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A Look Back on the U.S. WNTs One and Only Fist-a-Cuffs

What happens when an emotional game gets a bit too physical and just a bit out of control?  What happens when you have a team captain who floats like a butterfly, but stings like a bee?  The one and only brawl in U.S. Women’s National Team history, that’s what.     

Entering its 20th year of competition, the United States Women’s National Team has played 312 games, spanning more than 28,000 minutes, scored 1,010 goals and played in more than 20 countries, but over all that time, there has been just one fight.  It occurred vs. Trinidad & Tobago on Aug. 17, 1994, in qualifying for the 1995 Women’s World Cup. 

One would think something as rare as a fight in international women’s soccer would be vividly remembered by those who were there, but the details of the one and only fist-a-cuffs ever to break out in a U.S. Women’s National Team game are a bit murky.  On the eve of the USA vs. T&T match in CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying, a match that is guaranteed to be more civil that the 1994 meeting, Center Circle Extra attempts to piece together a strange, but true moment in U.S. Women’s National Team qualification history.

These facts are undeniable: It was a balmy late summer day in Montreal, Canada, and just under 2,000 fans were in the stadium.  The match was late in the second half of what would be a dominating 11-1 victory and the Trinidadians were getting frustrated as the score line increased.  That frustration was manifesting itself in fouls.

From there, what happened next gets a bit hazy, but it went something like this…

What is mostly clear is that U.S. captain and central defender Carla Overbeck was in the middle of the maelstrom.   Apparently, a T&T player took a run at Overbeck after she had already passed the ball away and hit her in the back of the head with a closed fist.  The U.S. captain, long known to have a competitive streak unrivaled in women’s soccer, boiled over.  With a swift combination that would have made Muhammad Ali proud, Overbeck decked the player with a quick one-two. 

As the player rose to go after Overbeck, defender Thori Staples (now Thori Bryan), who was widely known for her sweet disposition, tried to play peacemaker, racing over to grab the player from behind to prevent further exhibitions of the “sweet science.”

“I just remember Thori running like a missile over to a melee,” said U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry, who perhaps had the best view from her goal area.  “I remember seeing Carla pushing a girl or something, and the player was about to punch her, then Thori comes flying in from nowhere and grabbed her in a headlock. I’ve seen a lot of WWF and it was a good one.”

The irony of the situation was that Staples, the only one of the protagonists who didn’t throw a punch, took a hard blow to the chin as the T&T player was trying to break free of her grasp.  She didn’t, and seconds later, players from both teams poured into “the ring,” pulled the players apart and calmer heads prevailed.  Both Bryan and the T&T player were ejected. 

The red card was just one of five in the history of the U.S. Women’s National Team and it went to the player who was just trying to break up the fight.

“The T&T player was bouncing up and down trying to get free, but Thori had a death grip on her,” added Scurry.  “She pretty much saved Carla because that player was about to throw a few more punches, but Thori caught her before she could.  I was stunned.  I stood there, like what the heck is going on?  Am I really watching this?  And then it was over.”

To this day, Overbeck feels a little guilty that Staples was the one shown the red card, but only a little. 

“It was self-defense,” said the captain of the 1999 Women’s World Cup champions, who ended her brilliant career with 168 caps.  “But poor Thori.  You see what happens when you try to be nice?  I just wish I could run as fast as I punch.  (The T&T player) started it and got me pretty good, but I ended it with a knock-down.”

“I didn’t see Carla hit anyone, and I didn’t see much of the fight, I only saw Thori grabbing that player,” said Julie Foudy, who was in the midfield for that match.  “But this I know; never, ever blind-side Carla Overbeck.  You will feel her wrath.”

In a side note, Tony DiCicco, in just his second game as head coach during the transition from Anson Dorrance, was tossed as well after a heated discussion with the referee after he allegedly rushed the field.  Dorrance, it should be noted, missed the whole thing as he was getting a hot dog from the concession stand.