The Washington Post

A World Cup game-changer

- BY LIZ CLARKE Sports · Soccer · United States of America · Mary Lou Retton · Pasadena · California · Pasadena · Thailand · St. Louis, OK · Atlanta · Washington State · Washington · China · Brandi Chastain · Rose Bowl · Dorothy Hamill · Jackie Joyner-Kersee · Tony DiCicco · Becky Sauerbrunn · Alex Morgan · Megan Rapinoe · Northern California · Mia Hamm · Olympic · Claude Elwood Shannon

In 1999, the U.S. women’s soccer team re­de­fined the sport.

Beamed around the globe and splashed on the cover of Newsweek and Sports Il­lus­trated, the photo of Brandi Chastain rip­ping off her jersey with a pri­mal howl, af­ter drop­ping to her knees upon blast­ing the win­ning penalty kick, be­came the defin­ing im­age of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s 1999 World Cup tri­umph.

But with­out 5-foot-4 Kris­tine Lilly leap­ing at the split-se­cond a mir­a­cle was needed to bat away a sure­fire Chi­nese goal in the 100th minute of the score­less stand­off, the United States wouldn’t have got­ten to the penalty shootout.

And with­out goal­keeper Briana Scurry’s saves to that point — not to men­tion the penalty shot she re­jected — there would have been no U.S. World Cup vic­tory that July 10 at the Rose Bowl, where thou­sands of scream­ing fans cheered on the Amer­i­cans.

“The ’99ers,” as that World Cup cham­pion squad of 20 years ago is known, be­came the coun­try’s first su­per­star women’s team — achiev­ing fame, fans and rock-star sta­tus pre­vi­ously

ac­corded fe­male cham­pi­ons in in­di­vid­ual sports, such as fig­ure skater Dorothy Hamill, hep­tath­lete Jackie Joyner-Kersee and gym­nast Mary Lou Ret­ton.

Then, as to­day, the ’99ers stand as one, hav­ing proved on the World Cup pitch and be­liev­ing to their mar­row that unity was their in­domitable strength. Apart from mat­ters of tech­nique and train­ing that are a given among elite ath­letes, their for­mula for suc­cess could be dis­tilled to the sim­ple equa­tion: One plus one equals three. They were greater than the sum of their parts.

At a re­cent panel dis­cus­sion com­mem­o­rat­ing the team’s World Cup ti­tle, Chastain was asked how kick­ing the win­ning penalty changed her life. She redi­rected the premise as deftly as she struck the ball that day with her left foot, as Coach Tony DiCicco had in­structed, rather than her pre­ferred right foot.

“My life changed dra­mat­i­cally when I joined this team,” said Chastain, 50, ges­tur­ing to her former team­mates on the panel. “It changed be­cause of the in­flu­ence of all th­ese women, from 1991 to now. Be­ing given the re­spon­si­bil­ity and trust of tak­ing the fifth penalty kick for­ever changed my life, but, re­ally, be­ing with th­ese women and watch­ing them work ev­ery day, be­ing such a great in­flu­ence on my life as a per­son — that was the great­est part.”

The team’s suc­cess and the buildup to the gold medal game in Pasadena, Calif., raised soccer’s pro­file in the United States, in­spired girls and boys alike to play and launched the first women’s pro­fes­sional league, the Women’s United Soccer As­so­ci­a­tion, which folded in 2003. But the team’s im­pact is still felt as the United States pre­pares to open its 2019 Women’s World Cup bid against Thai­land on Tuesday.

For the veteran lead­ers of the cur­rent U.S. team, who were soccer-crazed chil­dren 20 years ago, the 1999 World Cup was trans­for­ma­tive.

“I was in my liv­ing room with my dad watch­ing the fi­nal, and when they won and were cel­e­brat­ing, I re­mem­ber say­ing to my dad: ‘I need to know what this feels like! This is what I want to do!’ ” said de­fender Becky Sauer­brunn, who grew up in St. Louis. “From that point on, my fam­ily was allin.”

Re­mem­bered Alex Mor­gan, who grew up about 20 min­utes from the Rose Bowl: “It cap­ti­vated the coun­try in a way that hadn’t been done in fe­male sports, at least not in my life­time.”

Megan Rapi­noe, who was born in North­ern Cal­i­for­nia, went to the 1999 team’s semi­fi­nal with her par­ents, her twin sis­ter and a hand­ful of team­mates from her club team. The qual­ity of soccer, the in­ten­sity of the ef­fort and the elec­tric­ity of the crowd blew her teenage mind.

Twenty years later, Rapi­noe feels a di­rect de­scen­dant of that squad.

“We’re all of the same thread. You have dif­fer­ent per­son­al­i­ties that pop up with each gen­er­a­tion, but I very much look at that team and our­selves as fight­ing for the same goals, on and off the field,” she said. “We are all cut from the same cloth — the United States women’s na­tional team.”

Mia Hamm, the break­out star 20 years ago, for ex­am­ple, re­sisted the cor­po­rate push to make her the face of U.S. women’s soccer, in­sist­ing that any com­mer­cials in­cluded other mem­bers of the team.

What steeled and de­fined the 1999 team was a com­pet­i­tive­ness rooted in the core mem­bers who led the United States to vic­tory in the in­au­gu­ral, 1991 World Cup — Michelle Ak­ers, Julie Foudy, Scurry, Hamm, Lilly and Chastain, among oth­ers. Their work ethic and in­sis­tence that ev­ery prac­tice be treated as if it were the World Cup fi­nal be­came a req­ui­site of young soccer play­ers who joined their ranks.

“We would knock the crap out of each other, and then pick ’em up — or not,” Ak­ers said.

To this fierce ethic, the team’s men­tal skills coach, Colleen Hacker, added what she calls a “se­cret lead­ing edge” of men­tal tough­ness and chem­istry. With an ex­per­tise in ki­ne­si­ol­ogy and per­for­mance skills, Hacker joined DiCicco’s coach­ing staff in ad­vance of the 1996 At­lanta Games, where women’s soccer was to make its Olympic de­but.

“Colleen, how would you like to help me win the first gold medal in Olympic soccer his­tory?” DiCicco asked over the phone in re­cruit­ing her for his staff.

Olympic gold achieved, Hacker stayed on with the team, re­lo­cat­ing from Wash­ing­ton state to em­bed with the U.S. squad through­out its res­i­dency camp be­fore the 1999 World Cup.

On the field, DiCicco, who died in 2017, pushed play­ers to their lim­its, cre­at­ing one pres­sure sce­nario af­ter an­other in which they would have to bat­tle back from a one- or two-goal deficit.

“Play­ing Kris­tine Lilly day in and day out, one of the best in the world, and get­ting my butt kicked — I thrived in that,” Shan­non MacMil­lan said. “I wanted that be­cause I never wanted to make it easy. I wanted it to be hard. And that pre­pared me.”

At the same time, DiCicco built a fam­ily dy­namic and con­stantly re­minded his play­ers, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively, that he be­lieved in them.

Ak­ers re­mem­bers DiCicco stand­ing be­fore a chalk­board in his pregame talks: “Tony had this beau­ti­ful cur­sive writ­ing, and it al­ways said up there, ‘You are the best!’ He un­der­lined it, with the ex­cla­ma­tion point!”

They were one team, with count­less in­side jokes and mantras. A fa­vorite, just be­fore tak­ing the field, de­pend­ing which coun­try they were fac­ing: “It’s a bad day to be Ger­man!” Or, “It’s a bad day to be French!”

Said Ak­ers, “It was like we wanted to pun­ish them for be­ing out there and even think­ing about beat­ing us.”

At so many key mo­ments in the 120 score­less min­utes of the 1999 World Cup fi­nal and the penalty kicks that set­tled it, the U.S. team’s men­tal tough­ness and mu­tual be­lief made the dif­fer­ence.

Re­called Scurry, who had been pulled out of po­si­tion on the se­quence that gave China the po­ten­tial game-win­ning shot at the 100-minute mark: “When Lill made that save of that kick, I just knew: ‘This is it! We’re go­ing to win this thing!’ If that wasn’t the time, it wasn’t go­ing to hap­pen for them.

“And it was be­cause every­body did their job. I re­mem­ber Tony telling me, very dis­tinctly: ‘If you do your job — just make one save — every­body is go­ing to do their job.’ I com­pletely and ut­terly be­lieved that. So I had no doubt every­body would make their kick. It was just the cul­ture of the team.”

 ??  ??
 ?? MICHAEL CAULFIELD/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? The U.S. women’s na­tional team’s win over China at the 1999 World Cup helped raise the pro­file of the sport and its play­ers.
MICHAEL CAULFIELD/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS The U.S. women’s na­tional team’s win over China at the 1999 World Cup helped raise the pro­file of the sport and its play­ers.
 ?? ERIC RISBERG/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS ?? Goal­keeper Briana Scurry helped lift the U.S. team to a his­toric vic­tory in front of thou­sands of fans at the Rose Bowl in 1999.
ERIC RISBERG/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS Goal­keeper Briana Scurry helped lift the U.S. team to a his­toric vic­tory in front of thou­sands of fans at the Rose Bowl in 1999.
 ?? ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES ?? Brandi Chastain said her life changed “dra­mat­i­cally” when she joined the U.S. squad — and not just be­cause of her iconic goal.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES Brandi Chastain said her life changed “dra­mat­i­cally” when she joined the U.S. squad — and not just be­cause of her iconic goal.

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