Four years ago, the United States women's national team (USWNT) played one last match against Mexico as a warm-up for the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany. The match took place at Red Bull Arena, a true modern soccer stadium only a PATH ride away from New York City that can fit 25,000 people at capacity. The women's team had their struggles to even make it to the World Cup, losing to this same Mexico team 1-0 in their qualifiers and had to win a playoff against Italy to claim the last spot, so buzz around this team was minimal at best.
I was at that match, my first-ever time watching the USWNT play in front of me. I've been a fan since the mid-90s, but my fandom didn't grow until the start of this decade, partly because I started to find people who loved the team as much as I did. After watching the match (a US 1-0 win after a late goal by Lauren Holiday), I couldn't help feeling if people still cared.
5,852 people showed up. Just a little more than 1/5th the capacity of the arena.
Four years later, on the tail end of their celebrations after winning their third World Cup, the USWNT was greeted with a crowd up and down the Canyon of Heroes on Broadway, looking like this.
Thousands upon thousands lining up the street and the media going crazy reporting the parade. This all coming after the US final against Japan broke TV rating records across the board and a warm-up match series that saw three straight sell-outs in the matches prior to the World Cup, including, yes, Red Bull Arena, which drew 26,467 people in the last warm-up match.
From half-empty stadiums to the Canyon of Heroines, how did we get here?
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I could regale you all with the storied history of the team: their first international match in 1985 (a 1-0 loss to Italy), the struggles of funding from the US soccer federation, the 1991 world championship win and how the media decided not to give it full coverage. I could even start with the 1999 team (also known as the 99ers) and the impact those women have had on soccer here in the US in numerous ways, but that's been covered to death in the last 16 years.
In fact, the shadow of the 99ers has fallen on this team and every team following 1999 in every move they make. The outdated tactics used, focusing on physicality and athleticism, rather than creativity and procession of the ball, relying too much on players who may have lost a step or two while young, skilled players are waiting in the wings, and clinging onto coaches who are steeped in the tradition of the past, instead of modern coaches skilled in the evolution of the game are all signs of the 99ers' shadow. The biggest demonstration of this was shown in the 2007 Women's World Cup semifinal, when then-coach Greg Ryan decided to beach his starting goalie Hope Solo (who got three World Cup clean sheets up to that point) in favor of the 99er Briana Scurry, 36 years old and hadn't played a competitive match in three months.
The game went as you could have predicted: a 4-0 Brazil win. Solo then spoke her infamous words in an interview that caused her to get shunned by the veterans and old-guard on and off the team:
"And the fact of the matter is it's not 2004 anymore. It's not 2004. And it's 2007, and I think you have to live in the present. And you can't live by big names. You can't live in the past. It doesn't matter what somebody did in an Olympic gold medal game in the Olympics three years ago. Now is what matters, and that's what I think."
Honestly, watching the USWNT play early on in the World Cup, I almost felt like Hope. The shadow felt hard on the team, focusing their scoring efforts through the legendary Abby Wambach, who started her international career two years after the 1999 World Cup win and is one of the best women soccer players ever. She has also lost a step and struggled to keep up with the pace of the game, even as the team tried feeding her the ball to help her score. Head coach Jill Ellis also used the same 4-4-2, focusing attacking midfielders like Carli Lloyd to play a holding defensive midfielder position and forwards like Christen Press as a flank midfielder. Those group game matches along with the Columbia Round-of-16 game were all painful to watch.
However, as the games got more meaningful and the pressure was on, the USWNT didn't bend or break as they had the last three World Cups before. This US team, I saw something... different. This team did as much as they could to escape from the 99ers' shadow and to carve their own legacy.
Yes, part of it was Jill Ellis finally waking up, taking Abby out of the starting eleven, putting the super-talented 22-year-old Morgan Brian as a holding midfielder, and putting Carli Lloyd higher on the pitch to give her more scoring opportunities. Part of it came from the players themselves. The back-line of Ali Krieger, Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Julie Johnson helped provide an incredible backline that made it almost impossible to score (the USWNT only let up 3 goals the entire tournament [7 games]). Abby Wambach did her leading off the bench, encouraging the team with her words as well as she did with her actions previously.
The rest is history. The previously-misplaced Carli Lloyd ended up scoring a goal in the last three games of the World Cup, including her hat trick in the final, finishing it with one of the best goals I've ever witnessed.
In fact, when I watched her hat trick goal, I was at a host bar for the American Outlaws (national fan-supporter group) in Oakland. I was flanked on my sides by my girlfriend and numerous supporters from all over the Bay Area. When the ball hit the back of the net and in, I fell on the ground, laid on my back, and looked up at the ceiling, laughing and in shock.
That feeling of shock, of joy, of excitement, those feelings of exuberance and inspiration that brought those thousands to New York City on Friday, those aren't unique feelings. We've felt them as a nation 16 years ago, when household names like Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain captured our hearts as a nation and the hearts of young girls all over. But those feelings are now theirs, the 15ers, as they are now called. Those feelings those young girls felt in 1999 are the same feelings 23 of those girls-turned-women are giving back to the nation and to young girls all over again. Girls, boys, and even women and men (like, um, me) are wearing and want to become like our new household names: Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, and many more.
The 99ers had their legacy. Now, the 15ers have their own legacy and their own shadow to build. As a fan, I can only hope that shadow is not one that is dark and brooding, but one that builds and evolves over time as the game evolves.
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As awesome as the World Cup win was, I can't pretend and say that everything is hunky-dory in regards to the state of the team
- As mentioned before, Jill Ellis made some head-scratching moves from the warm-up games up to the Quarterfinal game against China. With Wambach possibly retiring and other veterans considering their fates, the USWNT needs a coach who can adjust to the young talent waiting at the wings to join the team and make their own mark. Also, as the world continues to catch up to us in women's soccer, the same coach should understand how the modern game is being played and beat it all over again next year in the Olympics and in 2019 in France.
- Aside from Sydney Leroux and potentially Christen Press, the USWNT is made up of white women. I don't feel it's a race issue as much as it's a monetary issue. Girls who are talented enough to pay at a higher level can be recruited to play on travel teams and club teams, even as teenagers. Those teams aren't free, costing parents thousands of dollars. Club and travel teams can lead to some girls being picked for the U-20 and U-23 US teams, but to get to that stage, money does have a huge part to play in all of it, money that lower-income families may not have. Making soccer more accessible to girls and boys in all areas and cities/towns should be a major priority going forward, not for racial equality, but more for getting as much of the best talent as you can get.
- I'd be remiss if I didn't speak a little on the Hope Solo facing two misdemeanor counts of assault in the fourth degree. My thoughts are way too detailed for just a paragraph, but long story short, I feel US Soccer did a terrible job handling the situation. If the federation suspended Solo while the charges were being dealt with, the story would have been dropped once the charges were dropped in January. Now that the case is going back to court on a special appeal, the situation may do even more damage in the future.
- And of course, the state of the NWSL, which may change drastically if ticket sales continue to grow from the World Cup. Considering the failures of the last two women's soccer leagues in the US, it remains to be seen if the NWSL can overcome those same pitfalls and become a stronger league.
Regardless of these issues, the 23 women that represented our country in Canada this summer did an incredible job in showing what the best of our country can look like on a grand scale. These women has shown their humanity and, being a fan of many sports and teams, I feel the women handle themselves with a level of genuineness I rarely see in sports anymore.
Just like thousands of others, I was at the parade on Friday. The crowd was a lot more friendly than the 2008 NY Giants parade I went to and, yes, a lot less drunk people. My favorite moments at the parade were seeing how, despite being on top of the floats, the players did their best to acknowledge all their fans along the sides of the street. In fact, one of the players acknowledged me in a very cool way, which I wrote on my Tumblr here.
Being acknowledged by a few of the players left me feeling starstruck and pretty damn good that entire day and I'm a 27-year-old Puerto Rican male special education teacher who can't kick a soccer ball if his life depended on it. Imagine if you were a young girl or a young boy, watching these women kick butt and, while at the parade, one of them waved at you and smiled. Imagine if one of them answered a question you asked in Times Square or tweeted at them. That's possibly a life-changing experience for many young people growing up.
Hopefully, we can see that impact sooner than 16 years. Let's go, USWNT!