By Elisa Uccello
As disorganized and substandard as they were, something was born the day they played their first official match. A grind. A passion. A mentality that was nurtured and strengthened to transform those uncoordinated women into the best soccer team in the world.
On Friday evening, November 27th, the United States Women’s National Team returned to the field after a record 261 days without a single game. Remarkably, they were able to surpass all expectations.
The USWNT was precariously founded in 1985 by bringing together a group of girls who played for different college teams, handing down old uniforms from the men’s squad, and assembling them in a field for an amateur tournament in Italy. As disorganized and substandard as they were, something was born the day they played their first official match. A grind. A passion. A mentality that was nurtured and strengthened to transform those uncoordinated women into the best soccer team in the world.
In 1991, when, at last, FIFA organized an international cup for female soccer (that would later be recognized as the Women’s World Cup), the 23 American girls selected by coach Anthony DiCicco, all still in college, had to sew their uniforms by hand the day before departing to China. After outperforming all opponents and beating Norway 2-1 in the final, the United States lifted the first-ever FIFA women’s trophy and received 500 dollars as a reward. 500 dollars. That’s all they got for winning the freaking World Cup.
United States Women’s National Team holding world cup trophy, November 30th, 1991.
The 1995 World Cup wasn’t as up to scratch. Many vital players had to quit to get “real jobs” since women’s soccer didn’t pay the bills. In 1999, however, the U.S. volunteered to host the World Cup, and the players were ready to make the most out of it. They traveled around the country to every soccer clinic and camp to personally advertise and encourage people to attend their games. Their last matches before the WC had around 1,500 people. No one even knew their names. But it worked.
As they hopped onto the bus to head for the World Cup opening match, the streets were completely congested. At first, they wondered where all those people were going. Then they started getting worried that they would be late to their own game. But as soon as they looked out the window and realized that all those people, dressed in blue, red, and white, were actually there to support them, the hearts of those 23 young girls, who only played because they loved the game, started beating out of their chests. They won their group, then the quarter and semi-finals, and finally landed in Pasadena for the championship game against China. In a sold-out Rose Bowl stadium, with just over 90 thousand fans, the USWNT won their second star after a thrilling penalty shootout. That day, the 10th of July of 1999, is still marked as the most important date in the history of women’s soccer.
What those women did in that World Cup didn’t just show America the quality of their product. The packed Rose Bowl stadium was filled with young girls that went home that night, grabbed a ball and said, “This is what I want to do.” One of those girls was a 19-year-old Abby Wambach, who would later break the record for most international goals by man or woman. Another was 17-year-old Carli Lloyd, who clinched the USA’s 3rd star with a hattrick in the first half of the 2015 WC final. 14-year-old Megan Rapinoe, who won the Ballon D’or while leading a movement towards equal pay. 11-year-old Tobin Heath, who is considered the most skilled player in history. 10-year-old Alex Morgan, who was named to the All-Time Best XI. The 1999 World Champions inspired a generation of girls that now carry their legacy and the title of best women’s soccer team in history.
USWNT defender, Brandi Chastain, after scoring the last penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup final.
With twice as many stars as their heroes conquered, after claiming the trophy in 2015 and 2019, the USWNT started 2020 with high expectations. New coach Vlatko Andonovski led the team to eight wins in the first eight games of the year, winning the She Believes Cup and clinching their spot in the Olympics that were supposed to have happened this summer. However, when the final whistle blew on the 11th of March, 2020, the American players celebrated the 3-1 win without a clue of how long it would be until they could put their National Team jerseys on and step on the field to defend that badge once more.
COVID year, as we all know, was tragic and burdensome. As the United States watched the number of cases and deaths increase with poor response from the government, the soccer federation affirmed the inviability of uniting the 20-some players, spread around the country, to hold games or even training camps. So for seven months, the 4-star jerseys were stored in the closet. Some players played with the national league, others went abroad to get playing time in Europe, where the pandemic was more efficiently combated. In the end, the players that won the World Cup just last summer were dispersed throughout the globe.
Finally, this month, the US soccer federation arranged a friendly match that would be played after a very strict and controlled camp environment was established, and all the players were able to safely arrive at Utrecht. The game, evidently, was against the Netherlands; a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final. The world champion faced the European champion in a thrilling match this past Friday.
While expectations are always high for the USWNT, fans and reporters were considering that the team hadn’t been together for eight months while the Netherlands has met month in month out to participate in the European qualifiers. Dutch star, Vivianne Miedema, announced on Tuesday that she would not be a part of the roster due to a hip injury. Other than that, the team that reached the World Cup final and will defend the European title was complete.
As for the USWNT, some vital players were absent due to injuries, such as captains Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, and young prodigy Mal Pugh. Two university players were called, from Stanford and Florida State. Finally, one “long time, no see” Kristie Mewis got back in the roster after six years without a call-up, the longest interval this US team has ever seen. Mewis joined her younger sister, Sam, in the Netherlands for what would be her 16th appearance if she was to play. When she was taken off the team in 2014, she claims to have lost a lot of confidence and settled for being average. However, after coming back from an ACL injury last year, she made the most out of this abnormal season and helped the Houston Dash take home the Challenge Cup trophy, second place in the league fall series, held the record for most assists, and was elected most valuable player of the team. Her extraordinary performance earned her a call-up and she was able to, once again, defend her nation after almost 2500 days.
The game was scoreless for over half an hour, with the U.S. having many opportunities while the Dutch had trouble keeping possession. At the 40 minute mark, however, Man United forward Christen Press carried the ball past the midfield and passed it to Rose Lavelle. She took a good look at the goal from the top corner of the penalty area and shot it beautifully to open the score. 25-year-old Lavelle also scored the second goal against the Netherlands in the World Cup final last year, in a 2-0 win.
Kristie Mewis celebrating her goal against the Netherlands.
In the 61st minute, Lavelle herself was subbed off for Kristie Mewis. In a heartfelt moment, Mewis stepped on the field with a huge smile on her face. After 2500 days without having the opportunity to defend the badge, it only took 9 minutes for Mewis to receive the ball from Lynn Williams, dribble past the Dutch defense, and put it on the back of the net. As she turned around to celebrate, her sister Sam was the first one to embrace her. The narrator enthusiastically shouted, “WELCOME BACK KRISTIE MEWIS!” And what a comeback that was! In another 2-0 win over the Netherlands, the USWNT finished off the year on a high note. As coach Andonovski said in the post-game interview, “2020 was a tough year in many ways. But one thing that didn’t change and will never change with this team is the heart and the mind.” With that, the mentality that was nurtured since the first match in 1985, continues to serve as the basis of the program that assures the USA women’s soccer team is the very best in the world.