of women’s soccer.
The first 90 minutes went scoreless and China almost won the game in extra-time when a header from China’s Fan Yunjie was cleared off the line by Kristine Lilly.
In the subsequent shootout, Briana Scurry saved China’s third attempt which gave the U.S. a chance to win the game with its fifth kick. Brandi Chastain stepped up to the spot and buried her kick to make the U.S. world champions yet again. In celebration, she ripped off her jersey and fell to her knees—her celebration becoming one of the most iconic images in women’s sports.
The 1999 World Cup was also a watershed moment for U.S. women’s soccer. Despite the fact that the team had already won the 1991 tournament and the 1996 Olympic tournament, it was the ’99 World Cup that still resonates with most fans today and spurred the creation of the U.S.’ first attempt at a women’s professional soccer league, the WUSA.
The ’99 victory is also viewed as one of most important moments in women’s sports history as it is lauded today as proof as the success of Title IX, the 1972 law which is credited with widely expanding opportunities for women to play collegiate sports.
The April Heinrichs era
Over Tony DiCicco’s five years in charge, from 1994-1999, the team experienced unprecedented success, winning 103 of the team’s 119 games on the way to a 103-8-8 overall record.
Following the team’s World Cup win in 1999, DiCicco stepped down from his post as USWNT coach and U.S. Soccer appointed April Heinrichs as DiCicco’s successor. Heinrichs had been a part of the 1991 squad that won the World Cup, but as a college coach at the University of Maryland from 1991-95 and the University of Virginia from 1996-2000, Heinrichs’ record was unspectacular. Over those 10 seasons, Heinrichs’ winning percentage was .571, and she never guided any of her teams to the College Cup.
In the 2000 Summer Olympics, under Heinrichs, the U.S. finished second, losing to perennial rival Norway, whom the U.S. had beaten 2-0 in group play. Many U.S. players saw the result as cruel, insisting that the Norwegian player who had scored the game-winning goal in extra-time in the final had done so after handling the ball.
In the 2003 World Cup, the U.S. again underachieved by their own lofty standards, finishing third in the tournament. Despite playing well in the group stage and beating Norway in the quarterfinals, Heinrichs was later criticized by USWNT legends Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain for her tactical inflexibility in the U.S.’ 3-0 semifinal loss to eventual champion Germany. The U.S.’ performance under Heinrichs was also criticized by some fans as relying too much on a kick-and-chase style and set pieces.
After the tournament, legendary forward Tiffany Milbrett left the team, later characterizing Heinrich’s style as unprofessional and her tactics as stifling.
Around this time, in December 2003, Heinrichs continued to face criticism as Chastain approached then U.S. Soccer president Dr. Bob Contiguglia in an attempt to get Heinrichs fired.
Nonetheless, Heinrichs stayed on as coach and led the team to Olympic gold in 2004. The 2004 squad also represented the bridge between the group that won the World Cup in 1999, often called the 99ers, and the squad most USWNT fans know today.
While Scurry, Foudy, Lilly, Joy Fawcett, Kate Markgraf and Hamm were still integral parts of the squad, the 2004 tournament saw the emergence of Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx, Heather Mitts, Heather O’Reilly and Abby Wambach.
Boxx scored the game-winning goal against Greece and O’Reilly had the game-winning goal against Germany in the semifinals in extra time.
Wambach’s performance was one of the best stories of the tournament, scoring against Greece and Brazil in group play, scoring the game-winning goal against Japan in the quarterfinals and the game-winning goal in extra time in the final against Brazil.
Greg Ryan and the 2007 World Cup debacle
Following the 2004 Olympic tournament, Heinrichs stepped down as coach of the team with a final overall record of 87-17-20. Replacing her would be assistant Greg Ryan, who, like Heinrichs, had an unspectacular record as a collegiate coach before joining the USWNT staff.
Greg Ryan’s tenure of the USWNT has to be one of the most oxymoronic head coaching stints in the history of sport. While he finished his three-year stint as U.S. head coach with an unbelievable record of 45-1-9, the team’s one loss under his reign, was the worst loss in team history.
In the 2007 World Cup, the U.S. squad was now fully in the grasp of the new generation of players with most of the 99ers now retired. The team was sluggish in group play, tying North Korea 2-2, beating Sweden 2-0 and beating Nigeria 1-0.
Following a 3-0 quarterfinal victory over England, the U.S. was matched up against Brazil and Greg Ryan would come to make his most fateful decision as head coach of the USWNT.
Believing that Briana Scurry could make the “reaction-type saves” that the game would require, Ryan decided to bench keeper Hope Solo, who had not been scored on in three games.
The 36-year-old Scurry, however, was bombarded in the match as the U.S. lost 4-0, the worst loss in USWNT history. In a post-game interview, benched keeper Solo infamously and publicly criticized Ryan saying, “It was the wrong decision and I think that anybody who knows anything about the game knows that. There’s no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves and, the fact of the matter is, it’s not 2004 anymore.”
Solo, however, was not the only person to criticize Ryan’s decisions in the match as now-former players Foudy and Chastain also made their feelings public.
"People say this is a step back, but I think Greg Ryan has put us three steps back—all the way to the starting gate. He lacks the ability to communicate and is not in tune with his players, and he's obviously not a tactician or he wouldn't have made the decisions he did.
This will define Greg Ryan. He did not prepare his players to play in this World Cup the way they needed to be prepared. He was like a general who sent his soldiers into battle with no plan, and it showed. If they don't fire him, there should be a nationwide protest against U.S. Soccer because it would mean that they just don't care."
Foudy echoed Chastain’s comments saying,
"There was no flow to this team. I think that's because all three lines (forward, midfield, defense) practiced separately; they would all go off with their separate coaches, rather than work together. What Coach Ryan did tactically made no sense, and there were a lot of decisions he made that I think many people would question…
You see some of the sub patterns, and you say, 'What the hell?' You take out one of your fastest players (Heather O'Reilly) and put in a marking back (Tina Ellertson) to man-mark (Brazil star striker) Marta? If you're going to make the bold move of changing the keepers but then go ultra-conservative when you're down 2-0, as if you're in a bunker mentality, what are you doing?"
The modern era
Following the 2007 World Cup, Ryan was fired and replaced with former Swedish international Pia Sundhage.
Sundhage’s first major tournament was the 2008 Olympic tournament, and the task at hand was immense. Besides rebuilding the team chemistry which had been tested over the past decade under Heinrichs and Ryan, the U.S. lost experienced veterans Cat Whitehill, Leslie Osborne and Abby Wambach to injury before the tournament even began.
The tournament got off to a rough start as well, as the U.S. lost its opening game to Norway, 2-0.
Missing Wambach, even at that time the U.S.’ most-prolific scorer with 99 goals in 127 matches, the U.S. found goals where it could (seven different U.S. players scored during the tournament) to make it back to the Olympic finals.
In the finals, once again facing Brazil, the U.S. was able to pull off a 1-0 victory via an extra-time winner from Carli Lloyd. Despite the rash of injuries to key players, the U.S. was back atop the footballing world.
Following the 2008 Olympics, the U.S. entered the 2011 World Cup, once again, as the favorites. A loss to Sweden in the group stage forced the U.S. to face Brazil in the quarterfinals in what would turn out to be one of the most epic games in football.
The U.S. took an early lead in the match before, in the second half, Rachel Buehler was whistled for a dubious foul in the box and then shockingly dismissed. Hope Solo saved the ensuing penalty, but, once again, to the American’s dismay, the official called the U.S. for infringement and the penalty was ordered to be retaken. Marta scored on her second chance and the game went into extra-time.
In only the second minute of overtime, Marta scored again, seemingly winning the game for Brazil against the 10-woman U.S. side. Then began the scenes of play-acting by the Brazilians, lying on the ground for long lengths of time and feigning injuries to burn time off the clock and frustrate the Americans.
However, the U.S. dug deep and in the 122nd minute, Abby Wambach headed in a terrific service from Megan Rapinoe to force the game into penalties, which the U.S. won.
Several days later, the U.S. beat France in the semifinals to set up a final with Japan, who’s nation had been hit by a devastating tsunami just four months earlier.
In the final, it was the U.S. who scored first, but Japan was able to force extra-time finding an equalizer with just nine minutes left.
In extra-time, the U.S. again struck first, only to have Homare Sawa once again guide the Japanese in a comeback, scoring with only three minutes left.
Japan won the ensuing penalty shootout and became world champions.
Following the tournament, Sundhage reorganized the U.S. into a 4-2-3-1. Surprisingly, Alex Morgan was still not a regular starter for the squad at this point, and the switch in formation made that even more unlikely with Abby Wambach the preferred choice up top.
However, in the final game of Olympic qualifying against Canada, Sundhage brought the U.S. back into a 4-4-2 and, finally, brought Morgan into the starting XI.
In the 2012 Olympic tournament, the U.S. seemed destined to return to their rightful place atop the women’s footballing world, dominating in group play and surviving a tricky extra-time contest against an inspired Canadian side in the semifinals—a game won on Morgan’s spectacular header in the 123rd minute of play.
The U.S. would go on to beat Japan in the final on two goals from 2008 Olympic hero Carli Lloyd, who had been dropped from the starting lineup just prior to the tournament—she regained her spot when Shannon Boxx was injured in the first game of the tournament.
Following the U.S.’ win at the 2012 Olympics, Pia Sundhage announced that she would be stepping down from the U.S. job to take over as head coach of her native Sweden. Sundhage finished with an impressive 91-6-10 record and had the second-highest winning percentage and second-highest win total in the program’s history (Tony DiCicco holds the top spot in both categories).
U.S. Soccer announced Tom Sermanni as Sundhage’s replacement and, so far, things appear to be in good hands. Sermanni is already 6-0-2 with the team and, with a host of new talent, recently guided the team to the 2013 Algarve Cup.
In addition to its unbelievable past, the U.S. appears to be heading into a still-bright future.
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