Tuesday 18 August 2020, 04:25

Akers remembers USWNT’s humble beginnings

  • The USWNT played their first match 35 years ago today

  • Michelle Akers, scorer of the side's first goal, looks back

  • The US legend remembers amateurishness off the field and struggles on it

Today, USWNT stands as a byword for excellence. Firmly established as the best in the world, the team is a phenomenon; its players the living, striving, winning example of what women in football can achieve.

But it wasn’t always this way. USA’s record haul of FIFA Women’s World Cup™ trophies might have begun in 1991, when they triumphed in the tournament’s very first edition. But the idea that they had enjoyed a head-start on their rivals, and were a well-developed women’s football force in the years before, is a misconception that makes Michelle Akers chuckle.

Akers was the star of that World-Cup winning side of ‘91 and, eight years later, formed part of the beloved ‘99ers team that reclaimed the trophy and won a nation’s heart. The powerful forward, who went on to be named FIFA Female Player of the Century, was also in Italy 35 years ago today, when USA’s women’s national team played their inaugural match. Three days later, she scored the team’s first-ever goal. And whatever the USWNT was then, a byword for excellence it was not.

The night before they left for that historic Mundialito (‘Little World Cup’) in Jesolo, Akers and her team-mates had stayed up until the small hours, sewing the letters U-S-A on to their jerseys. Those over-sized shirts – cast-offs from the men’s team’s training outfit – had been sourced at the last minute, setting the tone for a tournament from which the US emerged with a draw and three losses.

Such humble and inauspicious beginnings could hardly be any further removed from the current USWNT, sparkled with stardust and surrounded by an entourage of support staff and adoring fans. Yet it represented a start nonetheless, and it was with some fondness – and a few laughs along the way – that Akers reflected on that 1985 adventure with FIFA.com.

The first tour

After just three days of training together, a cobbled-together USWNT squad – mainly college players, all under the age of 25 – travelled to the beach resort of Jesolo

“The whole experience was just so cool. I’d never been outside the US, except to Canada, so to be able to go to Italy and play soccer just seemed like a whole lot of fun. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I had no idea about what a national team really was. So when we went over to Italy, I didn’t really appreciate what an incredible honour and opportunity it was to represent my country and be a part of history. It just didn’t occur to me, and I think most of the girls were the same.

“Our coach for that tour was Mike Ryan, an Irish guy, and he must have sensed this in us because at practice one day he made us stand in the middle of the field singing The Star Spangled Banner – really belting it out. That was the first time I got it, and it’s funny that it took this Irishman to show us what an honour it was to be representing the US!”

The first match

USA were beaten 1-0 by the hosts on 18 August 1985

“It should have been a bigger scoreline. Italy killed us. We were better athletes, but you could see from the start that they were better footballers by far. They knew the game in so many different ways that we were completely naive to. When you think about it, that’s no surprise – they had such a rich history of living the game and seeing the best players in the world every week on TV. We had none of that back then.

“I didn’t actually play in the Italy match and, although I’ve seen it reported that I was injured, I think it was just Mike’s decision not to play me. We’d both come out of the soccer scene in Seattle and had a tough relationship at the time. But I came back in for the second game - that was difficult too, but I enjoyed it. There was some gamesmanship for sure – those other teams were much more streetwise than us – but none of that bothered me, and it was an important lesson for us to learn.”

USA's Michelle Akers with her Golden Boot award at the 1991 FIFA Women's World Cup.

The first goal

Akers made history by netting in a 2-2 draw with Denmark in USA’s second Mundialito match

“It didn’t enter my mind that I’d done something special by scoring that goal. It was more a case of coming back from having our asses kicked in that first game and showing we were there to play. It was definitely about the pride of the team in that tournament. The fact that I’d made history honestly didn’t cross my mind for a second.”

Playing catch-up

Two more defeats – to England (1-3) and in a rematch with the Danes (0-1) – followed before the team returned home to an uncertain future

“In athleticism and fitness we were the best team there; in pretty much every other respect those teams were light years ahead of us. But we also had a stubbornness and a determination that helped us endure being outplayed, see that these teams were much better and more crafty than us, and rise up rather than shrink away. And it’s funny: Anson Dorrance came in after Mike Ryan and said right away, ‘We’re going to be the best team in the world’. We had no schedule, no support and there wasn’t really any evidence to support Anson saying that. But we believed him and, sure enough, within a few years that’s exactly what we were: the best.

“If you’d told me in Jesolo that we would win the first World Cup six years later, my first reaction would have been: ‘What’s a World Cup?’ I just couldn’t have envisaged that for us and for women’s football at that time. But in terms of USA becoming the best in the world, and for all that we were outclassed over there, I wouldn’t have doubted it. I just have this almost deranged confidence and it’s like I can step into my future. I still have this newspaper article from when I was 13 or 14, saying that I was going to play professionally, go to the Olympics and become one of the best players in the world. At the time, that was a crazy dream to have because there wasn’t any professional women’s football out there. But whether it was just me being crazy or having a vision of something that was coming, that was what I said.”

From the Class of '85 to the '19ers

After the false dawn of 1991, and the watershed of 1999, Akers has watched with pride as the USWNT scaled new heights

“I remember coming home from winning the '91 World Cup thinking the floodgates would open and that, as a team, we’d be celebrated and recognised. As it was, there were two people at the airport to welcome us back and, the more we heard, the more we realised that nobody knew or really cared.

“I didn’t think it would be as hard to get to where we are now. But when I look at the current team, I’m in awe of them – and proud of them too. They often say that they’ve stood on the shoulders of the players who went before them. But they’ve also grown the sport in their own right, in their own way, and it’s been incredible to watch.

“I do see a lot of my own mentality in this USWNT team, and I love that. For me, it’s that mentality which sets them apart. At the top level in any sport, with the exception of your Peles and Messis – who’re almost superhuman – most players and athletes are of a similar level. I’ve always felt that it’s mindset that separates winners from the rest. And although there are plenty of talented teams out there, there is just something special about that American mentality – especially in the USWNT – that helps us stay on top of the world.”