Since the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, the USWNT has had a major impact
(LR) Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy celebrate during the ‘Fan Celebration Tour’ final against Mexico December 8, 2004 in Carson, California.
“We were always told, no, you can’t do that,” Gabarra explained. “You can’t play sports, you can’t wear these clothes, you can’t be an athlete, you can’t. We all grew up in that time where we were told, no, no, no, no. We had to fight back for anything we wanted.
“My high school football team only started a year before I went to high school, and there were very few college teams. If we wanted something, we had to make it happen. So we had this burning desire that came out of the adversity we went through together.”
The USWNT won their first World Championship title ever, beating favored Norway 2-1 in the final. Michelle Akers-Stahl won the Golden Boot for most goals scored in the tournament (10) and Gabarra received the Golden Ball for best player.
1996 Olympic Games & 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup
Five years later, women’s soccer made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Although the finals were not televised, the USWNT put on a show and defeated China 2-1. The Olympic gold medal established the USWNT as a force to watch.
When the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup took place – back on home soil – the fans were ready.
Members of the team recalled getting stuck in traffic en route to Giants Stadium in New Jersey for their opening game against Denmark. It suddenly dawned on them that the traffic jam was being caused by all the fans trying to get to the game. Almost 79,000 people packed the stadium that day – a record for attendance at a women’s sporting event. They watched Team USA beat Denmark 3-0 with goals scored by Hamm, Foudy and Lilly.
Three weeks later, 90,185 people packed the Rose Bowl to watch the women’s final, USA vs. China. The scoreless match ended in penalties, with Brandi Chastain giving the USWNT a 5-4 lead.
The 1999 World Cup “set the standard for what a women’s sporting event should be like,” Foudy said.
Equally important, the USWNT set the standard for future US women’s soccer. And they became a role model for women’s sport in general.
Impact on USWNT
Many of the women who had become household names since the 1999 World Cup continued to play with the USWNT. Although Gabarra retired from the national team in 1996, Hamm, Foudy and Chastain retired in 2004; Lilly in 2010 etc. As the years they continued to play, they inspired the next generation of young gamers who found more and more opportunities to play.
When Hamm was inducted into the US Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame in June 2022, some current members of the USWNT shot a short video to show it during the induction.
The first speaker was Becky Sauerbrunn, the 37-year-old defender who has competed in three World Cups and two Olympic tournaments and made her debut on the U-16 women’s national team in 2000.
“I think I can speak for everyone when I say that you are a role model and an inspiration for all of us,” Sauerbrunn said of Hamm.
“They’re also on all of our personal Mt. Rushmores,” added Megan Rapinoe, who wrote her own legacy on football’s Wall of Fame. “None of us would literally be here without you.”
Rapinoe was named to the U-20 women’s national team in 2003 and the senior team in 2006. She was awarded both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball at the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2019 and won her second Olympic medal in 2020.
Sauerbrunn is the current USWNT captain and played against Canada in the 2022 Concacaf Finals. Rapinoe – also 37 – replaced 24-year-old forward Mallory Pugh in the semi-finals and was included in the team for her winning mentality and experience. Ten players of the Concacaf team are under 26 years old.
But the newer players don’t just learn from the USWNT veterans. They’re trying to uphold the legacy of the World Championship and Olympic gold medalists of the 1990s.
“They created a legacy early on that sparked that drive and that willingness to fight and it just got woven into the DNA of this team,” said 26-year-old midfielder Andi Sullivan ahead of the 2022 Concacaf semi-final game against Costa Rica. Sullivan played for the senior team in her first Concacaf tournament.
“We realize that we’re in the situation we’re in because they laid the groundwork for us years and years and years ago,” Sullivan continued. “So we have a great weight on our shoulders that we want to honor and then we want to pass that on to the next generation. It’s a big part of this team’s values and what we strive to live every day.”
Mia Hamm poses for a photo at the 2022 US Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame Red Carpet Event on June 24, 2022 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Impact on US Soccer
The influence of the USWNT on girls’ and women’s soccer in this country almost goes without saying. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is now well established with 12 teams. At the NCAA level, the United States has 333 Division I women’s soccer teams — more than the few that existed when Hamm, Foudy, and others played in the 1980s. And at youth level, there are over 3 million registered players in the US – 89 percent more than in 1990.
“There are so many more opportunities for young girls to play at different levels in different environments,” commented Foudy Hamm on her podcast. Both women have daughters and have run camps and programs for children.
The reason for this growth?
Maybe it’s because the USWNT made the sport look cool. And acceptable. They helped show that girls can be athletes, but also anything else they would like to be.
“Women athletes are celebrated, they’re no different now,” Gabarra said.
“The game has evolved because there are so many people playing now and the coaches are spectacular and have a football background. They’ve played the game and they’re invested in it and they study it and they have careers in it. When I was growing up, there was never anything like it.”
Gabarra, Foudy and Hamm all have daughters and they have witnessed the growth of girls’ football and women’s sport in general in the 21st century.
“I have two daughters and they can do whatever sport they want,” Gabarra said.
Impact on women’s sport
The USWNT has not only inspired footballers.
Before the USWNT flew to Mexico for the 2022 Concacaf W Championship, 2018 Olympic downhill skier Alice Merryweather watched them play a “friendly” game against Colombia in Utah in late June. Shortly after the US Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade picked it up, Merryweather was cheered. For years she has been particularly inspired by how the USWNT works for women’s rights: gender equality and unequal pay.
“It was so impressive to see them, to watch them do what they do so well,” said Merryweather. “I left this game feeling so strong.”
Merryweather, 25, grew up near Boston and was a fan of the Boston Breakers team (originally part of the Women’s United Soccer Association, now an NWSL team). Lilly was a founder of the team, and Merryweather recalls watching Lilly play her other heroine, Mia Hamm, in a match in the early 2000s.
“I was such a big fan of theirs,” she said.
Alpine skiing was her primary sport, but Merryweather also played soccer on her school and club teams, and she looked up to these female sports heroes.
“They normalized the idea that women could be badass athletes,” she said. “I saw them as strong athletes, strong athletes. They were my idols. I didn’t see them any differently because they were women.”
Looking back over 30 years, Gabarra had no idea how she and the other women of USWNT would influence a generation of female athletes. She just felt honored to be part of the team.
“It’s a privilege to be a part of something bigger and to succeed and have the ability to fight for others who don’t have the same platform,” Gabarra said. “I was always very grateful for this opportunity.”