Goalkeeper Briana Scurry has played 159 times for the United States, but her first cap came in the USA’s first-ever match at the inaugural Algarve Cup in 1994. Since then, she’s played in three Women’s World Cups and been at three Olympic Games, but it all started on a dusty field in Silves, Portugal…the same field where the USA will open its 2007 Algarve Cup against China on March 7. Almost thirteen years to the day after she debuted for the national team, Scurry looks back at her first cap and the “skinny little girl from Minnesota” who earned her first-ever shutout against Portugal after some inspiring words from then-captain Carla Overbeck.
The small stadium, like many in Portugal, is hidden inside a residential neighborhood and is easy to miss if you take a wrong turn on the cramped, bumpy streets of Silves. The paint on the barb-wire ringed walls is cracking, the locker rooms are much smaller than J-Lo’s closet and stray dogs wander around looking for a snack.
For U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry, the dilapidated Municipal Stadium was the first step on a career that would take her to the world’s biggest stage, playing in front of more than 90,000 fans at the Rose Bowl during the 1999 Women’s World Cup Final.
Scurry, however, didn’t even know how modest her debut was. Truth be told, at that time, she was expecting to be studying for the LSATs rather than tending goal for the defending Women’s World Cup champions.
About four months earlier in the fall of 1993, she had helped lead the University of Massachusetts to the NCAA Final Four where the Minutewomen lost to UNC in the semifinal, 4-1. Despite the fact that she had performed well at the U.S. Sports Festival before her junior year, and that her UMass coach Jim Rudy had told her she might have the talent to play internationally, she’d planned to hang up the boots after that Final Four run. After all, it was a tremendous soccer accomplishment. UMass hasn’t returned to the Final Four since.
“I really didn’t think I would keep playing,” said Scurry. “I thought the game against North Carolina in the Final Four was my last competitive game. I really didn’t know what the national team was all about. I was getting ready to go to Cornell law school.”
There was another senior who played in that match who felt Scurry had more games to play. It was a 21-year-old named Mia Hamm. The Tar Heel striker had some post-game praise for her opponent.
“Mia came up to me after the game and told me that I had played really well,” said Scurry. “I said, tell him that,” as she nodded to UNC and then Women’s National Team head coach Anson Dorrance. “She said, ‘he already knows.’ Three days later I got the call that I was coming into camp the next weekend.”
So started what has become the most accomplished career for a goalkeeper in U.S. Women’s National Team history. Scurry’s penalty kick save in the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final made her nationally and even globally recognized, but her consistency in the nets - 74 shutouts and 123 wins in 159 games - is what has distinguished her career.
In that first training camp in November of 1993, consistency is a word Scurry would not have used to define herself.
“I just tried to stop as many balls as I could,” she said. “I kind of rose up through the ranks in training and somehow ended up going to Portugal. I thought I was getting killed. At that first camp, I’d never seen so many balls hit the back of the net. In my mind, at that time, I was definitely the underdog to be a starting goalkeeper on the national team. Here I was, a skinny little girl from Minnesota just trying to get to the ball. I had no formal training before I went to college.”
The USA’s opening game of that first Algarve Cup was against host Portugal, a fairly easy match for the United States, which cruised to a 5-0 win. Scurry didn’t have much to do, but for her that was a fine way to start. Heck, it’s fine with her even today.
“I was nervous, but I was ready,” she said of her debut, which saw goals from Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, two from Carin Gabarra and one from Tiffeny Milbrett. “(Getting little action) works for me, it still does. I probably came off the field thinking, ‘Hey, I like this.’
The most exciting part of the match, and certainly most memorable for Scurry, came right before the opening whistle when sweeper Carla Overbeck called her in for a few quick words of support.
“I‘m jogging to the goal and Carla says, ‘Bri, come here.’ I kind of jogged back toward her and she looked me dead in the eye, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “you deserve to be here.’ It gave me chills. Those who know Carla know she never says anything she doesn’t mean, so when she said something, you paid attention.”
The next two matches were a bit more difficult as the USA registered a 1-0 win over Sweden, and then in the third game, lost to Norway, 1-0.
“Those two games were a bit like being thrown into the frying pan,” said Scurry. “Norway was very, very tough back than and it was hard for us to beat them. They had a winning record against us and that lasted for many more years. They were very good.”
While the years have slightly eroded her memory of those first matches, the three games at the 1994 Algarve Cup convinced Scurry that she might indeed have the right stuff to backstop the USA. It was an insightful premonition.
“That Algarve Cup was a very good introduction to the international game,” said Scurry. “It made me really believe, because you don’t really know if you can play at this level for sure until you’ve done it. And the fact that I had a couple of good games there, made me think I could do it. Beyond that, I don’t remember that much. It was 158 games and 13 years ago.”
While she never made it to the ivy covered walls of law school, she continues to make a case on the grass covered fields around the world as she competes with Hope Solo for playing time as the USA prepares for the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, being held Sept. 10-30, in China. For Scurry, it would be her fourth Women’s World Cup, just the second goalkeeper to make it to four World Cup tournaments.
One has to believe that Scurry would have made an excellent lawyer. She’s intelligent, well-spoken, intense and competitive, qualities that have served her well between the posts over the years, even though her life’s path certainly took an unexpected turn back in 1994 at the Algarve Cup.
“It’s pretty funny to look back at my beginnings on this team and where I am now,” said the 35-year-old Scurry. “I think to myself, ‘Boy have I grown in every way possible.’ For me, it’s amazing to go from thinking I was going to be something completely different from what I have become in my life in sport.”
So the law profession’s loss was the USA’s gain, which is probably a good thing. The world doesn’t need another lawyer, but a great goalkeeper is hard to find.