What if the USWNT hadn't won in 1991? Likely no '99 magic, for one thing

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The U.S. won the first Women's World Cup to the surprise of the rest of the world. Had that not happened, the popularity of the game in the U.S. and the global landscape would look very different today. Tim Nash explains:

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The United States won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, ushering in a dynasty which includes two more World Cups trophies and four Olympic gold medals.

But what if the U.S. had not prevailed in 1991? The entire women’s soccer landscape as we know it would be dramatically different.

If we didn’t win in ’91, there’s a darn good chance that we would not have put in a bid to host the ’99 World Cup."

- Alan Rothenberg, former USSF president

There were many obstacles to overcome along the way that easily could have changed the outcome of that first World Cup, and in turn, everything that followed over the past 25 years -- the 1996 Olympics and the 1999 World Cup, both of which were held in the U.S. -- that launched women’s soccer into the mainstream. The biggest hurdle of them all was money.

“I was elected president in 1990,” Alan Rothenberg, the former head of the U.S. Soccer Federation tells FourFourTwo. “I had very little understanding of the Federation, frankly. One of the very first meetings I was in, we were talking about the upcoming Women’s World Championship. They said, it would cost about $400,000. That’s the figure I remember.”

Where would the money come from?  

“We were on the verge of bankruptcy,” Rothenberg said. “But as a ramp up to ’90, FIFA sent us some money unexpectedly. It wasn’t a ton, but at least it made us solvent. They wanted to be sure we were solvent enough to put the ’94 World Cup on, and I don’t think they thought we were going to use it for the women. I don’t think they had any idea (what we did with it).”

That money was used to fund a short residency program, which Dorrance calls vital. It was there that the Dorrance sculpted that U.S. team into a force.

What if Michelle Akers, who slid into a sprinkler head and tore up her knee a week before the tournament, had not been able to play? She had 10 goals at the 1991 World Cup, including both U.S. goals in the 2-1 win over Norway in the final.

What if April Heinrichs’ knees, the reason she retired after ’91, gave out a little bit earlier?

What if Anson Dorrance turned down Werner Fricker’s offer to become national team coach? What if Dorrance did exactly what Fricker told him to do when he was hired – just be able to compete with Canada?

The biggest implications, however, came away from the field.

What happens to ’99 without ’91?

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Mia Hamm at the 1999 World Cup. (RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports)

Norway knocked the U.S. out in the semifinals of the 1995 World Cup in Sweden, which drew small crowds to small stadiums. Then came the 1996 Olympics, which served as a turning point in popularity. But if the U.S. did not win in 1991, and entered those Atlanta Games without a title in two tries, what would the crowds -- which averaged over 43,000 fans per game -- have looked like? Those eye-popping attendance numbers are what provoked U.S. Soccer to scrap FIFA’s plan for a modest 1999 World Cup.

“The requirements from FIFA, because they still had so little confidence in it being successful, were for us to play in the Northeast and to play in small stadiums,” Rothenberg said. “Then we had the ’96 Olympics. We went back to FIFA and said, ‘we think we can do this again on the same basis we did in ‘94.’ They thought, ‘if these crazy Americans want to try it, go ahead.’ But they gave us no extra support. We were taking the gamble that it would be successful.”

The 1999 World Cup was, of course, wildly successful, averaging 3.8 goals per game and ending with the U.S. beating China in a dramatic shootout in front of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl. But without a title in 1991, that game in that setting likely never happens.

“If we didn’t win in ’91, there’s a darn good chance that we would not have put in a bid to host the ’99 World Cup,” Rothenberg said. “We might have just said, ‘well, we have a long way to go, let’s not move too fast.’”

A blank canvas and a ripple effect

World soccer in 1991 was pretty dismal. The 1990 men’s World Cup was the lowest scoring of all time, averaging just 2.2 goals per game. Defensive tactics that year led to the rule that goalkeepers could not pick up a back pass, and the three-points-for-a-win rule was installed after the ’90 World Cup.

The women’s game, however, was still a blank canvas.

“Women’s soccer was in a complete abyss,” says Lauren Gregg, an assistant with the U.S. women from 1989 to 2000. “No one really cared what we did or didn’t do. The way in which we won, the quality of our play, the intensity with which we played, was impossible to ignore.”

If the U.S. had not won, and Norway was crowned champion, the United States’ style of play might have gone unnoticed and, given the defensive culture that existed at the time, dismissed as overly risky.

“When a team wins a world championship, other teams look at certain aspects of the way they play, or try to play more of that style,” Tony DiCicco, an assistant in ’91 and the head coach from ’95 through ‘99, tells FourFourTwo. “People would have studied Norway.

“The Norwegians team in the ‘90s was a phenomenal team. Their style of play was very direct. It was very effective but very direct. I don’t know if their style was less exciting. It was less attractive in many ways.”

The styles of Norway and Germany were far more acceptable approaches to the women’s game than the high-energy, attacking style played by the Americans. And as the U.S. walked away with the title, others were forced to pay attention.

“Countries around the world that revered soccer were just flabbergasted that a non-soccer playing country could beat them at their own game,” says Gregg. “You could sense this ripple effect.”

The U.S. victory also gave women’s soccer the perfect spokesman. Dorrance felt a responsibility to change minds about women’s soccer. He constantly told his players to “sell the game,” ending every pregame speech with, “Let’s show these people that women can play.”

They did exactly that.

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