One year ago, the United States women’s national soccer team took down the Netherlands 2-0 to win its fourth World Cup in eight tries in front of 57,900 fans in Lyon, France. Megan Rapinoe opened the scoring with a penalty in the 61st minute, and chaos agent Rose Lavelle put the match away eight minutes later. With women’s soccer continuing to improve its depth and competition levels, the U.S. solidified its place as the standard bearer.
Through eight World Cups, the USWNT has never finished worse than third. That’s an incredible feat. Fans have watched the torch get passed many times over, from the Michelle Akerses of the world, to the Mia Hamms and Julie Foudys, to the Abby Wambachs and Hope Solos, to the Rapinoes and Alex Morgans, to the Julie Ertzes and Lavelles.
To both commemorate these eight teams and perhaps get the debate juices flowing a bit, let’s go back and rank each team based on both its era and its World Cup dominance.
Manager: Tony DiCicco
Leading scorers: Tisha Venturini (3), Kristine Lilly (3), Tiffeny Milbrett (3)
Most minutes: Joy Fawcett, Carla Overbeck, Venturini, Lilly, Mia Hamm
World Cup results: Drew with China (3-3), beat Denmark (2-0), beat Australia (4-1), beat Japan in quarterfinals (4-0), lost to Norway in semifinals (0-1), beat China for third place (2-0)
After a wild opening match against China, the U.S. defended as well or better than it had while winning the inaugural World Cup in 1991. The problems in Sweden, such as they were, came in attack. That was at least partially due to a pair of injuries for star Michelle Akers. She suffered a concussion early in the tournament, then dealt with a knee injury in the loss to Norway. With Akers hobbling and future stars still a bit inexperienced — Venturini was 22; Lilly, Hamm and goalkeeper Briana Scurry 23; midfielder Julie Foudy 24 — the U.S. couldn’t overcome a 10th-minute set-piece goal from Anka Aarønes, and Norway advanced. (The U.S. would get its revenge with a 2-1 semifinal win in the Olympics the next year.)
The 1991 runner-up, Norway outscored opponents 23-1 in this tournament and was one of probably two teams that had a legitimate shot of beating the USWNT. Germany was the other; the first breakthrough German squad beat Brazil 6-1 and knocked off China before falling to Norway 2-0 in the final.
Manager: Pia Sundhage
Leading scorers: Abby Wambach (4), Lauren Holiday (2), Alex Morgan (2)
Most minutes: Wambach, Ali Krieger, Christie Pearce, Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd
World Cup results: Beat North Korea (2-0), beat Colombia (3-0), lost to Sweden (2-1), beat Brazil in quarterfinals (2-2, shootout), beat France in semifinals (3-1), lost to Japan in final (2-2, shootout)
Most of our sports memories don’t come from long-term, tournament-long impressions — they come from moments. The 2011 team had one of the most amazing moments in the squad’s history: Wambach’s stoppage-time header (set up by maybe the most gorgeous pass of Rapinoe’s career) against Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals. It set up a penalty shootout that the U.S. would win, 5-3.
For the rest of the tournament, however, this squad struggled to dominate. The U.S. gave up two goals in three different matches and lost to Sweden in group play; that loss should have doomed the Americans, as it pitted them against Brazil, probably the tournament’s best team, in the final eight. But the upset win, combined with Japan’s upset of host Germany, opened the draw up considerably, and the U.S. nearly took advantage. But this was the third straight World Cup the U.S. couldn’t win, and an aging squad — among the seven players with the most minutes, only Krieger was under 28 — seemed to have quite a few questions to answer heading toward 2015.
Manager: Greg Ryan
Leading scorers: Wambach (6), Lori Chalupny (2), Heather O’Reilly (2)
Most minutes: Chalupny, Cat Whitehill, Wambach, Lilly, Stephanie Cox
World Cup results: Drew with North Korea (2-2), beat Sweden (2-0), beat Nigeria (1-0), beat England in the quarterfinals (3-0), lost to Brazil in the semifinals (4-0), beat Norway for third place (4-1)
Maybe the USWNT’s most noteworthy loss ever — certainly the most lopsided — came in Hangzhou, China, in 2007. Having rolled through the field by an 8-2 margin, the U.S. had proved its bona fides, but Greg Ryan suddenly suffered an acute case of overthinking, replacing keeper Hope Solo with the veteran Scurry, then 35, in the semifinals. It ended up damaging both his, and indirectly Scurry’s, legacies. Leslie Osborne knocked in an own goal in the 20th minute, Marta scored twice and Brazil rolled. Granted, Brazil and Germany were likely superior to the U.S. even with Solo, but Ryan was replaced by Sundhage the next year all the same.
With Scurry still in goal (Solo’s reaction to the benching … wasn’t great) and Wambach scoring twice in the first half, an angry USWNT romped through Norway to take third. But after an aging squad had fallen short in 2003, a refreshed 2007 roster — Wambach was 27 and at her peak, and Solo, Lloyd, Whitehill and Chalupny were all between 23 and 25 — had done the same.
Manager: April Heinrichs
Leading scorers: Wambach (3), Lilly (2), Whitehill (2), Hamm (2), Shannon Boxx (2), Cindy Parlow Cone (2)
Most minutes: Fawcett, Scurry, Kate Markgraf, Lilly, Whitehill
World Cup results: Beat Sweden (3-1), beat Nigeria (5-0), beat North Korea (3-0), beat Norway in quarterfinals (1-0), lost to Germany in semifinals (3-0), beat Canada for third place (3-1)
Encores: Great for concerts, not as great for champs. The 2003 USWNT was led by 1999’s heroes — Hamm (31), Foudy (32), Lilly (31), Scurry (31), Fawcett (35) — and that certainly made sense. These were the players who had truly brought women’s soccer into the American consciousness. And while they were past their prime, they were still better than just about anyone.
They weren’t better than Germany, though. Die Nationalelf had led the U.S. twice in the 1999 quarterfinals before succumbing, and they found their devastating stride four years later. They outscored opponents 13-2 in group play and had just destroyed Russia 7-1 before meeting the U.S. in Portland. (The World Cup was again held in the U.S. because of a SARS outbreak in China.) They held on to a 1-0 lead into stoppage time before putting the match away with late counters. They beat Sweden in the final via a golden goal, then fielded maybe the best non-U.S. team in World Cup history four years later.
Manager: Anson Dorrance
Leading scorers: Akers (10), Carin Jennings-Gabarra (6), April Heinrichs (4), Hamm (2)
Most minutes: Foudy, Mary Harvey, Overbeck, Linda Hamilton, Hamm
World Cup results: Beat Sweden (3-2), beat Brazil (5-0), beat Japan (3-0), beat Chinese Taipei in quarterfinals (7-0), beat Germany in semifinals (5-2), beat Norway in final (2-1)
The inaugural World Cup, originally called the FIFA World Championship, took place in China, just as a trial-run tournament called the FIFA Women’s Invitation Tournament had three years earlier. In the WIT, an extremely young U.S. team lost to Norway in the quarterfinals. Three years later, that team of mostly 23-and-unders — Foudy, Overbeck, Hamm, Fawcett, Lilly, a 25-year-old Akers — ran rampant.
Obviously the overall competition level wasn’t what it is today, but there were also only 12 teams in the field, as evidenced by a group that included future heavyweights Sweden, Brazil and Japan. So the U.S. team’s dominance — a plus-20 goal differential, and a 4.2-goal average that remains the highest ever (2003 Germany matched it) — still resonates. Only Sweden (which fell behind 3-0 before scoring twice late) and Norway were able to stay within a goal. Akers’ 78th-minute goal in the final, in front of 63,000 in Ghaungzhou, gave the U.S. the title. The USWNT had officially formed only five years earlier, and the U.S. was already the sport’s dominant force.
Manager: Tony DiCicco
Leading scorers: Milbrett (3), Hamm (2), Lilly (2), Parlow Cone (2), Venturini (2)
Most minutes: Lilly, Fawcett, Overbeck, Scurry, Brandi Chastain
World Cup results: Beat Denmark (3-0), beat Nigeria (7-1), beat North Korea (3-0), beat Germany in quarterfinals (3-2), beat Brazil in semifinals (2-0), beat China in final (0-0, shootout)
It’s strange thinking of a team that had so dominated the 1990s — World Cup champs in 1991, Olympic gold in 1996 — finally making its true breakthrough at the end of the decade, but that’s how the story basically plays out. ESPN has produced documentaries and podcasts about the so-called ’99ers, and with good reason: They mostly rolled through the tournament while also serving as women’s soccer ambassadors. They put on a show, reaching the final with only one truly stiff test (Germany led 2-1 at halftime in the quarterfinals), and the crowds were stunning: 78,972 at Giants Stadium for the Denmark match; 65,080 at Soldier Field in Chicago for Nigeria; 50,484 in Foxborough, Massachusetts, for North Korea; 54,642 in Landover, Maryland, for Germany; 73,123 at Stanford Stadium for Brazil; and of course 90,185 for the final at the Rose Bowl.
After all that came a storybook ending, too. After 120 tight, scoreless minutes against the tournament’s best non-U.S. team, Scurry stopped Liu Ying’s penalty in the shootout, and Chastain put away the clincher. It was the stuff statues are made of.
Manager: Jill Ellis
Leading scorers: Lloyd (6), Rapinoe (2)
Most minutes: Julie Ertz, Lloyd, Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn, Solo
World Cup results: Beat Australia (3-1), beat Sweden (0-0), beat Nigeria (1-0), beat Colombia in round of 16 (2-0), beat China in quarterfinals (1-0), beat Germany in semifinals (2-0), beat Japan in final (5-2)
Sixteen years had passed between World Cup titles, but by the mid-2010s the U.S. had established a jarringly dominant and athletic player pool, and manager Jill Ellis was more than happy to sit back and let that athleticism shine. Her conservative, often counter-attacking tactics made you often feel like, with the talent at hand, the USWNT wasn’t dominating as much as it could have, but the defense, led by Solo and a back line of Sauerbrunn, Ertz, Klingenberg and Krieger, was impeccable (they allowed just three goals each in 2015 and 2019), and in both World Cups under Ellis, they peaked late in the tournament.
After scoring just four goals in the group stage and waiting until the second half to make their moves in the first three rounds of the knockout stage — they broke scoreless ties in the 53rd minute against Colombia, the 51st against China and the 69th against Germany — they finally put pedal to the metal in the final, and Japan wasn’t ready. They went up 4-0 after 16 minutes, with Lloyd recording a hat trick, and cruised 5-2.
Manager: Jill Ellis
Leading scorers: Rapinoe (6), Morgan (6), Lavelle (3), Lloyd (3), Sam Mewis (2), Lindsey Horan (2)
Most minutes: Alyssa Naeher, Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Sauerbrunn, Tobin Heath, Kelley O’Hara
World Cup results: Beat Thailand (13-0), beat Chile (3-0), beat Sweden (2-0), beat Spain in the round of 16 (2-1), beat France in the quarterfinals (2-1), beat England in the semifinals (2-1), beat Netherlands in the final (2-0)
Ellis still played things conservatively in France last summer, but the sheer amount of firepower on the field — Lavelle, Horan and Mewis made the midfield incredibly dangerous, and Dunn, one of the best attacking midfielders in the NWSL, cracked the lineup at fullback — combined with a run of early leads (the U.S. scored in the first 15 minutes of every match until the final) made the Americans’ counter-attacking ability even more dramatic.
Two different generations of players converged to create the deepest U.S. squad yet. Rapinoe (33) was maybe the best player in the tournament. Morgan (29) and Tobin Heath (31) complemented her up front. Sauerbrunn (34), O’Hara (30) and Naeher (31) were defensive stalwarts. And Christen Press (30) and Lloyd (36) served as super subs. Meanwhile, a peaking generation — Ertz (27, now in defensive midfield), Dunn (26), defender Abby Dahlkemper (26), Horan (25), Mewis (26) and Lavelle (24) — all wrecked shop, as well.
While conservatism could have been costly against fantastic France and England teams, the U.S. held on in each match before controlling the final. Considering the competition level, this was the most complete and dominant World Cup team ever. Only the 2003 and 2007 German teams and maybe the 2015 USWNT can argue against that. The 2019 team set a ridiculously high bar for the 2023 team to clear.