Ah, the stories they tell.
The night before they left for Italy, the players and staff on the United States women’s national soccer team had a small task to perform.
They had to sew the letters U-S-A on the white shirts that had hurriedly been acquired for them earlier that day so they could wear them on their three-game European trip.
“We were up half the night sewing,” Mike Ryan recalled the other day. “Everybody kicked in.”
Yes, things were much different in 1985, the year the United States first sent its women out into the world to see what international soccer was all about.
Within six years, the Americans had gone from being a rag-tag bunch of wide-eyed rookies to world champions.
Today, in front of a sold-out Rose Bowl, a sleek and pampered U.S. team will play China with a world championship again on the line. But it is doubtful that one fan in 10,000 will know what a rags-to-riches story this really is.
Ryan, a 64-year-old metallurgist working in a foundry in Seattle, could tell them. He was there at the beginning. He was the first U.S. women’s national team coach.
To start with, he could point out that the 17 women he took with him to Italy 14 years ago were not fitted out with uniforms dredged up from some dusty closet at U.S. Soccer Federation headquarters.
“It wasn’t so much hand-me-downs,” he said, “it was men’s stuff.”
Hence, the frantic all-night sewing circle as shorts were cut down to size, shirts were emblazoned with the letters and a mad scramble took place to find someone who could stencil numbers on the shirts.
Names? No, there were no names on the shirts, but had there been, one or two might be recognizable today.
“Michelle Akers was all of 19, then,” CONCACAF’s Chuck Blazer said. “She was on that first team.”
So was Lori Henry. The two, striker and defender, would still be there six years later, helping win that first world championship in China.
And today, Akers still is playing for the U.S., the only link to the first American team.
“We had no idea what the hell the national team was,” Akers said of the 1985 squad. “It just felt like to me a team thrown together to go play in a tournament.
“They [the uniforms] weren’t U.S. colors. I remember feeling like, well, I don’t know what this national team is anyway, but we’re not very USA-ish. It wasn’t really an American team because we didn’t have the red, white and blue.
“Soccer-wise, it was fun, but the [other] teams had a much better sense of the game than we did, just mentally. Physically, we could battle with them, but they were head and heels above us tactically.”
But that’s jumping ahead of the story.
Where it all began was with women such as Marty Mankamyer and Betty D’Angelo and Mavis Derflinger, women who, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, were jostling for position and a little power in what was then the very closed-minded, male and macho USSF.
To their credit, and especially Mankamyer’s, the U.S. Olympic Committee finally was persuaded to accept women’s soccer into its annual sports festival. It was a huge step.
“We coerced them, convinced them, cajoled them, and finally they agreed,” recalled Blazer, now general secretary of CONCACAF but then a USSF vice president in charge of national team programs.
Finally, after the Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, La., in 1985, the word came that an international tournament was to be played in Italy, and that the U.S. had been invited to take part.
“They came up to me and said, ‘You’re taking a team to Italy,’ ” Ryan said. “I was delighted because I just had taken two weeks off work and now I had to call my boss and say I was taking another two.”
Unlike today’s team, that original U.S. squad didn’t have the luxury of residency camps and weeks or months of preparation.
“We practiced for three days,” Ryan said.
And then it was off to Italy, where the powerful, well-organized and experienced national teams of Italy, Denmark and England awaited.
“We didn’t have any budget,” Blazer said, “but we scraped nickels together and we managed to put them on a plane and get them over there. We had to fly into Milan and then take a bus to Jesolo on the Adriatic.”
It was a five-hour bus journey, with the American players almost all experiencing their first taste of foreign travel.
Their hotel was right on the water, a tall building, without air-conditioning.
There would be other eye-openers too.
“The girls [U.S. players] got a little shocked because the Europeans came out and they had tans,” Ryan said. “I mean, tans all over.
“The girls were all embarrassed, they didn’t know what to do.”
That was the case in their first game too.
“We’d never seen the Italian team,” Ryan said. “We had no idea.”
And the Americans were not savvy to gamesmanship, either. They made the mistake of accepting an invitation to a civic reception on the evening of their arrival.
“They had a big ceremony in the city center, with a band and so on,” Ryan said. “We were absolutely exhausted. We got to bed about 11 o’clock and we’d been up for well over 30 hours. We were in no shape to play the next night, which we did.”
That first game, in Jesolo, resulted in a 1-0 loss to Italy. Ryan said the Americans were in “an absolute panic” in the first half, but settled into the game.
“The Italian girls just knocked the hell out of them in the first half,” Ryan said. “They were sitting on the ground saying, ‘Did you get the number of that bus?’
“I was screaming a lot, and some of the kids got a little upset. They scored during the confusion. In the second half, we got a penalty, but we [Sharon McMurty] missed it or we would have got a tie.”
The second match ended in a 2-2 tie with Denmark and, much as he admires Akers, Ryan had to explode another myth. Akers, he said, did not score the first U.S. goal.
“She didn’t really,” he said. “It was a girl named Emily Pickering. She got the first goal on a free kick and just put it right in the corner. The Danes were flabbergasted.”
In the final game, England scored a 3-2 victory.
But the results were not as important as the fact that the U.S. women had taken their first tentative step into the international arena they soon would dominate.
Ryan, a Dublin-born Irishman, talks fondly of side trips to Venice, of sing-alongs around a piano on the hotel veranda, and of Italian waiters.
“All the waiters were all in love with the [American] girls,” he said. “When we’d go to the games at night, they would be on one side of the field and they would chant ‘USA, USA. Hey, Hey, USA.’
“After the last game that we played, the players all signed T-shirts and threw them over the fence to the waiters.”
Ah, the stories they tell.
If you visit Ryan in his Seattle home now, he can show you the ball signed by the original team. He can show you the detailed notebook he kept. He can point to a photograph of his team on the wall.
What he can’t show you is a word of thanks or recognition from the USSF. After that first tour, he was dropped as national coach and North Carolina’s Anson Dorrance took over.
The rest, as they say, is history. But, to be fair and accurate, history has to go back to the very beginning.
Ryan won’t be in the Rose Bowl today. He will be watching on TV from his home. And that, he said, is fine.
“I’d love to be down there,” he said, “but you just feel like you’re invading. This is their time.”
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The U.S. women’s national team was founded in 1985 and played its first game in Jesolo, Italy, on Aug. 18 that year. Here is the original team:
Michelle Akers *
Lori Henry *
* 1991 world champion