Mia Hamm Talks USWNT, World Cup, Mallory Pugh, Frito-Lay and More in B/R Interview

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured Columnist IVDecember 13, 2022

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 07: Mia Hamm of the 1999 United States Women's National Team waves to fans during halftime at Banc of California Stadium on April 07, 2019 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)
Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

The future is bright for the United States men's national team despite a round-of-16 loss in the 2022 World Cup.

Just ask arguably the greatest American soccer player in history.

"I look at the spine of the team, and we had some incredible performances that we can build on," Mia Hamm told Bleacher Report. "SergiΓ±o Dest and Tyler Adams and Christian Pulisic stepped up. The team is so young, and I think they learned a lot about themselves. I think they learned a lot about competing at that level and in that intense environment where they're being asked to carry the load. That's going to serve them well in four years, and with the experience that they gained, they already want more as a team."

It isn't difficult to envision this young and talented group taking another step when they host the World Cup in four years. The defense allowed a single goal during group play against the likes of England, Wales and Iran, and Pulisic scored a memorable goal before exiting with an injury against the latter, helping the United States secure its spot in the knockout stage.

FOX Soccer @FOXSoccer

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Still, the defense that shined in the first three games failed in a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands in the round of 16. It lost track of markers on multiple crosses, which proved costly when the offense couldn't take advantage of their own chances on the other side.

"They left that tournament feeling that they could have and should have advanced had they played better," Hamm said. "You look at the Netherlands game in terms of possession, and the U.S. had their opportunities. They're stepping away proud of their accomplishments but knowing that they can achieve more. Which is what you want as a coach, as a team and as a fan."

That opportunity to achieve more is still on the table for Argentina, France, Croatia and Morocco in a World Cup that has featured no shortage of storylines.

Lionel Messi, who is arguably the greatest men's soccer player of all time, is trying to win the one glaring thing missing from his legacy for Argentina while Croatia attempts to play spoiler. Elsewhere, Kylian MbappΓ© is leading France in their defense of the title and dazzling every time he takes the field.

Yet Morocco is stealing the show as the underdog and first African nation to advance to the event's semifinals after stunning Portugal in the quarterfinals and ending any chance of a GOAT showdown in the final between Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi.

B/R Football @brfootball

Morocco making history at the World Cup is being celebrated all over the world πŸ‡²πŸ‡¦ <a href="https://t.co/0MaKQVojId">pic.twitter.com/0MaKQVojId</a>

"Seeing Morocco and what they've been able to accomplish," Hamm said when asked what her favorite storyline of this World Cup has been. "It's history as the first African nation to make the semis. I think it's important to celebrate that. I've been involved with FIFA talking about developing the game, and this is what you want to see. I look at this as positive with regards to its association with the women's game. You keep putting funds and resources into development, and these are the dreams that can come true. Our commitment on the women's side is important, especially with the women's World Cup coming up next year, and seeing how it can change people's lives like it has for the Morocco national team."

Few people know more about seeing athletic dreams come true than Hamm, who retired from professional soccer in 2004 as an icon and one of the most influential figures in the sport's history.

Her seemingly endless list of accomplishments includes two World Cup titles, two Olympic gold medals, four straight NCAA Division I Women's Soccer Championship titles at North Carolina and two FIFA Women's Player of the Year awards.

She was elected to the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2007, which was her first year of eligibility, and was a founding member of the Women United Soccer Association and eventual champion in the league for the Washington Freedom.

Yet she finds herself reflecting back on more than just the victories and accolades as she watches the 2022 World Cup.

"Just the time we were able to have as teammates in the hotel because you spend a lot of time in this bubble," she said. "You're trying to find ways to entertain yourselves but also not use up too much of that anxious energy. Whether it was doing funny skits or playing games and cards, just really getting to know each other better and growing closer as a team because you needed that to get you through the tournaments.

"It's easy to be a positive teammate when things are going really well, but how do you handle that adversity? Knowing those players are there by your side willing to carry you when you struggle, you were able to lean into those moments in the hotel."

She was recently part of a different team off the field when she joined David Beckham, Peyton Manning, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain, Tim Howard and Javier "Chicharito" HernΓ‘ndez in a Frito-Lay commercial attempting to settle the debate of whether the sport is called soccer or football.

"First of all, their commitment to supporting the game of soccer or football," she said when discussing what made her want to do the commercial. "And also the light-hearted way they took on this playful discussion. It's the global game, but here in the US we like to think we invented everything. And also who was in it with Peyton and Becks and, obviously, Jules and Brandi, and Tim Howard and Chicharito. It just sounded like a lot of fun, and I was honored to be a part of this crew."

The star power didn't stop there, as legendary filmmaker Michael Bay directed the spot.

"I don't know why he hasn't called me up since, maybe my acting wasn't as good as I had hoped it would be," Hamm said while laughing. "He was great. He kept it efficient, and the entire crew and all the actors were amazing. They made it really comfortable, and I just had a lot of fun doing it."

Football may have won out this time with the USMNT's exit in the round of 16, but the United States women's national team will have the opportunity to earn a victory for those who call it soccer during the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

The Red, White and Blue will be going for a historic three-peat after winning the World Cup in 2015 and 2019. While Germany also went back-to-back in 2003 and 2007, no women's team has ever won the event three times in a row.

U.S. Women's National Soccer Team @USWNT

Step One: β˜‘οΈ<br><br>WE'VE QUALIFIED FOR THE 2023 <a href="https://twitter.com/FIFAWWC?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@FIFAWWC</a>!!!! <a href="https://t.co/jUSgovQcrx">pic.twitter.com/jUSgovQcrx</a>

It won't be easy for a team that Hamm said will get every opponent's "best shot" when they are on the field.

"There are teams internationally that are playing so well," she said. "We wanted the game to get to this level where teams aren't afraid of anyone. You have Spain playing the way they have, you have England, you have Germany and Japan. All these teams at any given moment, and the host countries in Australia and New Zealand are going to be fired up and ready to compete. Australia has one of the best players in the world in Sam Kerr. I know they're putting every resource in to make sure they're ready."

Tragically, one of soccer's top voices will not be there to cover the Americans' push for history.

Reporter Grant Wahl died while covering the World Cup quarterfinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands in Qatar. Wahl was the gold standard for soccer coverage throughout a career that included stops at Sports Illustrated, Fox Sports and CBS Sports, and his coverage of the women's game was particularly important to Hamm and many others.

"I would like to take the time to say thank you to Grant Wahl and everything he's meant to our game and our sport," Hamm said. "Especially the women's game. Early on, he gave our team and our sport a platform. He came out and watched the WUSA Finals, he talked to the players, he was involved with the women's national team. And he's been such a staunch advocate for us and for the game of soccer. He came in at a time when nobody wanted to cover women's soccer, and he just shined a really bright light on it. We're in this position we're in today with our game because of him. I just want to say thank you to him and offer my heartfelt condolences to his wife and his family and his colleagues who love him so much."

Nobody will be able to tell the stories like Wahl, but they will still be told during the 2023 World Cup.

Many of those stories when it comes to the success of the United States in women's soccer have been about the major stars, whether it is Hamm, Michelle Akers, Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and so many others.

Some of the names such as Morgan, Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan will be familiar ones in 2023, but there is also a potential shift underway to a new generation of stars who could carry the Americans to more World Cup glory.

A couple of them in particular stand out to Hamm.

"Let's just talk about Mal Pugh," she said. "I can't imagine the expectations she had coming out of college. I mean, she didn't even really go to college. I think she went to college for three weeks and was like, 'You know what, I think I'm going to try this pro thing.' It's hard when everyone is asking you to carry the load and you have yet to deal with failure. I think for her, it shows how strong and resilient she is.

"But when I see her play, the joy on her face is what excites me about her future. I'm really excited to watch her play next summer."

U.S. Women's National Soccer Team @USWNT

"I think not making the Olympics was one of the best things that could happen to my career."<br><br>Adversity allowed <a href="https://twitter.com/MalPugh?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@MalPugh</a> to find her game again πŸ“ˆ<br><br>πŸŽ₯ The Journey Β» <a href="https://t.co/BRUCJ2K8bO">https://t.co/BRUCJ2K8bO</a> <a href="https://t.co/YGdr6EweUm">pic.twitter.com/YGdr6EweUm</a>

Pugh, who left UCLA after three spring games to turn professional in 2017, was part of the 2019 team that won the World Cup but figures to be much more prominently involved in the attack in 2023.

The 24-year-old and Catarina Macario each scored braces in the Americans' victory over Iceland to win the 2022 SheBelieves Cup. Pugh is playing some of the best soccer of her career and could be a Golden Boot candidate next year if that continues.

Macario, 23, may be as well if she returns to health after suffering a torn ACL while playing for Lyon in June.

"I want to see if Macario can come back," Hamm said. "She's a special player. As a forward, I wish I had her savvy and understanding at that age. Sometimes I willed goals in rather than being mindful of using the right surface or making the right run. But she is just so sophisticated at a young age. I would love to see her next summer just because I think she has so much exciting soccer to share with us."

And if everything goes according to plan, the USWNT will have a third straight and fifth overall World Cup title to share with soccer fans across the country.