Once upon a time, there were the ’99ers. The team that beat China after playing to a 0-0 scoreless tie after 120 minutes. Not much needs to be recounted here, as this team was seared into our national consciousness. That special team did more for women’s and girls’ sports, soccer itself (the game, not simply women’s soccer) and national pride in the sports arena than perhaps any team or individual or law in our history. The only two comparable names that come to mind are Billie Jean King and Title IX. This is not to dis- anyone else, but in 1999 the nation was focused on this ‘wholesome’ young team, with a senior or two in terms of the sport (Michelle Akers, Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck, the latter two players with young children in tow, the original “soccer moms” only they played the sport at the highest level and had children too!). The names that resonate are Mia (need not add “Hamm”) and Brandi Chastain, who became more than the others the public face of the team, especially Brandi after the now iconic photograph that is sports history. If you don’t know it, you probably shouldn’t be reading this. 🙂 Kristine Lilly was the energizer bunny of the team, playing for years beyond ’99, leading the team into the future and tying it to the present time. Julie Foudy, however, is the player who has become the spokesperson for the ’99ers over time, the analyst, the one who could have become a physician (and chose soccer over medical school), the Stanford alum who became the natural leader and living historian for the team that captured millions of hearts in the Summer of ’99. (Julie was scratched for Brandi to take the final PK in ’99.) The FIFA World Cup final between the U.S. and China, July 10th, 1999, played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, was the most-attended women’s sports event in history with an official attendance of 90,185.
Fast forward first to 2011. Welcome largely a new team, a 21st century team of young women, many who were inspired by the ’99ers (current forward Alex Morgan was 10 years old in ’99). A team led by perhaps the greatest player in at least U.S. women’s soccer history, Abby Wambach, a 2X Olympic gold medalist (2004 and 2012), seeking her first World Cup title ever (before she retires from the game this year) and the first USWNT World Cup title since ’99. The team fell short against Japan after an exciting 120 minutes leading to penalty kicks. Unlike the magical victory against China in PKs in 1999 where goalie Brianna Scurry came up with a big save followed by a perfect left footer by Brandi to seal the victory and hoist the Cup, the Magic was not to be in 2011, and the USA had to accept a second place finish.
Now is the time. Today is the day. Four years later a slightly different team, still with a core of players including Wambach, Morgan, Carli Lloyd (arguably the player destined for the Golden Ball should the USA prevail tonight), stalwart and yet embattled off the field goalie Hope Solo, tough as nails, controversial and determined, arguably the most exciting player on the pitch, Megan Rapinoe, as well as a team deep in talent at all positions. Relative unknowns have come on this year to dazzle us, including defenders Julie Johnston and Meghan Klingenberg, it would take a tome to adequately describe each player’s role and importance to the team. Needless to say, they appear to be peaking at the right time. The Cup is not on home turf this time but it is as close as possible, in Vancouver, B.C. in Canada. The US will have the crowd on its side on Canadian soil.
Coach Jill Ellis has been expert in dealing with a relentless media and criticism from all social media megaphones, including from former superstar Michelle Akers and I wonder why she would strike so hard at the current coach if there weren’t something from the past under her skin. The US team did not dazzle in Group Play, but exited on top and unscathed and have been improving ever since. The two games leading to this date, July 5th, 2015, have not been perfect but there has been exceptional play against first China then Germany to advance to the Rematch with Japan. Carli Lloyd may have emerged as the “star” of this team, scoring when needed and making superb plays to set up key goals; however, that is only what the fans see at the end of the play. It takes an entire team moving the ball down the astroturf pitch (for another blog) from Solo to Kelley O’Hara’s beautiful touch.
There is one more match left to play, and I would not be surprised if this match shatters all viewing records. The difference between ’99 and ’15, however, is that viewers indeed had fewer sports options and consumers had not yet started cutting the cable cord and moved from television to internet viewing. However measured, I predict that the nation with be tuned in on the 5th of July, 2015 much as they were on July 10th, 1999. And, when the game is over and if (or when?) the USWNT is able to achieve its only goal, a World Cup victory, the next generation of young soccer players, boys and girls, will be speaking about the ’15ers for years to come.
Countdown to Kickoff.