Last Friday, on the 100th anniversary of US Soccer's founding, the US women's national team played the second-ranked Germans to a 3-3 tie in Offenbach, Germany. Though the US wasn't victorious, the fact that the American women not only played the day of the centennial but also entered the game as the world's top-ranked team was a reminder of just how far women's soccer -- and women's athletics in general -- have come.
One hundred years ago, the events of last Friday would have been a dream for women, who still couldn't vote and rarely attended college. When the US Soccer Federation was formed in 1913, soccer was very much thought of as a man's game. There were organized female tournaments at the club level in England as early as 1918, though the first official Women's World Cup wasn't until 1991. On top of that, the US Soccer Federation didn't put a women's team on the field until 1985.
The women's game started earlier internationally. In 1969, an unofficial European tournament similar to today's European Championship was launched and featured France, England, Denmark, and host Italy. The tournament was played again in Italy in 1979 and was expanded to seven other European nations. The tournament was officially adopted by UEFA (Europe's administrative soccer body) in 1982 and still exists today as the Women's Euro.
Europe has always been a few steps ahead of America in regards to soccer, although US women have dominated the sport from the start.
The US women's national team has never been ranked lower than second place by FIFA, the governing body of world soccer. It has finished in the top three at every World Cup, winning twice. It has also won four of the five Olympic Games that have included soccer, finishing second at Sydney 2000. The US has a 404-58-57 all-time record, giving it a 76.0 winning percentage.
The US men's team has been at it since 1913 but hasn't come close to the level of the women's team in international play. But perhaps by the time a women's team was first fielded in 1985, things had been in place to ensure that the US women would be successful.
The passage of Title IX in 1972 was instrumental. Universities around the country built women's soccer programs, which turned into the breeding grounds for future national team players and coaches.Today, college teams like North Carolina, Stanford, UCLA, Florida, and others continue to supply players to the national team.
In 1986, orth Carolina coach Anson Dorrance became the second coach of the US team. He not only accumulated a 66-22-5 record, but also discovered or developed key American players like Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, and Joy Fawcett.
That generation of players won the World Cup in 1991 and are still called pioneers of women's athletics. But today's generation of players has gone from pioneering to building. The most recent undertaking is the creation of a stable, professional soccer league.
Unfortunately, that's the one area in which American women's soccer has continued to struggle. Since 2003, two professional leagues have failed due to financial constraints and low attendance. Nevertheless, this new generation of players have pressed on and have, for the third time, helped resurrect a professional women's soccer league.
The new National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) will kick off this weekend and is expected to be much more financially durable than the previous leagues. The league is important for three reasons. One, it allows women to train domestically at a high level and is direct competition for European women's leagues. Two, it gives the US national team an arena to find and evaluate players after they succeed in college. And three, it gives young girls who dream of playing soccer a steppingstone.
Most female players have been worried at one time or another that they would be unable to play soccer professionally. But in creating and maintaining the NWSL, today's players are not only building a league for themselves, but also creating an avenue for US Soccer to find the next world champion players.
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To our readers,
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David Beard, Editor, Boston.com