WPS stars reminisce about the impact of the 1999 World Cup
The 1999 Women's World Cup will always be remembered -- and rightfully so -- for the most iconic moment in the history of women's sports: Brandi Chastain's winning penalty kick for the U.S. and ensuing celebration, in front of 90,185 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
"We put a good two years into it, promoting it and getting out there and getting our name out there," said U.S. national team defender Christie Rampone. "But I think '99 was a perfect time for America to embrace a team, especially a women's team."
Kristin Luckenbill, who currently plays for the Boston Breakers of Women's Professional Soccer, was at Dartmouth College at the time. She would eventually be named Women's United Soccer Association Goalkeeper of the Year in 2002 and win a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics.
"One thing that I think was very remarkable about it was that it touched people that weren't soccer players," she said. "Our whole house got together and invited a bunch of people. A bunch of guys came over, even. We had a World Cup Final viewing party. And my sorority, we had a couple soccer players, but it was people from all walks of life, some athletes, some nonathletes and everyone got together and was just totally excited to watch the World Cup.
"Not only are they good, they're fun to watch. They're having fun. And I think that gives the crowd some energy and makes it fun to go to games and watch."
The tournament and the crowds inspired the next generation of soccer players and, in 2000, led to the creation of the WUSA, a professional women's soccer league that folded in 2003 with financial problems. But a new league has taken its place this year: The WPS is in the middle of its inaugural season, and the league has been honoring the 1999 team at games in each of its seven cities. Players like Mia Hamm and Joy Fawcett have received awards at halftime of games.
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In '99, Breakers midfielder Kasey Moore was 12 years old and her club team was taking part in the closing ceremonies at the Rose Bowl, where, after 120 minutes with the score 0-0, the U.S. beat China 5-4 in penalty kicks in front of 40 million people watching at home. She sat next to third-place finishers Brazil during the game, near the tunnel where Michelle Akers was carted off the field after colliding with Brianna Scurry as regulation expired. "It was just a really, really fun game," she said.
The Breakers were in New Jersey last weekend to take on Sky Blue FC, and the same teams will face off again this weekend in Boston. Like last weekend's game, the game in Boston will also have the 1999 World Cup trophy on hand and honor current players Christie Rampone of Sky Blue FC and Kristine Lilly of Boston, as well as Breakers head coach Tony DiCicco, who coached the 1999 team.
Sky Blue FC's Megan Schnur, 14 years old during the summer of '99, didn't attend the final in person, but watched in her basement in Butler, Penn., with her five best friends. She said the six of them banged thundersticks together throughout the entire match, repeatedly being told to keep it down by her mother.
"Cheering on the U.S. team, even though they really couldn't hear us through the TV and just wishing I was in the crowd of 90-plus thousand," she said. "I was petrified. I was so nervous. But then I was like, 'Oh, we got [goalkeeper] Brianna Scurry. We're fine. No big deal.'"
Sky Blue FC midfielder Heather O'Reilly, a two-time Olympic gold medalist with the women's national team, was 14 at the time. The East Brunswick, N.J., native attended the opening game at Giants Stadium, which the U.S. won 3-0 over Denmark in front of 78,972 fans.
"I don't think I recognized at the time what an important game and what an important piece of history I was sitting at, but you could tell when you were there that it was just incredible," she said. "I was just a screaming kid at that point, like anybody else in the stands, and I was one of the lucky ones that dreamed of being there on that field and it actually did come true.
"They inspired me and I carried that with me."
O'Reilly said she almost couldn't believe it when she made the women's national team at the age of 17 to play alongside Hamm, Chastain, Julie Foudy and the rest of the women's team she had followed for years.
"It was pretty surreal," she said. "At first, I almost felt like I had won some kind of contest out of a cereal box and I got to join the team for a day."
The memories are vivid even for the international players in WPS. Breakers defender Alex Scott of England, 14 years old in 1999, said she'll always remember seeing the crowds that turned out to see the U.S. team that summer.
"I remember watching that at home thinking, 'Oh my gosh. That's what I want.' And that inspired me to keep playing when I was younger."
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Scott, Moore and Luckenbill all play with the Breakers alongside Lilly, who coolly headed away a sure game-winning goal off a Chinese corner kick during sudden-death overtime.
"Kristine Lilly has cemented her position on the post probably for the rest of her life based on that one," Luckenbill said.
"It's really funny now that I'm playing with her because I kind of like idolized her when I was a little kid and now I'm playing on the field with her, which is kind of a trip, but it's a lot of fun," Moore said.
Whether an event and a moment like that can ever happen again for women's soccer is a question that will always be asked. For Lilly, it's important to just win the World Cup again, because the United States came in third in 2003 and 2007, after frustrating semifinal defeats.
"Winning was our goal but what happened that summer was bigger than the game of soccer or women's sports. As a country we want to win every World Cup we're a part of," Lilly said. "If we host again, I think something like that could happen because only the host country can feel that."