With U.S. Soccer always looking toward the future with World Cups, Olympics and Youth World Championships on the horizon, we’ve created this section for a chance to pop it in reverse and look back at a interesting or enlightening part of U.S. Soccer’s history that you may have forgotten or possibly never knew.
You know about the two championships in four FIFA Women’s World Cup competitions and the two gold medals in three Olympics. You know the U.S. Women’s National Team is one of the best, if not THE best, women’s program in the world. But, you might not know how it all started. Just six years before their first World Cup title in 1991, the U.S. WNT was the new kid on the block and took their lumps like any beginner when the they came together for the first time, traveling to Italy for their inaugural matches in the Mundialito, or Little World Cup. Despite having to sew numbers onto their blank jerseys, wearing men’s-sized shorts and losing three out of four matches, the U.S. also made a favorable impression and took back the essentials needed to eventually become a world power.
A sewing bee, a yellow school bus and Irish folk songs. While these do not exactly fall under the category “things legends are made of,” they are, in fact, the only legacy that the first U.S. Women’s National Team had going into its first game.
In the summer of 1985, four regional women’s teams had just completed the annual Olympic Sports Festival in Baton Rouge, La., when all the players were called together for an impromptu meeting.
In the days prior, U.S. Soccer Federation officials tabbed Mike Ryan, an Irish immigrant who coached the national champion Tacoma Cougars women’s club team in Washington, as the first head coach of the team. Together with the other regional coaches, Ryan would select the first U.S. Women’s National Team to go to the Mundialito in Italy.
“After coaching my first team in America, a CYO team from my church, I said one day I’ll coach the U.S. to the World Cup. That was always my goal,” Ryan said. “I just didn’t know it would be the women’s national team.”
Right there on the field after the final of the Olympic Sports Festival, the players were all called to the sideline and the Mundialito roster was read. If a player couldn’t attend the trip, now was her time to speak up.
“There were a lot of tears, kisses and disappointment,” Ryan said.
A week later the team shipped off to C.W. Post on Long Island for a three-day training camp that included a pair of physical matches versus an Under-19 team. Before the team departed, there was a scramble to put together uniforms for the team. The shirts had no numbers. They were not red, white and blue. The shorts were men’s sizes and much too big. So the team pooled their resources and in an all-night sewing bee, put together patchwork uniforms for the trip.
“They looked nice by the time the girls had went to work with threads and needles and a sewing machine they had gotten from somewhere,” Ryan said.
Early the next morning, the weary team took a school bus to the airport. The travel party included Ryan, Roger Rogers – the team’s manager/trainer/administrator/assistant coach and 17 players: Michelle Akers, Pam Baughman, Denise Bender, Denise Boyer-Murdoch, Tara Buckley, Laurie Bylin, Stacey Enos, Linda Gancitano, Cindy Gordon, Ruth Harker, Tuca Healey, Lori Henry, Sharon McMurty, Ann Orrison, Emily Pickering, Kathy Ridgewell and Kim Wyant.
Ten hours after leaving New York, the team arrived in Milan. From there, the team upgraded their Long Island yellow bus to a motor coach that seated more than 50.
Five hours after leaving Milan, the team bus rolled into Jesolo and was greeted by a crowd of fans chanting “U-S-A” before being ushered from their hotel to a welcoming rock concert in the town center, with the U.S. women as their special guests.
After a day of training, the U.S. team, with their homemade uniforms, arrived at the stadium to dress in the top-of-the-line facility. Ryan figured that the stadium held 10,000 fans – for and against the Americans - and was packed for every match.
The U.S. side was without Akers or Pickering, who were recovering from injuries suffered in the scrimmages back at C.W. Post, which allowed a brutally physical and tactically superior Italian side to control the flow of play for most of the match.
“They were aggressive,” Ryan said. “Their skill with the ball was superb. They got behind us so fast. The wings would drop back and push up the sides. They could turn and play it up the line, and it took a while for our sweeper to adjust.
“It took until halftime to get our legs under us, but we figured it out.”
The Italians got the game’s first goal in the second half, and the U.S. had a chance to equalize with eight minutes to go when Gordon was pulled down in the box and a penalty was called. McMurty stepped up to the spot, but missed the kick to the left.
“That will forever stick in my mind,” Ryan said, adding that it was McMurty who missed a similar penalty in a previous national title match.
The Americans earned praise from the Italian press and recognition from the public. Three of the players did some modeling for a TV promotion and there were always cameras at training and games, prompting the players to get up in the morning to watch themselves.
Three days later, Denmark was on the U.S. schedule. After a great day of training, the U.S. picked up the nation’s first international goal in a 2-2 draw.
The goal came off a set piece, with a now-healthy Akers starting over the ball. The U.S. caught the Danish team off guard, and Akers slotted the ball to Pickering who converted from about 30 yards out. It was one of two goals in Pickering’s international career.
“Akers pushed it off to Pickering and her shot went in the right corner, better than Beckham,” Ryan said.
That goal and a later tally by Akers were not enough for the team to get its first win, with Denmark scoring a pair of goals as well.
“The Danish team had unbelievable skill and fitness level,” Ryan said. “Our depth wasn’t where it should be for an international match.”
At one point, the match was interrupted due to a lightning storm – as fans took cover under the stadium and the teams returned to their locker rooms. The U.S. could hear the Danish team singing – and to pass the time, Ryan said he taught his team several traditional Irish songs.
After the match, Ryan’s team stuck around to watch Italy play an England team that topped the U.S. 3-1 two days later. The next day, August 24, the U.S. fell to Denmark 0-1, closing out the six-day first season of the women’s national team.
The team would return to the U.S. having laid the groundwork for the future success of the women’s national team. The U.S. was overmatched tactically and physically by Italy, Denmark and England – an 0-3-1 record included a tie with Denmark - but the athletic skill of a young American team that included 19-year-old Akers left it’s impression.
Akers and Henry would go on to lead the U.S. to the 1991 World Cup title six years later. Pickering and Enos are the only others from that inaugural roster to reach double digit caps.
“The day cannot be very distant when you will be a world force,” wrote England Women’s National Team’s head coach Martin Reagan in a letter to the U.S. coach after the tournament.