It’s one of the most memorable moments in the history of women’s sports: After burying her penalty shot to lift the U.S. over China in the final of the 1999 World Cup, a joyful Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt and dropped to her knees, touching off a raucous celebration in a sold-out Rose Bowl.
It was more than just a victory for the sports bra though. After capturing their second World Cup in three tries, the U.S. women thought they would never lose again.
“We were planning on winning the one right after that. The motto was ‘win forever,’” remembers goalkeeper Briana Scurry.
“That was the expectation. That was the standard,” agrees defender Christie Rampone. “We’d be on this team that kept winning World Cups.”
The reality is the U.S. hasn’t won one since. What was supposed to be the beginning of a dynasty turned out to be the start of a drought instead.
When the U.S. opens play in this year’s Women’s World Cup on Monday against Australia, not only will it be chasing its first title in 16 years, it won’t even be considered the favorite in that race. That nod goes to Germany, the world’s top-ranked team and one of more than a half-dozen countries with a legitimate shot at the title.
So what happened to U.S. hegemony? Turns out the 1999 World Cup was so successful, the home team’s dominance may have begun to fade even before Chastain took her shirt off.
“I don’t think we realized the growth of the game,” says Julie Foudy, a two-time World Cup champion who played on the 1999 team. “The advantage we always had is we have millions of kids playing here in the United States. Other countries just don’t embrace women playing like we have.
“What you’re seeing now is countries are coming around, slowly but surely.”
And the 1999 tournament in the U.S. may have been the impetus for that.
The first Women’s World Cup, in 1991, had few sponsors and the second one, four years later, had few fans, averaging fewer than 4,400 over its 26 games. But after prodding from both the players and U.S. Soccer, corporate America lined up to back the 1999 tournament — and so did the fans, with the home team playing in front of sellout crowds at New Jersey’s Giants Stadium and Chicago’s Soldier Field before drawing more than 90,000 to the Rose Bowl for the final.
Nearly 18 million other Americans watched the championship game on TV.
The change was so dramatic that Aaron Heifetz, the U.S. team’s press officer, had to explain to forward Mia Hamm what a sellout was.
“The first drive down the New Jersey Turnpike we have a police escort and there’s still traffic,” Chastain remembers. “We were like, ‘What is going on?’ The closer we got we realized, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re coming to the World Cup!’”
In 1995, the U.S. had played a World Cup game before 1,150 in Sweden. Now they were drawing that many to training sessions.
“Coming out of the tunnel [to] the sound of everybody cheering and rising up, it was just unbelievable,” Scurry says. “It was all we could do not to cry.”
By the time the three-week-long tournament had ended, the U.S. team had captured not just a World Cup trophy but the imagination of the country as well.
“We knew it was special. Just because of the crowds and the stadiums and the media,” says Tony DiCicco, who coached the 1999 U.S. team. “And we knew it was a point in history as far as women’s athletics.
“It is still considered the greatest women’s sporting event in history.”
The players in uniform weren’t the only ones who were moved. Megan Rapinoe remembers watching the tournament as a 14-year-old club player in Northern California.
Monday she’ll play in her second World Cup for the U.S.
“It was sort of a magical experience to be that young and to be a budding soccer player and to have that on home soil,” she says.
The rest of the world noticed too. And suddenly countries where women’s soccer was an afterthought — if it was thought of at all — were spending time and money on the sport. So much so that Japan, which won only one game and was outscored by 27 goals in the first three World Cups, won a title in 2011.
“Federations are growing and spending more money,” says Rampone, the only holdover from the 1999 squad still on the U.S. team for this summer’s tournament. “The fitness is better, which makes for speed of play. The vision’s a lot better because the pace is just incredible.
“There are a lot more teams that are competing — and can compete — for the World Cup.”
Among them the U.S. Because if the rest of the world has caught up to the Americans, it hasn’t necessarily passed them.
The U.S. took Japan to overtime, then penalty kicks, before losing four years ago. And it remains the only country to have made it to the final in every Olympics and the semifinals of every World Cup, winning at least a bronze in all 11 tournaments.
“We’re the best women’s team ever as far as the history of the women’s game and our tradition of winning,” says DiCicco, who will watch this World Cup from the Fox Sports broadcast booth. But, he adds, “We kind of lost our way” by turning a strength into a weakness.
While the U.S. has traditionally relied on its strong college programs to train national team players — all 23 members of this year’s team went to four-year schools — other countries have had to invest heavily in youth programs. So now the U.S. is trying to incorporate some of that into its developmental model as well.
“If you ask U.S. Soccer who spends the most money on soccer, they’ll yell back at you, ‘Of course we do. There’s nobody who spends more money on soccer,’” DiCicco says. “But if we spent the most money … how come we’ve gone 16 years without winning a World Cup?”
And while we’re asking questions, here’s one DiCicco never figured his name would be the answer to in 2015: Who was the last U.S. coach to win a Women’s World Cup?
Jill Ellis, who would become the new answer to that trivia question should the U.S. win this year, says her players are well aware they’re chasing history. And she believes they’re up to the challenge.
“This group has a chance to now carve out their legacy,” she says. “They understand what they’re shooting for. It would be phenomenal.”