(L-R) Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy celebrate during the “Fan Celebration Tour” final against Mexico on December 8, 2004 in Carson, California.
“They always told us no, you can’t do that,” Gabarra explained. “You can’t play sports, you can’t wear clothes like that, you can’t be an athlete, you can’t. We all grew up in this era where we were told no, no, no, no. We had to fight for everything 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 achieve it. So we had this burning desire that was born out of the adversity we went through together.”
The USWNT won its first ever World Cup title, defeating favored Norway 2-1 in the final. Michelle Akers-Stahl won the Golden Boot for most goals scored in the tournament (10) and Gabarra won the Golden Ball as the best player.
1996 Olympic Games and 1999 Women’s World Cup
Five years later, women’s soccer made its Olympic debut at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Although the final was not televised, the USWNT put on a show, defeating China 2-1. The Olympic gold medal established the USWNT as a force to watch.
When the Women’s World Cup rolled around in 1999 – again on home soil – the fans were ready.
Team members remembered being stuck in traffic as they drove to Giants Stadium in New Jersey for the home opener against Denmark. It suddenly dawned on them that the traffic jam was caused by all the fans trying to get to the game. Nearly 79,000 people filled the stadium that day, a record attendance for a women’s sporting event. They watched as Team USA beat Denmark 3-0, with goals from Hamm, Foudy and Lilly.
Three weeks later, 90,185 people packed the Rose Bowl to watch the women’s final, USA vs. China. A scoreless game went to a penalty kick, with Brandi Chastain making a great save for the USWNT, 5-4.
The 1999 World Cup set “the standard for what a women’s sporting event should look like,” Foudy said.
Equally important, the USWNT set the standard for American women’s soccer going forward. And they became a model for women’s sports in general.
Impact on the USWNT
Many of the women who became famous since the 1999 World Cup went on to play for the USWNT. Although Gabarra retired from the national team in 1996, Hamm, Foudy and Chastain finished in 2004; Lilly in 2010, etc. In the years they continued to play, they inspired the next generation of young players who found more and more opportunities to play.
When Hamm was inducted into the US Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame in June 2022, several current members of the USWNT filmed a short video to be shown during the induction.
First up was Becky Sauerbrunn, a 37-year-old defender who has played in three World Cups and two Olympic tournaments and first made the U16 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 to all of us,” Sauerbrunn told Hamm.
“You’re also on all of our personal Mt. Rushmores,” added Megan Rapinoe, who carved her own legacy on the wall of fame. “None of us would literally be here without you.
Rapinoe made the women’s national under-20 team in 2003 and the senior national team in 2006. She won both the Golden Boot and the Golden Ball at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and won her second Olympic medal in 2020.
Sauerbrunn is the current captain of the USWNT and played in the 2022 Concacaf final against Canada. Rapinoe – also 37 – filled in for striker Mallory Pugh, 24, during the semi-finals and was included in the team for her winning mentality and experience. Ten players in the Concacaf squad are under the age of 26.
But newer players aren’t just learning from USWNT veterans. They are trying to preserve the legacy started by the World Cup and Olympic gold medal teams of the 1990s.
“They created a legacy early on that just instilled that drive and that willingness to fight, and that’s been woven into the DNA of this team,” 26-year-old midfielder Andi Sullivan said ahead of the 2022 Concacaf semi-final against Costa Rica. Sullivan played in her first Concacaf tournament with the senior national team.
“We realize we’re in the situation we’re in because of the foundation that was laid for us years and years and years ago,” Sullivan continued. “So we have a lot of weight on our shoulders that we want to honor and then pass that on to the next generation. It’s a huge part of the values of this team and what we want to live by every day.”
Mia Hamm poses for a photo at the 2022 USA Olympic and Paralympic Games red carpet event on June 24, 2022 in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Influence on American football
The influence of the USWNT on girls’ and women’s soccer in this country is almost a given. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is now well established with 12 teams. At the NCAA level, there are 333 Division I women’s soccer teams in the U.S. — in addition to the few that existed when Hamm, Foudy and others played in the 1980s. And at the youth level, there are more than 3 million registered players in the U.S. — an 89 percent increase from 1990.
“Young girls have a lot more opportunities to play at different levels in different environments,” Foudy told 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 as much as anything else they want to be.
“Women are celebrated, they’re not looked at differently now,” Gabarra said.
“The game has evolved because now there are a lot of people playing and the coaches are amazing and have a football background. They have played the game and are invested in it, studying it and having a career in it. There was never anything like that when I was growing up.’
Gabarra, Foudy and Hamm all have daughters and have witnessed the growth of girls’ soccer and women’s sports in general in the 21st century.
“I have two daughters and they can play any sport they want,” Gabarra said.
Impact on women’s sports
The USWNT has inspired more than just soccer players.
Before the USWNT flew to Mexico for the 2022 Concacaf W Championship, Olympic alpine skier Alice Merryweather watched their “friendly” match against Colombia in Utah in late June. This was shortly after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and Merryweather was fired up. For years, she has been particularly inspired by how the USWNT has stood up for women’s rights: gender equality and unequal pay.
“It was so powerful to see them, to watch them do what they’re so good at,” Merryweather said. “I left that game feeling energized.”
Merryweather, 25, grew up near Boston and was a fan of the Boston Breakers (formerly part of the Women’s United Soccer Association, now a NWSL team). Lilly was the team’s founder, and Merryweather remembers Lilly playing against another of her heroes, Mia Hamm, in a match in the early 2000s.
“I was a big fan of them,” she said.
Her main sport was alpine skiing, but Merryweather also played soccer on her school and club teams and looked up to these female sports heroes.
“They’ve normalized the idea that women can be bad athletes,” she said. “I saw them as strong athletes, strong sports characters. They were my idols. I didn’t think of them differently because they were women.’
Looking back 30+ years, Gabarra had no idea how she and the other women on the USWNT would influence a generation of female athletes. She simply considered it an honor to be part of the team.
“It’s a privilege to be a part of something bigger than yourself, to find success and to have the ability to fight for others who don’t have the same platform,” Gabarra said. “I have always been very grateful for this opportunity.
“Internet evangelist. Twitter fanatic. Hardcore entrepreneur. Incurable analyst. Extreme food junkie. Unapologetic tv maven. Reader.”