I remember it well. Whoever she was she had kicked with force and power. The ball was cold, heavy and full of water. Chances are it was late fall or early spring and the minute it hit the inside of my thigh it stung like nothing I had experienced until that point. Half a lifetime later I still have a “Y” impression from the seams of that soccer ball stitching on my thigh. I can honestly say I still feel that sting when I catch sight of that blue veined pattern.
One of the only longer lasting impressions in my life is what the women of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team taught me. Even though I somehow knew it instantly, it took me a long time to realize their full impact on me as a young athlete.
Last month when Carli Lloyd scored her 100th international goat she was the next in a long line to make USWNT history. Those of us who are familiar with Carli were not at all surprised that she used her head to do it. That goal ties her with Tiffeny Milbrett for 5th place all-time in US Women’s soccer history.
I love U.S. Womens Soccer.
I have since I was in my mid-teens. I was the prime target audience when USWNT fever swept the nation during the 1999 World Cup. I was 14 and had just transitioned from playing on a fairly recreational team that was coached by my dad to trying out for a “premiere” (as we called it) or “travel” team. Because of the date of my birthday, I had grown up playing with girls who were in the grade below me but now I was about to enter high school and had a strong desire to play with girls in my own grade. Puberty is hard enough. I just wanted to be surrounded by girls in my own grade as I was about to make a huge adolescent transition.
Soccer is the most played amateur sport in the US and I was a decent player. Probably slightly above average for the normal ROYSA rec leagues but unlike many of future teammates I knew it wouldn’t take me further than the high school level. Regardless I still had a desire to make a step up to the next level as had many of my former Cheetah/Storm(I’m responsible for both team names) teammates before me. So I tried out and I made the team! What I lacked in natural talent I made up for in determination, hard work, and knowledge of the game. My skill was the mental part of the game.
I love soccer. It’s physical. It’s graceful. It’s mental. It’s powerful. And it’s fun. What I had already known was about to be known by the entire country.
Girls can play. And they can win.
The USWNT had already been winning up until that point, it’s just that no one had really known about it. They played their inaugural game on August 18th, 1985. A mere 11 days after I was born. (11 is my favorite number btw) Like I said……perfect target.
The women who made up this team were part of the first wave of Title IX’ers who grew with the opportunity to play sports they had not necessarily had access to before. Most of them still played with boys. Because that’s where most of the opportunities still occurred. Things were about to change though.
When I first started playing myself at age 5 I was on a co-ed team but within a few years, I had moved to an all girls league. Unbeknownst to me at the time I never had to grow up in a world where I couldn’t play any sport that I wanted to. There’s pro’s and con’s to both.
Playing with boys teaches you how to take a hit, fall down, and get back up fighting even harder. Playing with girls gives you a sisterhood you can’t find anywhere else. It gives you nights of running up and down hotel hallways playing practical jokes and making giant beds of mismatched pillows and sleeping bags and belly laughs. (sorry to those hotel guests we un-intentionally terrorized during our tournament trips). Playing with girls also teaches you that aren’t this fragile creature that society can want to trap you into.
As part of my try-out for the Cobras was being invited to come play in a tournament 2 hours away in Saginaw, MI to see how I would cope in a real game situation. When I got there 1 girl was already in a neck brace. In the first game, I watched my future teammates play another girl went up for a header and came down and landed in a funny position and got taken off the field in a neck brace. If memory serves me correctly by the time we left 2 days later 3 girls were either in neck braces or had some sort of head/neck injury. We all bonded over breakfast at Bob Evans on the way home in a tradition I was new to.
Nothing was fragile about these girls. They were unlike any competitors I had seen until that point.
My first week after having officially made the team my mom surprised me with a trip to Chicago to see the USWNT play in the first round of the ’99 Womens World Cup. All I got was a card saying to pack a bag with enough clothes for a weekend but no idea where I was headed. However, I was worried that I would miss out on essential team bonding time and establishing myself amongst a group of girls that I wasn’t all that familiar with.
We got on a train and (luckily) for my friend Chelsea as she was about to spoil the destination the train conductor did it for her. She had figured out where we were headed before me and I’m pretty convinced my mom may have actually caused her physical harm if she had spoiled the surprise instead of the train conductor.
Our seats were high up but at the end we had a chance to go all the way down to the field level and watch them take their victory lap after they crushed Nigeria 7-1. I was hooked.
Other than some brief exposure to the WNBA and the ’96 womens gymnastics team no other womens team sport had succeeded to the level on a national stage that the ‘99ers were about to and eventually set the stage for their own professional league.
I saved every and any article I could my hands on. I put them in plastic sheet protectors. I changed my AIM screen name to FoudyFan11.I submitted a question to be answered by Kristine Lilly in Sports Illustrated and got picked. I still have all of them. The only thing I don’t have anymore is my shirt from that world cup. It got lost in the laundry and I still really am not ready to talk about it.
What I came back to from that trip was a 3-year sisterhood that I never saw coming. Playing soccer helped me build bridges I would never otherwise had. Much like the theater community I grew up in I was able to make friends with people I might never have interacted had we not played together.
When the notification of Carli scoring her 100th goal popped up on my phone it naturally got to me thinking about my favorite USWNT players of all time. Not shockingly many of them come from that ’99 team and they are mostly mid-fielders and defenders (which are the positions I spent most of my life playing).
Full disclaimer..these are my FAVORITE players. Not necessarily who I think were the best ones.
Julie Foudy-“Loudy Foudy” as she was called either captained or co-captained the team during her tenure. She was the joker and an anchor in the center midfield. She never took herself too seriously and seemed to have this sense of what it took to break the tension of super stressful moments for her teammates. She also had the second best hair on the team next to Mufasa (I’ll get to her in a few). I’m still jealous of her hair. She’s a magnet for good energy and the reason 11 is my favorite number. (ironic that I started writing this on the 11th, no?)
Kristine Lilly– The most capped and 3rd highest scorer in team history. Her tenure with the team is only a decade short of the actual teams history itself. She worked quietly but always skillfully and let’s be honest, her head saved the US from defeat in 99. She reminded me of myself as a player.
Carli Lloyd-Another anchor in the midfield and the current co-captain and face of the team between Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. To me she basically Foudy 2.0 but with a slightly more refined head and foot. There is a quiet resilience to her. Plus that head of hers has magical powers. And the golden boots.
Abby Wambach-I was initially skeptical when Abby came onto the scene. She was billed as “the next Mia Hamm” and ambassador of Womens soccer in the US. I wasn’t ready to move on from the miracle run and shockwaves that the ‘99ers had sent through the nation. But I’ll be the first to admit when I am wrong. I got choked up when she ran up and kissed her wife and I visibly cried when she held the American flag over her head as she finally won her first World Cup. I SOBBED on the N Train in between 39th ave and Queensboro plaza and when she said “Forget Me.” She was exactly the bridge we needed. Thank you, Abby. Always.
Shannon MacMillan-Nicknamed the “Super Sub” the girl could take some serious set plays. She was small but mighty. She could also play every position. Except for maybe goalie, but in a pinch, I have a hunch that she would be like “sure I’ll try it” when pressed. Much like Kristine Lilly she was the kind of player I always wanted to be. Speaking of number love she’s the reason for my love of the number 8.
Megan Rapinoe-On the subject of set plays.…homegirl is savage at them. She might be the wing midfielder I secretly hoped to be. She can score and defend in a matter of moments, execute a set play and throw a sick throw in. And in this murky political climate, she makes no bones about who she is and what she is and isn’t willing to stand up for.
Christie (Pearce) Rampone-Ok so this one was probably an easy draw in based on the last (maiden) name alone, even if it is a different spelling. She would go on to captain the team and currently ranks 2nd in Caps. And following Joy Fawcett’s lead was a defensive anchor after having 2 kids.
Michelle Akers-“Mufasa” She was the original Queen(I know Mufasa was king blah blah blah) With hair and a head that rivaled (fictional) royalty she was the beast of the founding team. She was statuesque and had maybe the best hair in National Team history. She also charged literally head first into every game. Remember the time she knocked herself out on a header, had an IV put in and was still begging to be put back in the game??
It reminds me of that time, (on a much smaller scale), that I had my tooth knocked out during a high school game and wanted so badly to get back in to have my payback but my coaches were smart and knew that wouldn’t be a good idea because I was never feisty unless provoked. And may the odds be ever in your favor if you stirred that beast. She was a vindictive lady. We both were. Plus her hair still looks the same. She’s similar to one of my aunts in that way.
Mia Hamm-I know, you might be asking yourself…how is the most prolific and popular player in all of USWNT history so far down your list? Here’s why…..I’m not and never have been a huge fan of #1’s. Maybe because I was always a #2 or #3? This was a slow burn for me. I actually became a bigger fan of hers once she stopped playing. I love her community outreach. And her backstory of her and her brother. Plus she’s still probably the most recognizable name in womens soccer so I can always give respect where respect is due. And she deserves the utmost respect. She’s the anti-hero. She never wanted the attention that her skills warranted but she got it anyway. Once she stopped playing she was willing to put herself out there a little more. I mean she is the only female owner in MLS. Just saying…
Cindy Parlow-When I first started watching the USWNT make it’s initial historic run my favorite number was 12. Cindy was tall and blonde and wore the number 12 and much like Michelle Akers had a head with a laser pointer on it. She was probably, for whatever the reason, the player who initially sucked me in in the first place. I might have changed my number love later on but you never forget your first love.
Honorable Mentions go out to these current/future/former players -Moe Brian, Kelley O’Hara, Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett, Kate Sobrero, Shannon Boxx, Alex Morgan, and Mallory Pugh. They have also had or will have their own impacts on the sport.
No matter which way you slice it the USWNT and Womens soccer has been one of the most influential sports movements of the last 30 years. They have been able to connect and unite the country in a way that the mens team hasn’t, especially in a country where mens team sports are such a dominating force in practically every other team sport.
I LOVE that women can and still empower each other to be better and stronger together, especially in sports. The Cobras, the Cheetahs, the Storm, and the USWNT have always and will hopefully always show me that we are stronger together than we are apart. In this day and age that is and will hopefully continue to be a powerful message.
Much like any team we came from every kind of economic and sometimes ethnic background as you could assemble in a suburb of a major city. We were a group of young women coming into our own. But we were there for each other in a way that only a strong and resilient group of girls could only provide. We were there for the awkward years.
So, thank you to the other 3 Katie’s and a Kat. Thank you to the Lyndsey’s, Megan’s, Rachel’s, Noura’s, Courtney’s, Chelsea’s, Tara’s, Julia’s , Lauren’s, Erin’s, and all those other girls with overly common 80’s and 90’s names, who helped make the journey from girlhood to womanhood a little less painful.
Thank you for saying hello in our high school hallways when you had no other reason to, and coming together by wearing our team jerseys or sweats together on a game day. And noticing that we could still be similar but different.
Weirdly enough when my sophomore year of high school rolled around both the teammates of my childhood and my now early adolescence combined and we went onto be an undefeated JV team. It was a truly special moment of everything I had been familiar with and everything that was new and exciting.(It was also special because I got a tooth knocked out that season.)
And they say soccer isn’t a contact sport?!
The impact and the bond we had at the influential time of life still lasts to today even though we have all gone many different directions. We’ve grown up. Much like the women we(or, at least, I) idolized many of us have gotten married and some have had children. (How did we grow up so much in the process of writing one article?) But, I’m pretty sure if you asked any other girl who played a team sport they would say that they had those feelings at one time or another.
Thank you also to every woman who paved the way and fought for us. We would not be here if it weren’t for you. And shout out to the soccer moms who not only shuttled us to every practice and game, but were inspired by our love of the sport and who found the love of the game later in life but didn’t have the privileges we had and are still are “Alive and Kicking.” We will always get back in the game because of you.
(BTW Cobra teammates I still have my kids size large warmup pants, indoor green screen shifted t-shirt, tournament shirts, and green Adidas bag complete with that weird squeaky noise where the strap met the bag. I did, however, lose the jacket. Again still sad about that one too).