Every four years when the men’s World Cup rolls around, there are hand-wringing questions about whether this will finally be the time that Americans fall in love with soccer, and whether the American soccer team will provide enough sustained success for that to happen. Already, we’re asking it again: will John Brooks’ goal against Ghana or the thrilling draw with Portugal or something else from Brazil be the moment that the United States falls in love with soccer?
There are numerous fallacies in this argument, one of which is that we already had that moment. The U.S. hosted the 1994 World Cup and turned it into a rousing success, setting attendance records that no other host has matched since and setting soccer on a slow but steady path into the American mainstream.
The most glaring problem with the question, however, doesn’t even involve the U.S. Men’s National Team, because the United States has already fallen in love with an American soccer squad that achieved ultimate success. And it has remained in love with them since. It happened on July 10, 1999, 15 years ago yesterday, when Brandi Chastain buried a penalty kick, ripped off her shirt, and set off a raucous celebration at the Rose Bowl. The United States Women’s National Team had won the World Cup on American soil.
Chastain’s celebration is the defining moment of that 1999 World Cup, but even before that, the tournament was a huge success and a major turning point for both soccer and women’s sports in our country and the world. The U.S. entered the tournament as the favorite and followed through, romping through the group stage and outlasting Germany, Brazil, and China on the way to victory, drawing massive crowds along the way. The national team captured the hearts of the country. Its appearance in the finals drew more than 90,000 fans, an all-time record for attendance at a women’s sporting event and one of the largest crowds to witness a soccer match involving an American team, men’s or women’s, in our nation’s history.
And yet, because it involved the women, it is too often left out of the conversation about soccer’s success in America.
The absence of women in that conversation is still evident today. Jezebel’s Valerie Alexander noted last week that our soccer commentators often refer to Landon Donovan as the “all-time U.S. leading goal scorer,” except that he isn’t: that honor goes to Abby Wambach, the current star of the U.S. Women’s National Team who has 167 career goals. Wambach is the world’s all-time leading scorer in international play. Donovan, meanwhile, doesn’t even rank in the top five American goal scorers once women are included. It is apparent when we talk about other iconic moments in our somewhat youthful soccer history too. Donovan’s goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup is seen as one of those instances; Wambach’s improbable 122nd-minute equalizer against Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup rarely shows up.
Still, while the non-soccer media and the conversation about whether the sport has or will arrive on American shores ignore the women, the country itself does not. The USWNT’s loss to Japan in the 2011 World Cup final drew an average of 13.5 million viewers across the country; at the time, it was the largest television crowd to ever watch a soccer telecast (men or women) on ESPN, and it was the second most-watched daytime telecast in cable history. Only men’s matches broadcast over-the-air on ABC — USMNT losses to Ghana and Brazil in 2010 and 1994, respectively and a few matches not involving the U.S. — and the 1999 women’s final had bested it (the USMNT’s tie with Portugal re-took the ESPN record this year).
In 2012, meanwhile, the women were back. While the men failed to qualify for the Olympics, the women avenged their World Cup loss and captured the nation’s attention again on the way to winning the gold medal. That match, shown on the comparatively humble NBC Sports Network, drew 4.3 million viewers on a Thursday afternoon and registered as the largest broadcast in NBCSN history. While it paled in comparison to other soccer matches, it drew more viewers than the 2009 and 2010 Stanley Cup finals and more than a Team USA basketball game from the same Olympics.
One reason why that 1999 match and its aftermath — the ‘99ers, as they are colloquially known, spawned another Golden Generation of American stars like Wambach and Alex Morgan, who is on pace to break the all-time scoring record before her career is over — may fall absent from the broader conversation about soccer in America is that we haven’t capitalized on it as we did after the 1994 World Cup. As part of giving the U.S. hosting duties in 1994, FIFA required us to establish a sustainable professional league. Major League Soccer came along in 1996. It has since passed the NBA and NHL in attendance figures and found its own niche in the American sporting conscience.
The women haven’t fared quite as well. The hope that the 1999 World Cup win would foster its own domestic league never truly materialized, as the Women’s United Soccer Association folded just three seasons after its first match in 2001. The second attempt, Women’s Professional Soccer, met the same fate. We’re now in year two of a third edition, the National Women’s Soccer League, which finally has the full buy-in of the U.S. Soccer federation and national federations in Mexico and Canada. The NWSL may have what it takes to achieve sustainability, but it has received little attention from the media or sports-watching public. The American women will travel to Canada as a favorite to win the 2015 Women’s World Cup — it would be their first victory since 1999 — but turning NWSL into a sustainable league where women can earn real salaries is a virtual requirement to ensuring that the U.S. continues to develop the talent necessary to maintain its place among the world’s best teams, especially as other countries begin to give their national teams better funding, better training, and even leagues in which to play. A common trope among soccer skeptics is that Americans forget about the sport in between World Cups. MLS proves that isn’t necessarily true for the men. But take away the most die-hard fans and it has been all too true for the women.
This is of course well-known and established in soccer circles, and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati has helped make forming such a league and development structure for women a priority in recent years. But as soccer continues to grow in the United States, the ultimate success on the women’s side also relies on mainstream fans and media figures — the type talking about and selling soccer to wider audiences — remembering that they exist too, and that over the last 15 years, the U.S. Women’s National Team has given us victories and transcendent moments that the men have yet to achieve.