FourFourTwo's top 25 players in U.S. women's national team history: No. 1
1. Michelle Akers
She's the Babe Ruth of women's soccer, a player so accomplished and so vastly ahead of her time -- one who so towered over her peers -- that today, so many years later, she seems more legend than fact. But Akers was very real, and her impact on the women's game in the U.S. and globally, and on the whole on women's sport, cannot be overestimated.
The Seattle-area product was the most athletic player of her (or any) generation, a precise blend of size, strength, explosiveness, skill and determination, and the all-star contingent Anson Dorrance built as the 1990s arrived -- from Carin Gabarra and April Heinrichs to Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly -- was her supporting cast. She had been a four-time All-American at Central Florida and, in 1988, the first women's Hermann Award winner, but come 1991 with the U.S., she was truly unstoppable.
That year, in 26 games, Akers scored 39 goals, 11 in the five-game span that got the U.S. to the inaugural Women's World Championship. Once there, Akers scored 10 more times en route to the tournament's Golden Boot and Silver Ball (as MVP runner-up). The Yanks stunned the world by winning the crown, with Akers scoring both goals, including the winner two minutes from time, in the title-game triumph over Norway.
Soon after, she started dealing with acute exhaustion, and in 1994 Akers was diagnosed with chronic-fatigue syndrome, a strength-sapping disorder that mandated some major lifestyle changes and a different approach to the game. She was hurt early in the Yanks' 1995 World Cup opener and wasn't effective when she returned for the semifinal, a 1-0 defeat to Norway. In response to the defeat, Tony DiCicco brought in some young talent and switched from the Americans' trademark 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, with Akers regulating the tempo from midfield. She played a crucial role in the gold-medal run that summer in Atlanta, then took an extended break to deal with her health.
She was at her best again in 1999, playing an inspirational role in the U.S.' World Cup triumph on home soil, clinching the semifinal win over Brazil with a late penalty kick then stretching herself to the point of collapse in the title game against China. She received the Bronze Ball as the tournament's third-best player and won U.S. Soccer's player of the year award for the third time. She then retired before the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Akers finished her international career with 107 goals and 36 assists in 155 appearances, numbers that would have been vastly greater had she not become ill. FIFA in 1998 bestowed on her its highest honor, the Order of Merit, and she was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2004, she and Mia Hamm were the only women on the FIFA 100, a list of the 125 greatest living players commissioned by soccer's governing body.