Women’s Soccer Before 1999


Originally written by Gretchen Miller, Jonathan Scheyer, and Emily Sherrard in 2009; edited and updated by Gilda Doria in 2013


– See more at: http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/research-projects/womens-soccer-in-the-u-s/1999-womens-world-cup/#sthash.EUVGnpuq.dpufLink to Main Page Women’s Soccer in the US

Highlights of the Women’s National Team through the Years

To fully understand and appreciate the incredible event that was the 1999 Women’s World Cup, it is critical to first understand the history of women’s soccer in the United States.  The focus will begin with the introduction of Title IX and then evaluate all the major tournaments and events leading up to what now is considered to be the pinnacle of women’s sport: the ’99 World Cup.  It was the 1991 and 1995 World Cup and the 1996 Summer Olympics that set the tone for the widespread and sensational success experienced in ’99.  These events were important because at the time they proved historic in nature and unparallel to anything the world had ever seen in women’s sports.  Even today they are still important because they acted as stepping-stones preparing both the U.S. women and the nation for the event that would capture everyone’s hearts in the summer of ’99.  Studying these events will help one to grasp why the “Girls of Summer” were prepared to take the national stage and through their passion and abilities on the field challenge the stereotypes of women around the world.

Before the effects of Title IX can be fully explored, first the origins and presence of women’s soccer must be explained to provide a basis for understanding specifically what women’s soccer in the United States grew out of.  [1]In what would come to be known as one of the core “pioneering” events/teams in women’s soccer history, the first women’s team was formed under the name Dick, Kerr Ladies team in 1917.  This team would last for fifty years and is remembered as having begun the process of proving women capable of enjoying athletic abilities just as men could.  It is important to note that in 1921 the English Football Association banned all female competitions in Britain, as it feared that the success of the women on the pitch were a threat to the men.  The Dick, Kerr Ladies team was unbothered by the ban and instead travelled to other countries where women could play.  In 1922 they played in the U.S. against several men’s teams and had a fair amount of success.  Soccer in the U.S. was behind other nations as for the first half of the 20th century, women’s soccer was limited to informal settings, such as college intramural games and recreational games set up by the women themselves.  This was until 1951 when the first organized league for women was established in St. Louis.  Other than this milestone, women’s soccer in the United States did not take hold and begin to rapidly develop until it was permitted in the collegiate ranks.

First ever women’s soccer team – Dick Kerr Ladies Team 1917


The 1970’s are remembered as an all-together controversial decade and the passage of the Educational Amendment in 1972 was no exception.  Of the newly passed law, Title IX was widely known and the cause of much uproar as it authorized “equal access and equal spending on athletic programs at college institutions” (Litterer 3).  Essentially, it gave women previously unheard of opportunities to participate and compete at a high level and receive government-mandated support to do so.[2] The results of Title IX have been tremendous for women athletes as they experienced a dramatic increase in their ability to participate in a wide array of sports, increased athletic scholarships on the collegiate level, and the opening up of achievement through the outlet of athletics.[3] “When Title IX became law, dramatic change was needed to level the playing field of this nation’s schools and to change the perception of the place of girls and women on them”.  Title IX could not have come at a better time as women of all ages and abilities were becoming intrinsically interested by the game and having the desire to participate in anyway possible.  The opportunities afforded by Title IX were a turning point in the sports world, and next to the ’99 Women’s World Cup, Title IX is one of the other top landmarks in the history of women’s sport.

The circumstances behind the rapid growth of women’s soccer are central to understanding the effects it would produce.[4] In 1981 there was already almost 100 varsity teams and in 1982 the NCAA sponsored the first ever women’s soccer tournament.  What was so unique to the development of the women’s game was that that it took root all over the country, rather then in one region, and because of this was able to grow nationally much quicker as its foundation was so spread out.  The statistics are remarkable and explain how women’s soccer literally overnight became a powerhouse and within fifteen years of establishment had overtaken men’s collegiate soccer in the number of varsity programs.  This feat is astonishing considering men’s programs had varsity teams beginning in the early part of the 20th century.   The rapid growth of the women’s game was due to Title IX, which mandated equal participation and expenditure amongst all men’s and women’s sports.  This dramatic growth spurt in women’s collegiate soccer is indicative of the increase of female participation in sports.  Furthermore, with the dramatic growth in collegiate soccer, the establishment of a women’s national team, which would provide an opportunity for women to keep playing after their collegiate careers, was right around the corner.

With major victories on the international level and a consistent spot in the top five teams in the world by the US Women’s National team, it is almost impossible to believe that the development of it was one of the last to occur of major soccer playing nations around the world.  [5]It actually was not until 1985 that the national team was finally born, and the conditions under which it existed in were rather meek to say the least.  However, under the guidance of University of North Carolina coach, Anson Dorrance, the team would be become structured and deeply talented.  After a few bumpy years and a lack of tournaments to participate in, the Women’s World Championship or World Cup was developed, with the first event to be held in China in 1991.

The 1991 women’s World Cup was held at various locations around China and included twelve teams who had all qualified for the event.  Advancing to the semis were the U.S., Germany, Norway, and Sweden.  In the final, the U.S. one its first and the world’s first ever women’s World Cups in a decisive 2-1 victory over Norway.  Both goals came from star forward Michelle Akers, who proved her dominance on the International level and took home the Golden Show Winner, awarded to the tournaments top goal scored.  The final was played in front of 63,000 fans and the game propelled the U.S. women’s team into dominance over the world’s game. However, upon arrival back in the United States, it seemed that news of the tournament had no effect, and women’s soccer still stood as an after-thought.  At the pinnacle of sport, after “the scrappy bunch of college-age pioneers emerged from obscurity to shock the world, winning the inaugural Women’s World Cup over nations that had ruled soccer” the women still felt it was not enough to change the sentiment that had endured about women athletes back in the US. [6] This was no more obvious then when they returned home from the event only to find an empty airport and lackluster media coverage at best waiting for them.

1991 women’s National Team at the Airport in China

1991 World Cup Return Home

Lacking the support they so desired from home, [7]the women headed into the 1995 World Cup in Sweden as favorites and determined to repeat their heroics of ’91 and stake their claim as a truly dominant nation in the women’s soccer world.  However, after losing Michelle Akers to an injury in the opening match of the tournament, the team never looked like the ’91 team that had won the inaugural women’s World Cup.  After advancing to the semis, the U.S. lost to the future champions Norway 1-0, in front of less than 3,000 people.  The tournament sent shocks throughout the women’s team as an eventual 3rd place victory over China PR in the conciliation game was a complete disappointment for them.  Not only was the loss a bitter one personally for the players, but it also marked a missed opportunity to accelerate the excitement around the game back home in the U.S.  The U.S. women would have another opportunity to make their mark though only a year later.

With a quick turn-a-round until the 1996 Olympics, the women had no time to dwell on the results of the ’95 WC.  For the first time ever women’s soccer had been added to the Olympic slate and with Atlanta hosting the event, it stood as an incredible opportunity for the women to take the nation by storm and win over their spirit.  They would end up doing just that.  [8]On August 1, 1996 in Athens, GA in front of a record-breaking audience of 76,481 fans at Sanford Stadium watched as they defeated China by a score of 2-1.

USA Women before a 2-1 Victory over Norway in the semi-final match of the ’96 Olympics

The victory or [9]“gold strike” as it was occasionally referred to as was “the latest shining moment for U.S. soccer” in what had become a tremendous team decade, only tarnished by their 3rd place finish in the ’95 World Cup.  The ’96 Olympics was the first time the U.S. took notice of these women and the implications would carry to ’99 and what would prove to be the biggest stage for women’s sports ever. [10]

The only disappointing part of the whole event was the lack of media coverage.  NBC, the major media provider for the games, provided no coverage at all, which the players [11]“were upset by this and felt that their stellar performances were being overlooked and undermined.” [12]Immediately following the ’96 Gold Medal, the USSF (United States Soccer Federation) launched a women’s cup in addition to the men’s cup and soon after the W-league would become a popular national league for women to compete in.  By the time 1999 rolled around, the U.S. women would be prepared for the challenge of not only re-taking the World Cup back, but of helping to arouse excitement and passion from a nation that had not been consistently smitten with the game.

The ’91 and ’95 World Cup and the ’96 Olympics were so incredibly significant to preparing the world for the ’99 World Cup.  Along with the development of soccer throughout the world and specifically in the United States, it was these events that gave way to the sensational success of the ’99 World Cup.  From its earliest roots back in the 70’s, to the trailblazing events of the ‘90’s, women’s soccer was able to grab the hearts and attention of millions and legitimize the women’s players pleas for respect on a continental basis.  While the 1999 World Cup holds the most special place in many women’s sports enthusiast’s hearts, it is obvious that without the foundation established in the years leading up to it, its success would have been nowhere near as profound and dramatic.

“Amazing Moments in History: 1996 Women’s Soccer Team”

[1] Dave Litterer, Women’s Soccer History in the USA: An Overview (USA Soccer History Archives, 2005).


[2] Achieving Success Under Title IX (Archived Information, 1997).

[3] Ibid

[4] Dave Litterer, Women’s Soccer History in the USA: An Overview (USA Soccer History Archives, 2005).

[5] Ibid

[6] M. Joannie Schrof, American women: Getting their kicks (Washington: U.S. News & World Report, 1995).

[7] FIFA Women’s World Cup – Sweden 1995 (FIFA.com).

[8] William Gildea, U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Wins Gold (Washington: The Washington Post, 1996).

[9] William Gildea, U.S. Women’s Soccer Team Wins Gold (Washington: The Washington Post, 1996).

[10] Dave Litterer, Women’s Soccer History in the USA: An Overview (USA Soccer History Archives, 2005).

[11] Christie Succop, Amazing Moments in Olympic History: 1996 Women’s Soccer Team (Team USA.org, 2009).

[12] Dave Litterer, Women’s Soccer History in the USA: An Overview (USA Soccer History Archives, 2005).

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