The U.S. soccer legend on the first Women’s World Cup, becoming famous instantly and the future of women’s soccer.
Photo by Matthew Eisman
Last year was the first year that there was a women’s International Championship Cup. What kind of effect do you think it will have on the women’s game?
It’s an experience they’ve never had before, for young girls especially. I was talking to one of the parents from my club team that I coach, and I said that one day, your daughter could be playing in this tournament as a professional soccer player. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that she has to play for an NWSL team. She could be playing for Paris Saint Germain or Lyon or Manchester City. Maybe someday, it will be a team from Brazil or Japan. It’s very important for this tournament to exist for those dreamers, because it didn’t exist for me. Luckily, I had the old NASL (North American Soccer League) in my neighborhood (San Jose) when I was a kid. I got to see live soccer. I saw the Cosmos and Pelé. Those are the players that inspired me. This will be a paradigm shift for young girls in this country, for the professional players, and for the status quo of what is considered the quality and standard for these teams and coaches. It’s only going to get better.
When you were part of the first U.S. Women’s World Cup team in 1991, there was no American women’s professional soccer league. What did you think your soccer trajectory would be when you were a young girl?
Oh, I thought I was going playing on the line for the Pittsburgh Steelers (laughs)! I had no ambition for playing soccer in my future. I just love playing soccer. Most of what I saw on television was men playing sports and mostly football. My mom’s uncle was my godfather, and he played in the old NFL with the leather helmets. So I just assumed that I enjoyed playing football too, so I would. As it turns out, I do play football, just not the kind of football I thought I was going to play. Perhaps that’s the beauty of the early national teams. Nobody was playing soccer because it was a good business decision or it was a step to getting a college scholarship and becoming a professional. I think the love of soccer was literally born out of these random young girls across this country. Somehow, they got introduced to the game, and they fell in love with it. There was nobody around telling them no, so they continued to do it. It’s with that kind of love and passion that we came to the national team, and we shared the game. It was very open arms and inclusive. There was no turning anybody away. I think we helped grow the sport in the sense that it made people feel good, and I think they’ve continued to do that until today.
I’ll always be astonished at the collection of talent on that first World Cup team. There wasn’t really anything structured to get all of you there to that place at that time, was there?
There were a few things that happened. There was an Olympic Development Program, which right now is kind of down the rungs on the ladder in terms of development. I’m still involved. I’m the regional head coach of our 2003 team. I still think it’s a valuable place, because some kids aren’t going to be called into national team camps. I’ve had three kids now come through my program and are now on the youth national team, so it’s still valuable. There was also something called the Olympic Sports Festival, which was kind of an adult version. It replicated all the Olympic Sports, and somehow women’s soccer somehow got in there. I’m not sure how, because it wasn’t in the Olympics. But because women’s soccer had become popular, it was a part of this Olympic Sports Festival. That’s really where the women’s national team was formed. We had this wonderful collection of women playing on these four All-Star teams, and we played against each other. It was like, “Oh, we’re going to select you to come play on a national team.”
Who was on that California All-Star team with you?
Amy Allman was a goalkeeper, Joy Fawcett, Carin Gabarra, Lori Henry, Shannon Higgins. We had a really solid team. Michelle Akers wasn’t playing for our team because even though she was from Washington, she had gone to college in Florida. She was on the south team. That’s where all this came from—two organizations and luck.
You were really young when you first joined the national team.
I think I was 19. I was just at my end of my high school career.
And in college, you tore your ACL twice.
Yes. I tore both of them.
At that time the surgery isn’t what it was now. It was major reconstructive surgery. Did you think that maybe you weren’t going to play soccer anymore?
No, I never thought about not playing. Honestly, it was difficult, but you just get better, and you get back out there. I mean there was never any thought about not playing.
What was the first World Cup experience like for you in 1991, all of you going through that together for the first time?
It was very exciting. It was very raw and very organic. Nobody really knew what to expect. You’re learning FIFA protocol. You’re learning the pomp and circumstance around big games. One funny memory is that I was roommates with Wendy Gebauer, who ended up calling the 1999 World Cup. She and I didn’t play very much, so we commiserated together about not playing are playing, so we had each other. When we got to the final game, it was quite a bus ride away. China has changed so much since then.
It went from people walking and biking to games, to just biking, to lots of mopeds and a few cars, and now it’s all motorcycles and cars. There was this evolutionary change. In 1991, we drove this massive bus on these dirt roads between fields of rice and people walking. It was crazy. An hour later, we get there and go into the locker room, which is nothing more than four cement walls. All of a sudden, I see Wendy’s face go completely gray. I said, “Are you okay?” And she’s like, “Don’t say anything… I forgot my uniform.” It’s the World Cup final! They used to hand them out to you in those days and you were responsible for them. Now you go to the arena, and everything is laid out for you. Neither one of us got into the game, so it really didn’t matter. But for the ceremony, they wanted everybody to wear their jersey. Luckily, Lori Henry, who was the overpacker on the team, brought both the long sleeve and short sleeve jersey. Wendy was number 15 and Lori was number five, so they just added a one with tape.
Photo by Robert Beck / Getty Images
What a memory to have for the first ever women’s World Cup!
Yeah, she would have had to play a World Cup final with a taped number on her jersey. But there was a lot of love going on to be honest. We all got along. It was really hard. It wasn’t great soccer there. There was some really good soccer. I thought we were pretty good. But in terms of how we look at soccer now, and the analytics that go into soccer… our style was just to press the hell out of the other team and be more athletic. Be faster, more dynamic and more aggressive, and we’re going to win the game. I think to some extent, the national team still does that. That’s this USA mentality that we have, right? I think there’s been an evolution of the game. Our ‘99 team was different because Tony (DiCicco) changed from a three-back pressing man-to-man situation to players like Joy Fawcett and myself being part of the attack as outside backs. We also had really good playmakers in the center of midfield. So it evolved some. Still, as soon as we lose the ball, we’re going to work hard to get it back. But there was no real game plan about where we were going to do that, and how we were going to do that, and what players were going to do that. I’d like to think that there’s a lot more thoughtfulness. I’d like to watch our women’s team and see that happen a little bit more. When you watch Spain, you know that the “seven” does this, and the “six” does this, and the role of the “two” and the “five.” I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I think our collective pool of players has grown so much that getting the right 24 players, and then having those 11 that are really good together, that’s not easy to do.
Where did the U.S. women’s playing style come from? Did the original part of it come from the men’s game because that’s what you watched when you were a kid?
Initially that was an Anson (Dorrance) thing, because he’s such a competitor. His words were always something to the effect of “You’re going to dominate the player that is standing across from you.” To do that, you had to be mentally tougher, more aggressive, more assertive. He did something that probably most coaches didn’t do in women’s sports, which was to unleash this beast kind of mentality.
It’s almost like an NFL mentality.
Right. We’re going to line up against each other. I’m going to smack you in the mouth. You’re gonna smack me in the mouth, and who’s going to be standing at the end? When things moved to Tony, I remember him telling us how we’re a collective melting pot. Our country is built on immigrants, and soccer for a long time was considered a foreign sport. So we are going to look at Norway, China, Brazil, Germany, and we’re going to look at all the things that make them great, and we’re going to adopt those things. We’ll make them ours and that will be us, because we are the United States of America! And that’s how we did it. It was actually quite brilliant, because sometimes, if you look outside and you examine how other people are doing things, you say, “Well that’s not us.” So maybe you don’t look at what the good things are about that. We weren’t too proud to say, “Hey, that works, so we’ll do that too.”
You’re more willing to adapt.
Absolutely. And I thought because we were open, that helped us tremendously. That’s what’s great about the ICC tournament. We saw two teams from France, a team from England and a team from the U.S. There are some players that have international experience, and some that only have domestic experience. We got to see soccer culture out on the field, which is something on the club level that we’ve never seen before.
After the first World Cup, you went to play in Japan. As a pro, what were your playing options at that time?
Pretty much nothing. Sweden might’ve also been an option. Japan was closer to us, and there was a gentleman that was living in the northern California area that was associated with the women’s league over there. He said, “Hey, would you be interested in playing there?” And I was like, “I think I would!” As a young player, I went overseas to the Gothia Cup. and the other huge tournament in Sweden, and it was just an eye-opening experience. You are hearing all the languages, and there was soccer everywhere you could look. I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity.
So you embraced the opportunity to play in Japan.
Totally! It was great because at the time, I wasn’t on the national team. After ’91, I was let go from the national team, and Anson wasn’t picking me up for the next group of training. So when I said I was going to Japan, he was like, “Why are you going there?” And I said, “Well, I’m not playing for you, so what do you care? I want to play soccer.” I’d like to think that I was ahead of the curve. I knew something special was going on in Japan. The players were fantastic. What they were lacking was a little bit of the mental edge that we have in the U.S.—the belief that they could be good enough and that their soccer was not only quality, but that they could assert themselves on other teams. They’re just so polite and so gentle in their demeanor and their wonderful culture. This idea of being more athletic, being stronger, they were just so gentle and nice initially. But as we saw when they won the World Cup, they were technically good, athletically equivalent, and in terms of the overall ability soccer-wise, they were definitely much better.
We see the growing pains at the pro level in the women’s game. The player experience is inconsistent in different markets. When you started in the WUSA, the first women’s pro league, what was that initial experience like for you?
It was fantastic, but with some speed bumps. Because here we are with this brand new league. We’re being run by people who don’t really have soccer experience, but they have business acumen. And we’ve got a big office here on Fifth Avenue, and we think we’re the big boys, but we are spending money in the wrong places and playing on crappy fields. No disrespect to Villanova, for example, but we’re playing on this little patch of turf that absolutely should have been condemned. But at the time, we didn’t have alternatives. So what do you do? You put up with some things, and you push for other things. You pick and choose your battles. From the beginning, I said it back then, and I believe it now—soccer should have always stayed together. It shouldn’t have been men’s soccer and women’s soccer. It should’ve just been soccer. For MLS to exist, I think women’s soccer should’ve been a part of their program, because together we would both be moving in the same direction. Everybody was like, “We need to have a stand alone women’s league on its own!” And I was like, well, soccer in this country doesn’t have that foothold. We don’t have that deep dug well built in the cement. We’re not that sturdy. So why are we battling each other, when we should all be pushing in the same direction? I felt that was always not to our benefit, because we had men’s soccer kind of semi-pushing us down, and trying to live up to these big standards was really hard. I think that’s pretty much why we lasted three years.
Can you describe why you felt that men’s soccer was pushing you down?
I don’t think it was intentional. I just think that, together, we could have been so much stronger. Let’s say for example, we have a stadium like Dallas. On the days that they are not there, who’s using it? You could be getting double use out of the field. You could be sharing in the people power to promote soccer. More ears, more eyes—now all of a sudden, we have fans coming to both men’s and women’s soccer, and there’s no conflict. They’re all in line with each other. I don’t think that there was an intentional pushing. I just think they were driving so hard to make men’s soccer successful that anything that came in its way got pushed away.
It has always amazed me that even to this day, they wouldn’t do a men’s and women’s doubleheader. Back in the original days of the NBA, the NBA teams would play a doubleheader with the Harlem Globetrotters, who were a bigger attraction at the time. That’s what helped get people in the seats. For soccer, you’re bringing your son and daughter to the game. And let’s say the Red Bulls are playing. Why wouldn’t you stay to watch Carli Lloyd play the game after that or the game before?
Absolutely. I think it makes sense, and I can say that now looking from the outside in. But I also get the idea that we wanted women’s soccer to be able to stand on its own two feet. We wanted to be able to say, “I want to sell a women’s ticket,” and people would say, “Yes, I’m going to buy it like that!” I think that’s also valuable. We were having this internal battle for no reason, in my opinion. The players always felt that in terms of men’s soccer and women’s soccer, we should be supporting each other. Structurally and financially, that was the difficult part. We didn’t succeed in that the first time around, and we didn’t succeed the second time around. But we have learned a lot of lessons, and I think that’s why it’s much better now.
The more I speak to players in the women’s game, I feel like there is always this kind of push/pull. They feel a responsibility to grow the league.
But they also want to know what it’s like to play abroad and have that experience.
So when you were doing this together the first time, and even the second time. I’m sure you must have felt a responsibility.
Still do, right?
But what was it like for you? Were you all saying, “We’re staying! We’re fighting for this!”
Well, we really didn’t have anywhere to go. I mean there was Sweden, and maybe Germany, to some degree Japan, but the options weren’t the same as they are now. And I think for everybody, you have this ideal. The ideal is you want to play professional soccer in your own country. Like how amazing would that be? You live in your own home. You go to work everyday at the soccer field. You put in your hours. You work really hard. You grow it in your neighborhood and get to play on the weekend. Who doesn’t want that? I think the international experience is valuable because the world seems to be a big place, but it’s pretty small. Even in those times, it was bigger because there was no Internet, no FaceTime. There weren’t the things that keep us close to each other now. At times, it did feel like I was a world apart from my family and my friends. But the experience was absolutely worth it, and I recommend it to anybody who will ask. I think it’s valuable.
Everywhere the U.S. Women’s team goes, they’re expected to win, and they are expected to entertain. They are that good. Even when they draw, it’s like, “What happened? Why did they play so poorly?” The expectations are so high. As a player, is it different to be able to go out and play without having to carry those expectations onto the field?
Well, I’d like to say that it doesn’t exist, but I absolutely know that it does, and it should. The expectation is that every time you go to the field, you’re going to figure out a way to win the game. We were discussing why the ICC tournament is so important, and I really believe that here in the U.S., it will raise the standard of what the club expectations should be. It’s not just those five national team players that you have on your team. It’s really the sixth through the 18th, those have to be quality players too. It’s not just, “OK, we’ll take her,” you know? To have that standard set, then maybe it forces the pay to go up, because you can’t have a part-time player being asked to do a full-time professional job. You just can’t. You also have to have quality coaches, and you have to have quality development. This tournament actually provides something that they don’t even know that they’re providing, which is excellent. Besides the entertainment value of watching, it helps to change the standard of what our clubs should and could be doing.
Where did your nickname “Hollywood” come from?
Julie Foudy! She’s a big talker. She’s so mouthy! (laughs) It was because I’m really good at acting on the field. I could draw a good penalty every now and again, a good foul. That’s only because I worked against her so many times. She was such a sucker! (laughs)
How exponentially did to life change after the 1999 World Cup.
I don’t even know if I could imagine what my life would be like if that hadn’t happened. It changed everything. Even just sitting here with you today, it’s all predicated upon that moment—the doors that opened, the opportunities. I started a nonprofit for young girls. The impact I could have in the community, the conversations I could have—the things that you can help support that make a difference and impact people’s lives.
You had all that success prior to social media. What is it like now? Do young girls still reach out to you?
Yes. It’s awesome!
How much mail do you get?
Enough that if I don’t do it daily, then at the end of the week or by the end of two weeks, I have too much to do.
Several years ago, you wrote a book about youth sports. How have you seen that change over the years?
What’s changed most is the sheer numbers of young girls that are participating. That part of it is incredible. Young girls in sports, those are our role models now. All these young girls are strong, healthy, determined, competitive, and not afraid to take on a challenge. That’s part of what’s happening in the big picture. Women are tired of not being heard. They’re tired of sitting back and waiting and accepting things and just being grateful. I’m really grateful, but being grateful doesn’t pay the mortgage, and it doesn’t buy the groceries. You can get paid and still be grateful. You still have to keep that, because we know that there is a direct correlation between gratitude and happiness. But things have also become more competitive. The push for that collegiate scholarship on the girls’ side is pretty heavy. For some kids, sports are becoming less fun and more like a job. My ambition is to change that—to shift that a little bit over more to where we can have fun, while still trying to be competitive and to be our best. That’s not an easy shift to make, because we’ve gotten into this rut right now. But I’m determined to have a bigger picture perspective, and for the girls to really enjoy what they’re doing, make a lot of mistakes and say, “OK, I can be resilient.” It has come a long way. The competitive side has really become this thing that’s overshadowing everything right now. The numbers grew so fast, it’s so much more competitive about making a team and getting that scholarship. Learning how to navigate that is going to be the next step.
What do you think have been the most positive steps the women’s game has taken in the last five years?
I think that the NWSL is thriving. It’s five years now, so we’ve passed that three-year mark, and that it is really exciting. The quality of the play is pretty good. Like MLS, there are some times when you watch and say our standard needs to be more, but it’s coming. It’s going in the right direction. U.S. Soccer has just started the DA (development academy) on the girls’ side, which is 10 years behind the boys’ side. That’s probably because the women’s game has always been so successful, the thought was that we really don’t need it. We’re always going to find players that are going to help us win the World Cup. And even though we did win the World Cup, I think we’re seeing the writing on the wall, which is that we need to have our girls playing competitive games. They should be practicing more and playing less games—you can’t have them play three games in a day; that’s absurd. We’ve matured in the way we manage young players. We’ll see. I think the experiment has just started to see if this is the right way to manage players. For some, it’s kind of a tough learning curve. There are a lot of growing pains changing from where you’ve been playing to a DA. Where should I go, and who should I be with? For me, there’s a place for every kid. Why should we compete against each other? I don’t get it. But somebody always wants to have more power and more money. That’s really the bottom line.
I think every parent want an optimal path, right? If my child does this, this and this, they will be successful.
I think the question I would ask then is if you did think that, and there was that one path, wouldn’t everybody just be doing that path? So there’s not one path, and that’s the beauty. That’s why this ICC tournament is a great example of different paths. Sport in Europe isn’t driven by education. Sport in the U.S. is driven by education. We have this parallel pathway of high school sports and education, then college sports and education. Then we have this professional thing over here, and these big clubs own these teams and have development academies within their club. But we’re coming to the same place. I think it’s a good global thing that we can’t all be alike, and we all have to accept the differences and embrace that it could be done a different way, but we get to choose.
And also that there are other places to play. The U.S. team is obviously the epitome, but it’s not the only destination. You can still play in France or Sweden or the NWSL and enjoy a successful adult career.
We skipped over the Olympics. Do you ever look back and say, “You know something, I was on the first World Cup championship team! I was on the first Olympic gold medal women’s soccer team! Do you allow yourself to think about all these kind of firsts?
I think about them when I’m in moments like this. I’m talking to you, or I’m trying to help a parent understand that I know what it was like to be a young player. I understand their ambition. I was on the team, off the team, on the team, injured on the sideline for two-and-a-half years, made the team again, on the bench. So I’ve had all those experiences, and I feel very qualified in handling those moments. Some I did really well in; some I did absolutely poorly. I also think about those moments when I’m parenting. I think parenting is so much harder than soccer, in terms of, if I wanted that, then this is what I needed to do to get there. But if I want my son, who is 12, to do something, I can’t just say, “Do it!” Because he’s like, “Well, I don’t really want to do that.” There’s a resistance. So when it comes to the process of figuring out how to get to the objective, I use my soccer experience to try to navigate parenting. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The player in me is very frustrated by that. I want to be in control, because I know what the outcome could be. But my son is thinking his own thoughts and having his own feelings. And he’s like, “You don’t have to control everything!” And I’m like, “OK! You’re right. Darn it.” I think I’m growing up too. It’s crazy to think I’m going to be 50, and I’m still using soccer lessons that I learned as a kid and in my adult life. Parenting is way harder than playing soccer.
You’re one of the most decorated soccer players in women’s history. Period. But do parents still try to tell you how to coach their kids?
(Laughs) I’m very, very lucky. I unfortunately had one kid leave my team this past year. I was tough on her, because I felt she probably had the most potential on our team. And yet she was the most disconnected person from the group, and didn’t want to take feedback and didn’t want instruction. And the parents were like, “Well, she didn’t get the number she wanted, and she’s not in the position she wants.” And I told them that she is playing team sports. You think you’re a center midfielder, and you go to college, and then they tell you to play right back. What are you going to say? No? Well, if you do, you can’t play, or you’re going to find yourself somewhere else that you don’t want to be, because you want to be in the middle of the field. So I was disappointed in that moment, because I felt my experience in understanding the process wasn’t getting through. Maybe one day we’ll come back together. But I chalk it up to the idea that we’re not all going to see eye-to-eye. So what do I do with the kids that I do have? I’m really lucky that the parents are very respectful, and I’m also very respectful of them. They’re investing a tremendous amount of time and energy and their resources, so they’re making a huge commitment. My job is to make this a successful situation. I’m very open to the things that they need. It doesn’t flow in one way. It’s got to be a two-way street, but it’s great.
I know you’ve probably come to grips with the fact that you’re going to be most remembered for that moment at the end of the 1999 World Cup, kneeling, jersey-less in victory. But what would you like to be remembered for most?
We’ve been talking a little bit about legacy and that ‘99 team, especially what it means to women’s soccer. That time was really important, because I think it did change the arc of women’s soccer, and maybe women’s sports, in our country. But once I became a parent, I realized that there were other things that mattered more then “Did we win the game or not win the game.” The safety of young players is one of them. At Santa Clara University, I was on the board of our Institute of Sports Law and Ethics. Every year, we gave out an award, and it just so happened that one year, we were giving an award out to the Concussion Legacy Foundation. Chris Nowinsky and Dr. Robert Cantu came to receive the award. The more I heard about the work that they were doing and why they were doing it, the more it made me think. They wanted to create a safer space for athletes, and for the NFL to be responsible to protect their athletes more. That made me think, can we do something like that in soccer?
What did you do?
After that dinner was over, we had our regular board meeting, and we discussed what we were going to do next. I immediately raised my hand, and without thinking said, “I want to raise the age limit for heading in soccer. I want to take heading out of youth soccer.” And they were like, “Let’s do it!” And I was like, oh my gosh, I just put it out in the universe! But working with Chris Lewinsky and Dr. Cantu and Concussion Legacy Foundation, donating my brain, raising the heading age limit to 11 for U.S. Soccer will allow a larger population to stay on the field longer. It will allow them to enjoy the game more. It actually could enhance our foot skills, getting the ball and keeping the ball on the ground. I’m hoping that my legacy is that I helped soccer be a safer, better enjoyable space for more kids to grow up and stay in the game for the long term.