On this day 25 years ago: The USWNT won the 1999 World Cup and changed soccer forever
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Wednesday marks the 25-year anniversary of the U.S. women’s national team winning the 1999 World Cup on home soil, and its intended legacy is just beginning to come to fruition on a global scale.

The penalty-shootout victory over China in front of over 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, on July 10, 1999, remains as one of the most iconic moments in both American soccer and women’s sports globally.

Briana Scurry, the USWNT’s goalkeeper at the time who crucially saved one of China’s kicks in the shootout, vividly remembers the team’s mandate: go win the tournament while also growing the sport’s popularity. The dual burden remained in place for several generations of USWNT players.

Today, however, the NWSL — the league that is home to most American players — is seeing record investments, which is mirrored by increased investments globally. After decades of stops and starts, women’s soccer is finally realizing its potential.

“What I would say and what I could argue is the legacy that we left is the fact that the money and investment and the resources eventually found all these other great players around the world,” Scurry told ESPN. “From organizations and governing bodies watching us do what we did here in the United States and then deciding, ‘Yes, I’m going to turn on the resource firehose and give them some oxygen and some water and some nutrients.'”

U.S. Soccer will mark the 25th anniversary of that historic World Cup win on Saturday with festivities surrounding the current squad’s friendly match against Mexico at Red Bull Arena, in Harrison, New Jersey. It will be the first formal, official gathering for the 20 players from that 1999 World Cup-winning team, even though many of them have kept in close contact through the years.

The growth of the game on and off the field will be on full display. Red Bull Arena is less than 10 miles from the old Giants Stadium, where the USWNT opened its 1999 World Cup campaign in front of nearly 79,000 fans — at the time, the largest crowd ever to see a women’s sporting event.

The team’s bus trip to the stadium is one of the memories most cited by Scurry & Co. when they think about the moment they realized how important the tournament was. The USWNT’s bus was navigating traffic and swarms of people on foot as it approached the stadium. Players, as the story goes, were confused by the commotion, only to realize that it was for them.

As big as the 1999 World Cup became, it was only a starting point, and the team’s current mainstream popularity wasn’t the norm at the time.

The 25,000-seat Red Bull arena is expected to be close to full or sold out on Saturday. That the USWNT can now command such interest regularly even for friendly matches is a sign of the progress the team has made in recent years. The 2011 World Cup send-off game was played at Red Bull Arena in front of just over 5,000 fans.

Saturday’s match is the first of two in a send-off series for the USWNT ahead of an Olympics tournament where the Americans are not the favorites.

The USWNT hit a historic low at last year’s World Cup, bouncing out in the round of 16 in a penalty-shootout loss to old rival Sweden. A younger USWNT squad now heads to France hoping to avoid another mark of futility: Failing to capture a gold medal would mark the first cycle without the USWNT winning a World Cup or an Olympics, since those events began running in subsequent years in 1995/1996.

Spain, who won a World Cup for the first time last year, remains the world No. 1 and favorite at the Olympics. Even getting out of the group is not a forgone conclusion for the USWNT: Germany, Australia, and Zambia each pose legitimate, unique threats.

The landscape has shifted drastically from the days when American victory seemed inevitable. It was never that easy to win a World Cup, but those were the expectations in 1999 and as recently as 2019. Now, after decades of the world chasing the Americans, it’s the USWNT program that is playing catch-up.

“This was always the intention that we had,” Scurry said, acknowledging that she’s always rooting for the USWNT. “But this is now the fruits of that labor of legacy that you’re seeing. And, basically, what it’s done is it has raised all boats. It makes it harder for the U.S. to win, but that’s the outcome. When you grow that pie bigger, you’re going to have more competition. That is a good thing. Because more opportunity for everyone is always going to be better than not.”

Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning penalty prior to her iconic shirtless celebration in 1999, sees the team’s legacy as something that runs beyond the sports world. The 1999 World Cup was a huge moment for women’s sports, she acknowledges, but today’s movement is about equality in the boardroom and everywhere else away from the field.

The core of the 1999 USWNT soon demanded better treatment and wages for themselves, and the fight hit the wider world over the past decade, when the most recent generation of players sued U.S. Soccer for equal pay to the men’s team. The equal-pay standoff hit a tipping point at the 2019 World Cup, when the USWNT became a polarizing global phenomenon as the embodiment of equality that drew the ire of then U.S. President Donald Trump and his conservative following.

As an entirely different group of players did in 1999, the 2019 USWNT won the World Cup. Likewise, they felt that they had to, to validate everything they fought for off the field. Three years later, players settled their equal pay lawsuit with U.S. Soccer.

“Now it’s here, and now it cannot go back — it will never go back,” Chastain told ESPN. “We’ll never take a contract that we know we’re less than. We will never put up with that anymore.

“There are people still out there that don’t see that as value and then you’re now teaching them about, ‘Okay, wait a minute, hold on. If I’m willing to put money in and funds into this place, I should probably do that over here.’ So, we’re not just influencing women’s soccer we are changing the dynamic way that business is done, and the way women are part of that equation.”

Women’s soccer is now big business. The USWNT has become a global brand of its own, and the roots of that growth can be found in the success of the 1999 team, and the USWNT squad that won the inaugural World Cup in 1991 amid relative anonymity.

The professional club game has grown exponentially, too. There was no professional women’s soccer league in the U.S. in 1999. WUSA was created from the success of that tournament, but that league and its predecessor, WPS, lasted only three years each.

Today, the 11-year-old NWSL is one of the hottest investments in sports. Angel City FC is close to a record sale expected to value the team at $300 million, 100 times what NWSL franchises sold for a few years ago.

Chastain played in both WUSA and WPS. She is one of the founders of Bay FC, the 2024 NWSL expansion franchise backed by global investment firm Sixth Street, which set a world transfer fee record earlier this year before playing a single game.

Chastain has watched the sport grow and she says she is happy to see that players don’t have to worry about the basics as they used to. Still, the two-time World Cup champion cautions that women’s soccer cannot lose its soul on its course to becoming big business.

“I think that’s why 25 years is significant, because there has been tremendous change and tremendous growth, but the heartbeat and the ethos remain and need to continue to remain for it to live in a way that is authentic, that doesn’t fall in line with the way they do other things in other sports environments,” Chastain said.

“We’re the game-changers; we can change the way the landscape is. For me, I think that’s being more authentic. It’s staying close to the fans, instead of having a divide. I think that’s grossly undervalued now. It’s not them and us; it’s we. I think the ‘we’ has always been part of [us] as a team, and when you’re building something up you need levers. I think we need to keep that close to our heart. And that’s really important.”

This tension between authenticity and capitalistic realities is increasingly present for women’s soccer. A sport built on grassroots efforts from players and intimate connections with a small following of fans is now becoming a major event. It’s like the great band that everyone wants to see succeed finally hitting mainstream.

In many ways, that tension is the kind of world the ’99ers imagined. There are tensions that come with it, but arriving at that point means earning recognition.

On Saturday, the members of that 1999 team will have a reunion that Scurry described as “closing the smaller circle and then creating a bigger one.”

Joy Fawcett, who was a defender for the USWNT’s 1991 and 1999 World Cup teams, recently told ESPN that she is most looking forward to something simple, something that stands that test of time: “Seeing everybody,” she said.

“We talk and we have a chat, and we’ll see each other through different events, but just to see everybody, it will be fun. And to go watch the U.S. together and send them off to the Olympics, that’ll be fun to see.”

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