The US Women’s National Team (USWNT) is the most decorated international team in women’s soccer. With 4 World Cups and 4 Olympic gold medals (the Olympics is a full national team event, as opposed to the men’s, so this counts as an international trophy). Germany has two World Cups and no other country has more than 1 Olympic gold medal. In short, the USWNT dominates every other country in the sport by a wide margin.

The US Men’s National Team (USMNT) has no major international trophies. They made the semifinals of the first World Cup in 1930 and made the quarters in 2002. The closest they came was making the finals of the Confederations Cup (a minor international tournament) in 2009. They did beat a prime Spain team in the process, but still have not won any major hardware outside of the continent.

Which begs the question – why has the women’s team seen so much more success than the men’s team?

Title IX

The first domino in this story fell in 1972. Title XI was originally enacted to bring equality to women in federally funded education programs. Collegiate athletics fell under this umbrella, and in 1982 the NCAA sponsored women’s soccer to balance out the heavy amounts being spent on men’s sports. Before this point, women’s soccer was a hodgepodge of random college teams that played each other, with no real national championship. It was more akin to a club program as opposed to a varsity sport. 

After the NCAA officially sponsored women’s soccer, participation rates went from 1,855 players on 80 teams across all three divisions in 1982 to nearly 28,000 players across 1,026 teams in 2020-21.

Women’s soccer was seen as a relatively inexpensive way to comply with Title IX. Not only was it a good way to increase opportunities for female athletes, but it also inadvertently started a process of women’s soccer domination internationally. 

Now that women had the opportunity to play at a higher level, with NCAA level facilities and support staff, the game was taken much more seriously. Plus the ability to earn a college scholarship created an increased level of interest and competitiveness at the youth level, as soccer was now a legit way to earn a scholarship to college. This caused a boom in youth soccer participation among girls due in part to these new opportunities.

College Soccer Boom

Dominant college programs emerged, mainly at UNC Chapel Hill (who won 15 championships in the 80s and 90s alone), and the women’s national team played its first game in 1985 (about 100 years after the first USMNT game). This environment became crucial to forming the spine of the successful women’s national team of the 90s and beyond.

While not ideal for the men’s game due to professional opportunities abroad, college soccer was a great developer of talent in the women’s game in the US. Other countries had few opportunities for women to play organized soccer at a high level in those days. While Title IX had its detractors, there is little doubt about the positive impact it had giving women the opportunity to play organized sports at a high level. And there is zero doubt that it fueled the success of our women’s national team. 

Michelle Akers, the dominant women’s player of the 80s and early 90s, said “Title IX was game-changing. I can’t even understand the amount of time and energy and heartache that took to get that pushed through, and not just pushing it through but enforcing it — making it real for people, and making it real for me.”

The Early Trailblazers

Michelle Akers was just one of the trailblazers for the USWNT, alongside others like Brandi Chastain, April Henrichs, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Kristine Lilly (among many others). 

The early days were not easy for the players and program to navigate. Teams were hastily assembled for small tournaments. They weren’t paid very much. There’s even stories of the women having to stitch on the USA patches on their jerseys the night before games. 

While Title IX gave an equal platform on the college level, no such mechanism existed on the national team level to create an equal opportunity. In those days, the women who chose to play on the national team played for the love of the game, and they had to fight for every inch of their success often in adverse conditions.

If it wasn’t for the work and dedication of these trailblazers, the USWNT would likely have not seen the subsequent success of the 90s and beyond.

The Men’s Side of Things

While college soccer gave the women a great platform to succeed on the international level, it did not work the same way for the men’s team. 

We dive into this topic more in our article about soccer culture in the US. Basically, soccer was a second or third tier sport in this country, mostly comprised of middle and upper middle class players. A college soccer scholarship was seen as a great outcome to a successful youth soccer career, with very few men’s players playing professionally. In other countries, the environment for boys was much more cutthroat, as players were competing for professional spots at a very young age. 

This system did not affect the women’s game as much, as they were not competing against seasoned professional players. The men were, and the USMNT in those days was very far behind the best international teams in the world. 

Much has changed since then, as both women and men in the US have access to more professional opportunities domestically at a much younger age. But in those days, the USWNT were the pacesetters in their domain, while the men were very far behind in theirs. 

The 1991 World Cup and Olympic Success

The women’s team saw some good results early on, led by UNC Chapel Hill coach Anson Dorrance (who was integral to improving competitive conditions for the NCAA women’s game). On the back of their dominance of college soccer in the 80s, Dorrance took a team composed of many UNC players (10 out of 18 on the squad) to the inaugural Women’s World Cup in China in 1991. 

Conditions were brutal and quite frankly very unprofessional for that tournament. The women played 6 games in 14 days, a volume of high level matches that is unheard of today. They wore second hand jerseys from the boys youth national team. Even though 65,000 fans witnessed their victory against Norway, their World Cup success received little coverage back home. The players returned from their victorious journey to almost no fanfare. 

USWNT won the first Women’s World Cup in 1991

But the players were happy and knew they achieved something momentous. A huge credit to the perseverance of this group. This victory built the foundation for future success, and attention, of the women’s game in the US. 

The 1996 Olympics and the 1999 World Cup

These two events really helped the women’s game explode in this country. The overall success of the first World Cup paved the way for the Olympics to include women’s soccer in the 1996 edition in Atlanta. Even though the USWNT did not win the 1995 World Cup, they were the favorites for Olympic success on home soil. The fact that this team had some international success under their belt and the expectation to win the gold medal, as well as the attention that the Olympics naturally brings, led to much more coverage of their games. 

And they did not disappoint. They defeated China 2-1 in the final in front of 76,000 people to win the gold medal. Their victory received much more coverage and added even more legitimacy to the squad and the sport overall. People were starting to take notice of this outstanding group of women. 

First women’s soccer team to win Olympic gold

1999 World Cup – The Big Turning Point

All of which led up to the perfect storm of the 1999 edition of the Women’s World Cup, hosted in the US. This event received a ton of hype. Originally slated to take place in smaller stadiums, the success of the Olympics led the World Cup to utilize NFL stadia with much higher seating capacities. 

This event averaged a record of over 37,000 spectators per match for a total of almost 1.2 million attendees. This record stood until 2015. All of the games were televised, and the tournament generated a profit of $4 million for FIFA – a watershed moment, as women’s sports were not generally profitable until this point (with the exception of tennis). 

This showed just how much the interest in the game jumped within a decade, and how much the success of the USWNT built to this point. 

The USWNT once again did not disappoint, winning the final in penalty kicks 5-4 against China in front of over 90,000 spectators at the Rose Bowl stadium. This set an international record for attendance of a women’s sporting event. And those of us who remember this game will never forget the iconic moment when Brandi Chastain scored the winning penalty kick, ripping off her shirt to celebrate such an historic achievement. 

This win received enormous coverage all over the US, and led to many endorsement deals for individual players in the team. It also led to the formation of the first fully professional women’s league in the US, the WUSA. 

Since 1999

The USWNT has built on their success, winning 2 more World Cups and 3 more Olympic gold medals since. They remain the dominant team in the world, although other countries have caught up and the field is much more competitive than it used to be. Especially as participation and professionalization of the women’s game has increased globally.

This success all stems from the 1970s with a law enacted to provide equal opportunities in education for women. And now you have many women who are full-time professional soccer players in a growing league in the US, and millions of girls who have played the sport since, dreaming of success on a worldwide level. What a movement.

These are the main reasons that the USWNT has seen much more success than the USMNT. On the field, the team had the ingredients from years of stiff competition in the NCAA, pushed forward by Title IX. Off the field, the early pioneers fought through harsh circumstances in international play to grow the game. They deserve a ton of credit for their efforts and the current success of the program.

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