Remembering History: 1991 U.S. World Cup team signals start of three-decade USWNT dynasty

When the 1991 U.S. Women’s National Team returned home victorious from Guangdong, China, with its win in the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup, it was a decidedly different scene than what today’s USWNT stars experience.

Following their 2-1 win over Norway in the final on Nov. 30, the team traveled for nearly a day before landing in New York on Dec. 2 to a quiet reception consisting of several U.S. Soccer officials, U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Bora Milutinovic, three news reporters, one photographer and Swiss Air officials, who gave each player a rose.

“We came home to nothing — no one knows, no one cares,” says Hall of Fame midfielder Julie Foudy, who won two World Cups and three Olympic medals during her national team career.

In fact, no one knew if the Women’s World Cup – initially called the FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup — was going to be a one-off event or the start of something big. There was no “next World Cup” scheduled, and as players wandered off to their connecting flights at JFK, the vibe was subdued.

“The ache was real and the departures at the airport — you’re just hugging on and hanging on to your teammates saying goodbye,” remembers April Heinrichs, who played forward and served as the U.S. team captain in 1991. “I was close to many of them. But it really did feel like the end, not the beginning of women’s soccer. It felt like the end of one team’s journey with a whole lot of uncertainty about the game.”

But Foudy also remembers the resolve that began to bubble up in that moment, thinking, “This isn’t going to be easy but we’re going to get this sport off the ground in this country. That was our attitude.”

To say they succeeded is an understatement. The USWNT is the most successful international squad in women’s soccer, winning four World Cup titles (1991, 1999, 2015, 2019), four Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012) and nine CONCACAF Gold Cups. Viewership figures for the 2019 Women’s World Cup soared as 1.12 billion people tuned into coverage of the tournament.

As the current USWNT team faces its final preparations for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this summer, On Her Turf continues its celebration of Women’s History Month with a closer look at the 1991 USWNT that kicked off an American dynasty.

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The USWNT was created in 1985 and just a year later, Hall of Fame coach Anson Dorrance joined the program after already leading the North Carolina Tar Heels to four of their 22 national championship titles. He brought with him nine players who had been on his UNC teams, including Heinrichs, Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm. Building on that foundation with a core of young players (the average age of the starting XI in 1991 was 23), Dorrance unveiled his now legendary 3-4-3 system, which was received with criticism.

“We played a 3-4-3, which was like sacrilegious,” he recalls. “People thought, ‘You’re not playing a 4-4-2? What kind of tactical midgets are you? You’re going to high-pressure? You can’t high-pressure in an event where you have a game every three days.’ …

“We were great duelers. We were gritty. We were to some extent irreverent because we didn’t worship at the altar of the 4-4-2 and we didn’t play the ball around in the back for half an hour to show we could possess it. We were different and we scared teams because we were different.”

Dorrance proved his system to be successful out of the gate. At the first CONCACAF qualifying tournament, held in April 1991 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the USWNT swept all five matches during an 11-day span, including a 5-0 triumph over Canada in the final to become the lone CONCACAF qualifier. The Americans dominated every match, outscoring its opposition 49-0 and conceding just 15 shots on goal.

“It really was a big deal for us, and we took it as such,” Heinrichs says. “We felt the weight of the world on us even though many folks were not paying attention the way they do today for World Cup qualifying.”

Future stars flashed first signs of brilliance during that qualifying event, where forward Michelle Akers finished with 11 goals, followed by Heinrichs with eight. Brandi Chastain, who had been used mostly as a sub during the tournament, finished with seven, followed Hamm and Carin Jennings Gabarra with five apiece.

“We were very American in the way we approached the game and in our confidence going in to matches,” reflects Dorrance. “We built our foundation on things like the individual duel. We were going to win every head ball, we were going to win every tackle, and we were going to win every one-vs.-one contest when we were running at defenses.”

But the U.S. women were still relatively new as a national team when the first World Cup tournament kicked off. They had played just 58 international matches, 43 on the road, and had compiled a 34-18-6 record. Leading up to China, the USWNT had compiled an impressive 18-game winning streak, which included the CONCACAF romp and 14 straight shutouts, but the team stumbled in its World Cup warm-up matches, going 3-6-1 with two losses to Norway and a winless record vs. China (0-2-1).

What’s more, the Americans were set to face 1984 UEFA Women’s champion Sweden in the first match of the group stage, a team they had never beaten (0-1-1) at the time. But Gabarra scored two goals within the first 49 minutes to give the U.S. the advantage, and Hamm added another as the U.S. held on for a 3-2 victory. The U.S. women closed out a perfect group stage (3-0) with a 5-0 romp over Brazil, highlighted by a brace from Heinrichs along with goals from Gabarra, Akers and Hamm, and a 3-0 win over Japan featuring two more goals from Akers and one from Wendy Gebauer.

The knockout round began with a 7-0 rout of Chinese Taipei, where Akers scored five goals, including four in the opening half. Foudy and Fawcett also scored in the quarterfinal matchup. In the semifinals, the U.S. dispatched Germany 5-2, highlighted by a first-half hattrick by Gabarra. Heinrichs added two second-half scores.

“Gabarra had a game her life,” remembers Lilly. “I played right behind her at left midfield. I was catching myself watching her just tear up the defenders.”

The team got a well-deserved boost ahead of the final vs. Norway with a Thanksgiving Day dinner that included players’ families and a special guest — soccer legend Pele. The traditional holiday celebration served as a mental break for American women, who knew they were taking on a Norway team with something to prove. After opening the tournament with a 4-0 loss to China, Norway had roared back with four straight wins to reach the final.

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The Norwegians also held the historical advantage over the USWNT, who held a dismal 1-4-0 record against the 1987 UEFA Women’s champs. In fact, the Americans dropped two matches to Norway on U.S. soil just prior to the tournament, losing 0-1 on Aug. 30 and 1-2 on Sept. 1.

More than 63,000 people packed Tianhe Stadium for the Saturday-night finale, which was just 80 minutes long based on a report of the 1988 FIFA Women’s Invitation Tournament, considered a dry-run event — and won by Norway. The report read: “At that time there were many teams whose players had serious fitness problems towards the end of the 80-minute game. FIFA switched to 90-minute games for the 1995 World Cup.

“That was stupid, disappointing,” said Akers regarding the shortened match time. Akers’ five-goal record performance in a single World Cup game stood alone until 2019, when it was matched by Alex Morgan.

Akers headed in free kick from Shannon Higgins-Cirovski in the 20th minute to take the early lead, but the Norwegians drew even just nine minutes later. The score stay tied for nearly 50 more minutes, until once again it was Akers in spotlight.

“We said at halftime that we just needed to get behind them,” said Higgins-Cirovski, who set up what would ultimately be the game winner – after playing the entire tournament with a fifth metatarsal stress fracture in her left foot. “I knew on a half-turn I could get them.”

Higgins-Cirovski delivered a 40-yard back pass to Akers in the 78th minute, and Akers didn’t miss a beat as she drove at the keeper, who dove to the ground. Akers touched the ball past the keeper with her left foot, and facing an empty net, maneuvered around the ball to take the winning shot with her right foot.

“I got so much [grief] about that,” Akers says about the maneuver before explaining: “From practicing, if the ball is rolling away to the left and you hit it with your left, unless you hit it perfectly, there is a margin of error. On my right, I had the ball width to hit it to go in. I just passed it into the goal.”

“I knew what I was doing,” she adds. “It’s the thing you train for your whole life, to take the last shot to win the World Cup. Who gets that chance?!”

Akers — one of two players who had been on that original 1985 team along with Lori Henry — was awarded the Golden Shoe for top scoring honors in the tournament (10 goals), while Gabarra was awarded the Golden Ball as tournament’s best player. Akers, Gabarra (six goals, three assists) and Heinrichs (four goals, two assists) combined to score 80 percent of U.S. goals in the entire tournament (20 out 25) and were appropriately nicknamed the “Triple-Edged Sword” by the Chinese media.

But the Americans’ talent and depth was spread across the field: Goalkeeper Harvey started every game, with Kim Maslin-Kammerdeiner and Amy (Allmann) Griffin as backups. The backline included Carla (Werden) Overbeck, Joy (Biefeld) Fawcett, Linda Hamilton, Henry and Debbie (Belkin) Rademacher.Tracey (Bates) Leone, Higgins-Cirovski, Foudy, Hamm and Lilly made up the midfield, with Chastain joining Gebauer, Akers, Heinrichs and Gabarra up front. Ten players from the 1991 Women’s World Cup Team are in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

“Anyone that’s ever played for that team is a part of the legacy and part of that U.S. Women’s National Team,” Gabarra told USA Soccer on the 30th anniversary of the 1991 World Cup. “It’s special because we continue to be dominant, and we continue to win big tournaments. Everybody also has the ability to fight for what they believe in. It’s a really special group to be a part of.”

Learn more about the legendary women who blazed athletic trails in this five-part series, “Remembering History,” as On Her Turf celebrates Black Heritage Month and Women’s History Month with features on Alice Coachman, the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team, tennis great Althea Gibson, race car driver Janet Guthrie and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King‘s win over Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” 

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