A History of the USWNT

By Tate Royer

0002390_brandi-chastain-of-the-usaBrandi Chastain unintentionally became the face of women’s soccer in the United States. Arguably one of the most iconic images in women’s sports is Chastain taking off her shirt after penalty kicks in the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final. In this widely recognizable picture, Chastain is on her knees, shirt in hand, with arms outstretched after scoring the winning goal against China to claim its second World Cup title in the history of the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT).

With its World Cup debut today, the USWNT hopes to mirror the success of Chastain and the ‘99ers. Yet, the 2019 squad is also simultaneously squaring off against the United States Soccer Federation (USSF), the national soccer federation in the United States. In March, twenty-eight former and current members of the USWNT filed suit against the federation, claiming gender discrimination due to the pay differential between members of the U.S. Men’s National Team and its female counterparts.

This is not the first time the USWNT battled gender discrimination. Since its formation, the US squad has both dominated international soccer and tackled issues of gender inequality.

From its inception in 1985, the public responded to the USWNT with an attitude of inferiority. The USSF ultimately allowed for the formation of the team solely to avoid a lawsuit, not out of interest in promoting women’s soccer.[1] In its early stages, the USSF made it very clear that it did not think the squad was a legitimate professional enterprise, with players earning no salary. The USSF only provided players ten dollars a day in meal money.

Despite its slow start, the team stayed together long enough for the announcement that FIFA planned to launch the first ever women’s soccer world championship in 1991. FIFA opted to call it the M&Ms Cup, after the tournament’s sponsor, rather than the FIFA World Cup, in case the event flopped, highlighting the inferior treatment that the women’s game received. FIFA also decided that the games in the women’s championships would only last eighty minutes, believing women were incapable of possessing the stamina to play a full ninety minutes.[2] Such thinking echoes the fears of physical educators in the mid-twentieth century and resembles policies of moderation.[3]

The U.S. Women’s National Team fought its way to the final of this initial event. They squad faced off against Norway in front of sixty-three thousand fans, at the time the largest crowd to ever watch a women’s soccer game. The U.S. prevailed, defeating Norway, 2-1, to win FIFA’s M&M’s Cup, bringing the first Women’s World Cup title back to the United States. Soccer officials and family members made up the welcome reception for the team; no media attended the return. [4]

Embed from Getty Images

The American public largely ignored the second FIFA tournament in 1995 as well, as the USWNT fell in the semifinals. If the players received little attention when they were World Champions, they certainly did not receive recognition for the third-place finish. However, despite this disappointing performance, there was hope for another chance at redemption before the next World Cup.

The International Olympic Committee announced the introduction of women’s soccer into the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, the first to host a women’s soccer tournament. Despite the growing popularity of women’s soccer, however, the USSF continued to treat the USWNT poorly. Prior to the beginning of the Olympic tournament, a dispute erupted between the federation and some of the rostered players on the American women’s team, who went on strike due to a disagreement about medal bonuses. The USSF offered a $250,000 bonus to the team if they won a gold medal, but no bonuses for any other medals. Only after nine players boycotted a training camp did the USSF negotiate a new deal: the team would receive a $240,000 gold medal bonus, a $115,000 silver medal bonus, as well as individual bonuses for the final sixteen rostered players.[5]  Ultimately the USSF caved and agreed to provide more substantial bonuses for the USWNT.

Because the Olympics are covered extensively on American television, as well as the location of the tournament on home soil, the USWNT received more attention than it had in the past. The squad broke attendance records throughout the Olympics. After advancing to the gold medal match, the team faced off against China in front of a record crowd of 76,481. While winning the first Olympic gold medal in women’s soccer was a major accomplishment for the team, the Olympics also served as an important predecessor to the 1999 Women’s World Cup, set to take place in the United States.

Embed from Getty Images

Due to the interest shown in the Atlanta Olympics, the 1999 Women’s World Cup games were scheduled in large venues, such as in NFL stadiums. This was an important step in solidifying the status of women’s soccer in the United States. While fostering American interest in the event was eventually a huge success, it also placed a lot of pressure on the American team to do well. The USWNT had to be successful and advance into the finals. Otherwise, the audience would lose interest. Studies about women’s sport indicates that unlike men’s teams, women’s teams must maintain high levels of achievement to retain fans. Due to their past successes, the U.S. women sold out two of their group stage games, one in Giants stadium, before solid performances in the quarter and semifinals pushed them through to the final.

The championship game occurred in front of a crowd of over 90,000, breaking all records previously set in the tournament. Television viewership also reached an all-time high for a women’s sporting event, with over 40 million viewers. The thrilling game remained scoreless through regulation and overtime, before the USWNT secured their second Women’s World Cup title in penalty kicks. The team’s humble start and struggle for survival in its beginning stages, as well as the lack of recognition received from the USSF for its successes, created a storyline that embodied American ideals and appealed to the American public as a successful underdog story.

Embed from Getty Images

The public embraced the USWNT after its 1999 World Cup victory, bringing attention to women’s soccer. Unfortunately, the American public has a short attention span and as the excitement of the 1999 Women’s World Cup waned, the attention slowly began to slip away from the USWNT.

A disappointing performance at the 2000 Olympics, where the USWNT fell in the finals, aided in the USWNT slipping out of the focus of the American public. The 2003 Women’s World Cup had potential to be of interest, as FIFA chose the United States as a last minute host after a location change due to a disease outbreak in China. Although this tournament had been an enormous success just four years prior, U.S. soccer officials decided to play the games in smaller venues than those that were used in the 1999 World Cup. Even though the matches sold out, the smaller venues resulted in smaller crowds. Moreover, the 1999 Women’s World Cup had taken place in June and July, a relatively slower period for sports in the United States. However, the 2003 World Cup occurred in September and October and had to compete with the NFL and MLB for viewership. The US enjoyed success through the group and quarterfinal stages before falling to Germany in the semis, making their earliest World Cup exit in the team’s history. The tournament had been significantly less successful than the 1999 World Cup in terms of both attendance and viewership. As the team failed to defend its title, it fell into a period of little public interest in the team, as a pattern of low attendance and viewership emerged.

Having failed to win a major tournament since the 1999 Women’s World Cup, the pressure mounted as the team set its sights on the 2004 Athens Olympics. The U.S. squad drew a fairly easy group, advancing to the quarterfinals to play Japan in front of a small audience of one thousand.[6] The team rolled past Japan to face Germany in the semifinals. The game was close and was decided in overtime, where the Americans overwhelmed the German defense to secure a win and a spot in the gold medal match against Brazil. Ten thousand fans gathered in Athens to watch the final. This game was also decided in overtime, but again low attendance and viewership plagued the USWNT, despite their thrilling victory and second gold medal.

Embed from Getty Images

The team hoped for a chance at both redemption and renewal of interest of the American public heading into the 2007 Women’s World Cup in China. Thirty-six thousand fans attended the U.S. team’s opening match against North Korea in the group stage. The U.S. women again emerged from the group stage with a berth to the quarterfinals, where they faced England in front of a crowd just shy of thirty thousand. The U.S. team breezed past England to a matchup with Brazil to battle for a spot in the finals. The Americans suffered an embarrassing 0-4 loss in front of fifty-thousand spectators.

With interest in women’s international soccer waning, the losses placed more pressure on the team to perform well at the 2008 Olympic tournament. Despite losing its opening match to Norway in the group stage of the Olympics, the USWNT went on a two-game winning-streak to pass through to the quarterfinals. The U.S. battled Canada for a semifinal berth, getting through on a spectacular overtime goal. Next, the Americans trounced Japan in a 4-2 semifinal-win to face Brazil in the gold medal match. In front of over fifty thousand spectators, the United States pulled off an overtime win to defend its gold medal claim. The American team was back on top and held the number one position in the world rankings for 2009 and 2010, thereby entering the 2011 Women’s World Cup as favorites to win.

Despite a strong two years leading up to the World Cup, the team had a scare when it was upset by Mexico in a qualifying tournament. This required the players pull off back-to-back victories in order to qualify for the tournament. The U.S. team won its first two group games of the 2011 Women’s World Cup to secure a quarterfinal spot, before dropping its final group game to Sweden. The U.S. squad faced Brazil in the quarterfinals in a thrilling game that drew over thirteen million viewers in the United States. This game was captivating because of the competitiveness of the match: regular time ended in a tie before Brazil scored what appeared to be the winning goal in overtime. However, the U.S. would not be counted out. American Abby Wambach scored a header in stoppage time of the second overtime to force the game into penalty kicks, where the U.S. women won to advance to the semifinals. The U.S. team pushed past France, 3-1, in the semifinal matchup to reach its third Women’s World Cup Final, where it played Japan. This match became the second-most watched women’s soccer game of all time in the United States, only behind the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final. Another thrilling match, this game also went into penalty kicks where, the U.S. fell to Japan, a devastating end to an impressive World Cup run. Significantly, the successful ticket sales and viewership led FIFA to expand the Women’s World Cup from sixteen to twenty-four teams, effective in the 2015 Women’s World Cup.

Looking for redemption, the team quickly turned its sights upon the 2012 London Olympics. The U.S. women played well in the group stage and emerged to the quarterfinals after winning all three matches in their group, a first in the Olympics for women’s soccer. The Americans secured a 2-0 win over New Zealand to face France in a thrilling semifinal match. Emerging U.S. star Alex Morgan scored a header in overtime to put the U.S. ahead, 4-3, and put the team through to the finals, where it would square off against Japan in a rematch of the World Cup Final. History was made again, as eighty thousand fans watched, the most at a women’s Olympic soccer match. The U.S. squad avenged its World Cup loss to win its fourth gold medal. However, the Americans weren’t finished with Japan just yet.

Embed from Getty Images

The 2015 Women’s World Cup was a chance for the USWNT to avenge its loss in the 2011 final. Despite drawing what was dubbed “The Group of Death,” the U.S. women performed well and made it out at the top of their group by beating Nigeria and Australia and coming to a draw with Sweden. The U.S. squad faced off against Colombia in the round of sixteen in a physical match and won, 2-0. The women continued this roll, pushing through the quarterfinals with a 1-0 win over China PR and through the semifinals, 2-0, over Germany. This allowed the American women to secure a rematch of the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final and the 2012 Olympic Final against Japan. Refusing to repeat history, the USWNT triumphed by a stunning score of 5-2. The final viewership made history as the most watched soccer game ever in the U.S. with 25.4 million viewers, surpassing the monumental 1999 Women’s World Cup Final and bringing the USWNT back to the public’s attention.

The pressure for the U.S. women to perform well at the 2016 Rio Olympics was extremely high since they would be defending their World Cup title and 2012 Olympic gold medal. The American women got off to a strong start in the group stage, defeating New Zealand and France in their first two matches and tying Colombia in their third, earning the U.S. a spot in the quarterfinals for a sixth consecutive Olympics. The U.S. played Sweden in the quarterfinals in a thrilling match decided in penalty kicks where the U.S. lost, making it their earliest exit from a major tournament in U.S. women’s soccer history.

Embed from Getty Images

Despite its fall in the most recent Olympics, the USWNT is heading into the 2019 Women’s World Cup as heavy favorites. As history has shown, the USWNT often performs better when avenging a previous loss, such as in the case of their series of finals with Japan. The gender discrimination lawsuit is also unlikely to impact the team’s performance, although the outcome of this Women’s World Cup could be used as a message to the USSF if the U.S. women perform strongly. Media attention is likely to contribute to discussion of the lawsuit. After the excitement of the last Women’s World Cup, the 2019 tournament should draw significant viewership and media attention as technology continues to evolve and make a wider variety of events available. The members of the USWNT are no strangers to pressure and the team will look to defend its 2015 title and secure a record fourth, beginning June 11.

Tate Royer is a University of Lynchburg graduate with a B.A. in accounting and a minor in sport management. The focus of her senior thesis was the impacts of the USWNT on gender equality. Tate was also a four-year member of the varsity soccer team at U of L, winning three conference titles and making four NCAA appearances.


[1] Jere Longman, The Girls of Summer: The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team and How It Changed the World (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2001), 62-63.

[2] Clemente Lisi, The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team: An American Success Story, Second ed. (Plymouth, UK: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2013), 2

[3] Susan K. Cahn, Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women’s Sport (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994).

[4] Lisi, The U.S. Women’s Soccer Team, 14.

[5] Ibid, 40.

[6]  Ibid, 100.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s