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The Triple-Edged Sword: Class of 1991 vs. Class of 2002


A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good 'ole U-S-of-A . If you're looking for a viewpoint that you won't see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you've come to the right place.

This month, the Armchair Midfielder looks back at the first ever “triple-edged sword,” a trio of U.S. Women’s National Team legends who delivered the first ever Women’s World Cup title back in 1991, and the new class, three teenagers who lead the U.S. Under-19 Women’s National Team on an almost perfect run through the first ever FIFA U-19 Women’s World Championship last month in which they went 6-0, outscored opponents 26-2 and outlasted the tough host country 1-0 in the final in front of a crowd of almost 50,000 rowdy Canadians.

The Triple-Edged Sword: Class of 1991 vs. Class of 2002

FLASHBACK TO THE EARLY 90’s: The women’s international game was little more than a toddler in the United States – about six years old – while teams like Sweden, Norway and Denmark had been playing since the 1970’s. After taking their lumps across the first four years of friendlies (1985-89), the U.S. emerged as one of the teams to beat once 1990 rolled around and preparations for the first ever FIFA Women’s World Cup began. Still, few expected the relatively inexperienced U.S. team to emerge from the soccer wasteland to challenge for the first world title of its kind. Enter the Triple-Edged Sword.

While the forward trio of Michelle Akers (age 24; then Michelle Akers-Stahl), Carin Gabarra (age 25; then Carin Jennings) and April Heinrichs (age 26) first appeared in a starting lineup together on July 7, 1987 (a 4-2 win over Canada in Blaine, Minn.), it wasn’t until the year leading up to China ‘91 that the powerful group turned it on and became entrenched in the lineup as a three-pronged attack. In fact, the first time that all three players scored in the same match was the team’s first action of 1990, a 4-0 win over Norway (on July 25, 1990 in Winnepeg, Canada), a team that remains one of the U.S. Women’s National Team’s fiercest rivals to this day.

The U.S. went undefeated in 1990, with the three stars accounting for 18 of the squad’s 26 goals across just six games. How good was this trio at working together and putting the ball in the back of the net? Well, consider that a precocious young teen named Mia Hamm was held to just one start and only 270 minutes of action that year, while current teammates like Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett (then Joy Biefeld) were mainstays in the starting lineup. The U.S. WNT would go on to extend their winning streak to 18 games into 1991, including an offensive explosion in the qualifying tournament down in Haiti in which they scored 49 goals and didn’t concede one in five games.

By this point, Mia had worked her way into the starting lineup, mostly in the midfield. But when it came time to put it all on the line for China ‘91, head coach Anson Dorrance went back to what got them there: the Triple-Edged Sword. [In fact, it wasn’t until the 1991 Women’s World Cup that the three standouts had the unusual, but absolutely appropriate nickname bestowed upon them from the Chinese media.] Although Mia did appear in all six games and tallied a pair of goals, it was Akers-Stahl, Jennings and Heinrichs who delivered the first ever world championship title and its crude, if not a bit charming, trophy along with it. In the team’s opening match against Sweden, Jennings would score a pair to lead them to a 3-2 win over Sweden. Next, the three would combine for four goals in a 5-0 win over Brazil. In the next two matches -- a 3-0 win over Japan and a 7-0 win over Taiwan -- it was the Akers-Stahl show, with her scoring seven of the team’s 10 goals. In the semifinal win over Germany, the U.S. crushed Germany 5-2, with Akers-Stahl and Heinrichs sharing all of the scoring. And finally, in the team’s historic 2-1 win over Norway, it took two goals from the wild-haired Akers to bring the team to the promised land. Jennings would win Golden Ball honors as the tournament’s most outstanding player, as well as taking the Silver Boot as the tournament’s second leading scorer. Meanwhile, Akers won the Golden Boot with 10 goals and claimed the Silver Ball as MVP runner-up.

After winning the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the original Triple-Edged Sword would never appear together for the U.S. again, but all three ended their careers as champions. Heinrichs was forced to retire due to a knee injury after China ’91, but she’s back in the thick of things as head coach of the team that is getting ready to qualify for the 2003 WWC. It was also really the last glory for Jennings, who would go on to play in the 1995 Women’s World Cup, but was racked with injuries and was a reserve on the U.S. team that won the first ever Olympic gold medal for women’s soccer in 1996. Akers, of course, would proceed to rack up a massive 105 goals in 153 appearances during her legendary 14-year career and exit the game as FIFA’s World Player of the Century, a two-time WWC champion, one of the first ever Olympic women’s soccer champions, and quite possibly the best women’s soccer player of all time.

FAST FORWARD TO THE EARLY 2000s: With the women’s game firmly established around the globe coming off the most successful FIFA Women’s World Cup ever in the U.S. in 1999 and a dramatic 2000 Olympics in Sydney, FIFA announced that it would create a youth world championship at the Under-19 level for women, much like what exists on the men’s side with the Under-20 and Under-17 world championships. [Let me take this moment to say kudos to FIFA for recognizing the need for a youth championship for women. It didn’t come a day too early.] With this announcement, the U.S. Under-18’s were promoted to Under-19 status for 2001, knowing that the first championship of its kind will take place in 2002. Included in this first group of U-19s was an ultra-talented trio of U.S. forwards – Heather O’Reilly (age 16), Lindsay Tarpley (age 17) and Kelly Wilson (age 18). Nobody knew it then, but these three deadly strikers would go on to such breakout success at this age level that anyone who has followed women’s soccer in the States since its inception couldn’t help but recall the Triple-Edged Sword tag that their predecessors bore more than a decade ago. In fact, U-19 head coach Tracey Leone (formerly Tracey Bates) was a member of that 1991 world championship team and trained alongside the first incarnation, so who better than she to make this most flattering of comparisons?

In their first games as U-19s, they didn’t produce instant victories. Against four older regional teams and three WUSA teams, the U.S. U-19 WNT limped to a 1-3-3 record. But in their first international match, a 7-0 win over the Finland U-18s, all three players scored. Perhaps it was there that the new version of an old weapon was galvanized. The U-19s went on to post an undefeated 4-0-1 record (including big wins over China and Canada) in international matches and a 10-4-4 overall mark in their first year. Of the 49 goals that the team scored in 18 matches in 2001, the trio of O’Reilly (6 goals), Tarpley (7 goals) and Wilson (12 goals) accounted for 25, just over half of the team’s prolific production.

But like the original group, the three young women saved their best for the championship year and the first ever tournament itself. Even from their very first match in 2002, a surprising 1-0 win over the older U.S. Under-21 Women’s National Team, the three more experienced forwards were unstoppable. In May 2002 at the CONCACAF U-19 Qualifying tournament in Tobago, they tore through their competition with little mercy, piling up scores of 15-0, 5-0 and 14-1. As you might expect, O’Reilly, Tarpley and Wilson accounted for 24 of the 34 goals, with Wilson leading the way with 10.

Wilson would also lead the team and her running mates in scoring when it counted most – at the 2002 FIFA Under-19 Women’s World Championship in Canada. With pressure to begin the USA’s history at this most important stage with a world title and uphold the winning tradition that the U.S. Women’s National Team established in 1991 and again at the Olympics in 1996, the U.S. Under-19 Women’s National Team didn’t disappoint. Like the U.S. Women at USA ’99, they entered the tournament with a spotlight on their faces and a big target on their backs, but walked away with sleek hardware in hand.

And despite the individual attention that had by this time started following the pony-tailed triplets, they came up HUGE. In both of their first two matches – a 5-1 win over England and a 4-0 shutout of Australia – Wilson had a pair and O’Reilly added one to carry the U.S. Even with Wilson and O’Reilly out of their third match, Tarpley was there to represent with a pair in a 6-0 win over Chines Taipei. But when it came time for single elimination play, they kicked it up a notch, combining for 10 of the team’s 11 goals in their final three games. After romping through a 6-0 win over Denmark in the quarterfinals and besting Germany 4-1 in the semi’s, the U.S. frontline hit a wall against Canada’s big, tough bunch of defenders in the intense final. But just as Michelle Akers delivered the victory in a tight 2-1 win over rival Norway, Lindsay Tarpley produced a golden goal in the 109th minute to bring the team’s two-year adventure to a storybook ending. Wilson would take Silver Ball honors as well as the Silver Boot award for her nine goals, while Tarpley earned the Bronze Boot with six goals of her own.

Looking back at this historic year for the U-19’s, it’s almost scary to look at the total statistics for 2002: an overall record of 21-2-2, an international record of 17-1-0, 115 goals scored and just 18 goals conceded. As for the triple-edged sword, they ended up producing the kind of numbers last seen on the Men’s Under-17 MNT level from the standouts of the 1999 class (Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley) and the 2001 class (Santino Quaranta and Eddie Johnson). Tarpley ended up leading the team in scoring with an incredible 67 points (27 goals and 13 assists), with O’Reilly (55 points on 21 goals and 13 assists) and Wilson (53 points on 23 goals and 7 assists) just behind her.

What will come of the most recent trio of deadly U.S. strikers? Only time will tell. But it’s hard not to look ahead and realize that all three players could be starting to hit their prime with the U.S. Women’s national Team -- at ages 22-24 -- in time for the 2007 Women’s World Cup and/or the 2008 Olympics, just like another group of players in their mid-20s that started the winning ways of the U.S. Women’s National Team program 11 years ago.

Table of Contents
1)
Armchair Midfielder (The Triple-Edged Sword: Class of 1991 vs. Class of 2002)
2) Word Association (w/ MNT defender Eddie Pope)
3) At the Movies (w/ WNT midfielder Aly Wagner)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT defender Gregg Berhalter)
5) Big Woman on Campus (w/ U-19 WNT defender Keeley Dowling)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT forward Mia Hamm)
7) Mark That Calendar (2002 Nike U.S. Women’s Cup)
8) Point/Counterpoint (What Do YOU Know?!?)
9) "You Don’t Know Jack (Marshall)" (U.S. Open Cup trivia)

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