Remembering the 1991 World Cup: How the U.S. women's soccer juggernaut was launched

Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer

It was the World Cup before there were Women's World Cups. As Scott French writes, it was also where the U.S. established its dominance. (Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer.)

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The seeds to all that American women's soccer has become -- from Mia and Abby to Alex and Carli, 1999 and 2015 to all that Olympic gold, the pro leagues and thriving club and college scenes -- were planted in secret, more or less.

The U.S. women's national team didn’t burst into the public imagination until the Atlanta Olympics 20 years ago, and it wasn’t until the iconic summer of 1999 that the country truly turned into women’s soccer fanatics.

The U.S. has since evolved into the women’s game’s defining powerhouse, a perennial championship favorite and the ignition for the sport’s global revolution. But none of it happens if not for a special group of women and their superstar coach, who toiled for years with zero attention, painstakingly building the kind of side the women's game -- and perhaps the men's, too -- had never seen.

And, truthfully, might never see again.

We went in with the attitude we were going to win every single game ... This wasn't going to be a humble assault by a dark horse. This was going to be the beginning of a national team dynasty.

- Anson Dorrance

It culminated in 1991, with the Americans' dramatic triumph at FIFA's first World Cup for women, an unexpected coronation that rocked the game and established a soccer outsider, one of the few nations on the planet where the sport is not king, as a genuine giant.

Not that anybody noticed.

Wednesday marks the 25-year anniversary of the U.S.’ perfect run through that first Women's World Cup, pulling out a 2-1 victory over arch-nemesis Norway on Michelle Akers' goal with two minutes to go in regulation. The final was played before a packed house in Guangzhou, China, and broadcast to a worldwide television audience, albeit on tape delay here at home.

When the team -- 18 college standouts or former NCAA stars, along with head coach Anson Dorrance and staff -- arrived home a few days later, three people were on hand to greet them. The soccer community, as it were, had a notion of what had happened, but there wasn't even a collective yawn beyond it. What the U.S. had done wasn't on anyone's radar.

“We hadn't had [the attention] before, so it wasn't like we were expecting a whole lot,” Carin Jennings Gabarra, who won the Golden Ball as tournament MVP, mused a few years ago. “It's just kind of the way it was, and we persevered, and things came later on. That's why I feel we were a big part of the steppingstones [to] the way soccer is today."

Confidence of champions

The first women's national team was constructed in August 1985, under Seattle-based Irishman Mike Ryan's leadership, for a tournament in Italy. The Yanks tied one of four games. Dorrance, seven seasons into his University of North Carolina dynasty, took charge the following summer, and over the next five years, in starts and stops dictated by a calendar of sporadic events in Italy and China and Blaine, Minn., meticulously built a juggernaut.

He had the core of the group that would go to China together by the summer of '87, and within three years, his team was beating big sides in friendlies. Sometimes it wasn't close. The team struggled against Norway and China in warmups a few months before the tournament -- officially the Women's World Championship -- but headed to China with great confidence.

“We went in with the attitude we were going to win every single game and emerge as world champions,” Dorrance told FourFourTwo. “This wasn't going to be a humble assault by a dark horse. This was going to be the beginning of a national team dynasty.”

The team believed.

“There had been no history before us, so we had no expectations,” said Linda Hamilton, who started on the backline from the second game. “All I know is every time I stepped on the field with those players around, every time we lost a game, I was not only angry, but shocked. There was not ever a time in any game ever, no matter what the score was, that I thought we were going to lose.””

We didn't think beating teams was a high enough standard. So we believed in breaking them.

- Dorrance

The rest of the world wasn't convinced. Germany, fresh off the European championship, was the favorite, and Norway, Sweden and China looked ready to challenge the Germans.

Then the U.S. scored three goals on Sweden in a group opener in Punyu, with Gabarra scoring twice and Hamm getting the third. The Swedes rallied to make it 3-2 -- “We were white-knuckling at the end,” Dorrance says -- but the Yanks held on and made a statement. Everyone else had to take notice. Most of them did.

The U.S. had great athletes, and that half of the squad who hadn't played for Dorrance at UNC was quickly introduced to the Carolina way: its vigorous, nonstop competition in training; every single thing recorded; each player constantly ranked. There was a fighter's mentality through the group and, the world would learn, an uncommon collection of talent.

Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer.

Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer.

Dorrance, who played from an uncommon 3-4-3 alignment, built his team on “1-v-1 artists,” and he had plenty on the U.S. squad, especially those who could destroy opposing defenders. The Americans' front line -- Akers, Gabarra and April Heinrichs, dubbed the “Triple-Edged Sword” by Chinese media -- was nearly impossible to stop.

“April Heinrichs could carve anyone 1v1, and she would beat them with her speed and power and aggression,” he said. Gabarra could destroy defenders “by screwing them into the ground, by cutting the ball sharply and then pushing it by them, and then cutting it again ... [beating] them with class and technique and guile and deception.”

Then there was Mia Hamm, only 19, on the right side of midfield; her acceleration and agility were unmatched. Kristine Lilly, 20, on the other flank, would run straight at defenders, grinding past them until “finally you would just collapse from exhaustion.” And Julie Foudy, 20, in central midfield, “had this great change-of-pace move, this stop-and-go and stop-and go.”

And sitting behind them, playmaking for the bunch, was Shannon Higgins Cirovski, whom Dorrance praised as “just magnificent ... like having a coach on the field.”

"Our philosophy was to break teams,” Dorrance said. “We didn't think beating teams was a high enough standard. So we believed in breaking them. The philosophy behind breaking a team is to play against them with so much aggression, they don't want to play you anymore, and they basically give up."

The backline had two burgeoning legends -- Carla Werden Overbeck and Joy Biefeld Fawcett -- plus Linda Hamilton, whom Dorrance at the time called “a blunt instrument” that functioned as a “sort of an enforcer.”

Mary Harvey was strong in the nets, and there were was good depth coming off the bench, with defenders Lori Henry -- she had been part of the team since its 1985 debut -- and Debbie Belkin, midfielder Tracey Bates Leone, forwards Brandi Chastain and Wendy Gebauer, and goalkeepers Amy Allmann and Kim Maslin-Kammerdeiner.

Tremendous, on and off the field

The Americans bowled over Brazil, 5-0, in Punyu and Japan, 3-0, in Foshan to win the group. Theysmoked Chinese Taipei, 7-0, in the quarterfinals in Foshan behind Akers' five goals, setting up a final-four showdown in Guangzhou with the Germans, who had conceded just once in four victories.

There was tremendous atmosphere in the stadiums and in the cities, all in southern China, even if FIFA’s commitment to a Women's World Cup was in question. For starters, it wasn’t officially a World Cup, but rather awkwardly the FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup. (That would change before the second edition in Sweden in 1995.) And the games were only 80 minutes, because women would be overburdened, of course, by going a full 90. (That, too, would be corrected.)

Any perceived slights paled against the backdrop organizers created.

You were being mobbed at tables to give autographs ... you'd think, 'Gosh, I wish we could just eat,' and then you'd think, 'Are you kidding me? This is what we've been asking for.' ”

- Linda Hamilton

“[China] was the perfect venue to have it. They got 80,000 people every game,” Hamilton said. “It took us two hours to go two miles one time, because the whole city was walking and riding bikes to the game. The towns that hosted the games, the whole town, would take the day off to go to the game. We went to a stadium that had trees, and people were sitting in tree branches, and they were high [up there].

“It was fantastic. You felt like a celebrity. You were being mobbed at tables to give autographs. Literally mobbed at tables, where you'd think, 'Gosh, I wish we could just eat,' and then you'd think, 'Are you kidding me? This is what we've been asking for.' ”

Germany received the same kind of reception, and most onlookers expected its side to be playing in the final. The coached was former Bayer Leverkusen boss Gero Bisanz, who had been in charge of the women for nearly a decade and also served as the German federation’s director of coaching. They had a distinct manner of play, and they weren't going to alter it for the Americans. They expected to win.

Dorrance employed a pressing system -- “We pressed the 100 for 90 frigging minutes in every game in that World Cup,” he says -- that the world had never witnessed. And the Germans walked into his trap.

“They were going to try to ping it around the back, and I don't think [Bisanz] understood the ravenous, ball-winning hawks that I was going to unleash on them,” Dorrance said. “We beat the absolute hell out of them.”

Gabarra scored in the 10th, 22nd and 33rd minutes to provide a three-goal cushion, and Heinrichs added two in the second half for a 5-2 decision. Bisanz didn't accept defeat graciously. He said in the postgame news conference, in so many words, that the Americans had cheated. How? By pressing his defenders.

That left Norway between the U.S. and the trophy, and the group was spent.

Pluses, minuses of '100 mph'

Dorrance had spent a lot of time on aerobic training, so the players could still go 100 mph, but he'd not spent enough time on anaerobic training -- he'd add that to his mix after the tournament -- and their legs were dead. He'd not made a substitution against Germany, and he used the same XI in the final.

It was difficult to contend with the Norwegians' long-ball game, but Akers gave the U.S. a short-lived lead in the 20th minute. Linda Medalen, Norway's top player, equalized in the 29th. The U.S. held off its foe until the end, when Akers took a ball off a Norwegian defender, rounded goalkeeper Reidun Seth, and slid the ball into the net.

“It was surreal,” Hamilton said. “There was never a doubt that she's going to find a way. I think that's what made Michelle, Carin and April and Mia and Lil at any point in time in their careers so dangerous. No matter how well or how bad they were playing, at any moment they could destroy you. They were just that good.”

We had all talked amongst ourselves [before the tournament], said if we don't win, we're not coming home. Those were the expectations we had.

- Shannon Higgins Cirovski

The goal was Akers' 10th, giving her the Golden Boot as top scorer. She also won the Silver Ball as the tournament's No. 2 player.

The reigning emotion for the U.S., however, wasn't delight.

“It was certainly a relief to us ...,” Cirovski said. “We had all talked amongst ourselves [before the tournament], said if we don't win, we're not coming home. Those were the expectations we had.”

Said Dorrance: “I was so nervous during that World Cup. When we won, for me there was no joy. There was just relief that on my watch we didn't lose.”

The U.S. returned home, and life quickly went back to normal. Heinrichs, her knees shot, would retire, as would Cirovski, who was coaching and ready to start a family. A few others drifted away, some stayed on for 1995 and the Olympics, and the youngsters -- Hamm and Lilly and Foudy -- along with Fawcett and Overbeck and Chastain would play significant roles leading to and beyond 1999.

The U.S. has accomplished so much in women's soccer, and 1991 is where it all started.

“When we won in '91, everyone thought we were born on top of a mountain,” Dorrance said. “We were not born on that mountain. We climbed the friggin' mountain, we planted our fucking flag on it, and we've defended it ever since. ... We set an incredibly high standard in everything we did, and we conquered the world.

“And, honestly, we haven't looked back. I mean, usually, if the U.S. doesn't win, all of us here consider it an upset.”

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.