Remembering History: 1991 U.S. World Cup team signals start of three-decade USWNT dynasty


When the 1991 U.S. Women’s National Team returned home victorious from Guangdong, China, with its win in the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup, it was a decidedly different scene than what today’s USWNT stars experience.

Following their 2-1 win over Norway in the final on Nov. 30, the team traveled for nearly a day before landing in New York on Dec. 2 to a quiet reception consisting of several U.S. Soccer officials, U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Bora Milutinovic, three news reporters, one photographer and Swiss Air officials, who gave each player a rose.

“We came home to nothing — no one knows, no one cares,” says Hall of Fame midfielder Julie Foudy, who won two World Cups and three Olympic medals during her national team career.

In fact, no one knew if the Women’s World Cup – initially called the FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup — was going to be a one-off event or the start of something big. There was no “next World Cup” scheduled, and as players wandered off to their connecting flights at JFK, the vibe was subdued.

“The ache was real and the departures at the airport — you’re just hugging on and hanging on to your teammates saying goodbye,” remembers April Heinrichs, who played forward and served as the U.S. team captain in 1991. “I was close to many of them. But it really did feel like the end, not the beginning of women’s soccer. It felt like the end of one team’s journey with a whole lot of uncertainty about the game.”

But Foudy also remembers the resolve that began to bubble up in that moment, thinking, “This isn’t going to be easy but we’re going to get this sport off the ground in this country. That was our attitude.”

To say they succeeded is an understatement. The USWNT is the most successful international squad in women’s soccer, winning four World Cup titles (1991, 1999, 2015, 2019), four Olympic gold medals (1996, 2004, 2008, 2012) and nine CONCACAF Gold Cups. Viewership figures for the 2019 Women’s World Cup soared as 1.12 billion people tuned into coverage of the tournament.

As the current USWNT team faces its final preparations for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this summer, On Her Turf continues its celebration of Women’s History Month with a closer look at the 1991 USWNT that kicked off an American dynasty.

RELATED: Alice Coachman blazes pathway as first Black woman to win Olympic gold

The USWNT was created in 1985 and just a year later, Hall of Fame coach Anson Dorrance joined the program after already leading the North Carolina Tar Heels to four of their 22 national championship titles. He brought with him nine players who had been on his UNC teams, including Heinrichs, Kristine Lilly and Mia Hamm. Building on that foundation with a core of young players (the average age of the starting XI in 1991 was 23), Dorrance unveiled his now legendary 3-4-3 system, which was received with criticism.

“We played a 3-4-3, which was like sacrilegious,” he recalls. “People thought, ‘You’re not playing a 4-4-2? What kind of tactical midgets are you? You’re going to high-pressure? You can’t high-pressure in an event where you have a game every three days.’ …

“We were great duelers. We were gritty. We were to some extent irreverent because we didn’t worship at the altar of the 4-4-2 and we didn’t play the ball around in the back for half an hour to show we could possess it. We were different and we scared teams because we were different.”

Dorrance proved his system to be successful out of the gate. At the first CONCACAF qualifying tournament, held in April 1991 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, the USWNT swept all five matches during an 11-day span, including a 5-0 triumph over Canada in the final to become the lone CONCACAF qualifier. The Americans dominated every match, outscoring its opposition 49-0 and conceding just 15 shots on goal.

“It really was a big deal for us, and we took it as such,” Heinrichs says. “We felt the weight of the world on us even though many folks were not paying attention the way they do today for World Cup qualifying.”

Future stars flashed first signs of brilliance during that qualifying event, where forward Michelle Akers finished with 11 goals, followed by Heinrichs with eight. Brandi Chastain, who had been used mostly as a sub during the tournament, finished with seven, followed Hamm and Carin Jennings Gabarra with five apiece.

“We were very American in the way we approached the game and in our confidence going in to matches,” reflects Dorrance. “We built our foundation on things like the individual duel. We were going to win every head ball, we were going to win every tackle, and we were going to win every one-vs.-one contest when we were running at defenses.”

But the U.S. women were still relatively new as a national team when the first World Cup tournament kicked off. They had played just 58 international matches, 43 on the road, and had compiled a 34-18-6 record. Leading up to China, the USWNT had compiled an impressive 18-game winning streak, which included the CONCACAF romp and 14 straight shutouts, but the team stumbled in its World Cup warm-up matches, going 3-6-1 with two losses to Norway and a winless record vs. China (0-2-1).

What’s more, the Americans were set to face 1984 UEFA Women’s champion Sweden in the first match of the group stage, a team they had never beaten (0-1-1) at the time. But Gabarra scored two goals within the first 49 minutes to give the U.S. the advantage, and Hamm added another as the U.S. held on for a 3-2 victory. The U.S. women closed out a perfect group stage (3-0) with a 5-0 romp over Brazil, highlighted by a brace from Heinrichs along with goals from Gabarra, Akers and Hamm, and a 3-0 win over Japan featuring two more goals from Akers and one from Wendy Gebauer.

The knockout round began with a 7-0 rout of Chinese Taipei, where Akers scored five goals, including four in the opening half. Foudy and Fawcett also scored in the quarterfinal matchup. In the semifinals, the U.S. dispatched Germany 5-2, highlighted by a first-half hattrick by Gabarra. Heinrichs added two second-half scores.

“Gabarra had a game her life,” remembers Lilly. “I played right behind her at left midfield. I was catching myself watching her just tear up the defenders.”

The team got a well-deserved boost ahead of the final vs. Norway with a Thanksgiving Day dinner that included players’ families and a special guest — soccer legend Pele. The traditional holiday celebration served as a mental break for American women, who knew they were taking on a Norway team with something to prove. After opening the tournament with a 4-0 loss to China, Norway had roared back with four straight wins to reach the final.

RELATED: 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup schedule – Groups, calendar, dates, times, fixtures

The Norwegians also held the historical advantage over the USWNT, who held a dismal 1-4-0 record against the 1987 UEFA Women’s champs. In fact, the Americans dropped two matches to Norway on U.S. soil just prior to the tournament, losing 0-1 on Aug. 30 and 1-2 on Sept. 1.

More than 63,000 people packed Tianhe Stadium for the Saturday-night finale, which was just 80 minutes long based on a report of the 1988 FIFA Women’s Invitation Tournament, considered a dry-run event — and won by Norway. The report read: “At that time there were many teams whose players had serious fitness problems towards the end of the 80-minute game. FIFA switched to 90-minute games for the 1995 World Cup.

“That was stupid, disappointing,” said Akers regarding the shortened match time. Akers’ five-goal record performance in a single World Cup game stood alone until 2019, when it was matched by Alex Morgan.

Akers headed in free kick from Shannon Higgins-Cirovski in the 20th minute to take the early lead, but the Norwegians drew even just nine minutes later. The score stay tied for nearly 50 more minutes, until once again it was Akers in spotlight.

“We said at halftime that we just needed to get behind them,” said Higgins-Cirovski, who set up what would ultimately be the game winner – after playing the entire tournament with a fifth metatarsal stress fracture in her left foot. “I knew on a half-turn I could get them.”

Higgins-Cirovski delivered a 40-yard back pass to Akers in the 78th minute, and Akers didn’t miss a beat as she drove at the keeper, who dove to the ground. Akers touched the ball past the keeper with her left foot, and facing an empty net, maneuvered around the ball to take the winning shot with her right foot.

“I got so much [grief] about that,” Akers says about the maneuver before explaining: “From practicing, if the ball is rolling away to the left and you hit it with your left, unless you hit it perfectly, there is a margin of error. On my right, I had the ball width to hit it to go in. I just passed it into the goal.”

“I knew what I was doing,” she adds. “It’s the thing you train for your whole life, to take the last shot to win the World Cup. Who gets that chance?!”

Akers — one of two players who had been on that original 1985 team along with Lori Henry — was awarded the Golden Shoe for top scoring honors in the tournament (10 goals), while Gabarra was awarded the Golden Ball as tournament’s best player. Akers, Gabarra (six goals, three assists) and Heinrichs (four goals, two assists) combined to score 80 percent of U.S. goals in the entire tournament (20 out 25) and were appropriately nicknamed the “Triple-Edged Sword” by the Chinese media.

But the Americans’ talent and depth was spread across the field: Goalkeeper Harvey started every game, with Kim Maslin-Kammerdeiner and Amy (Allmann) Griffin as backups. The backline included Carla (Werden) Overbeck, Joy (Biefeld) Fawcett, Linda Hamilton, Henry and Debbie (Belkin) Rademacher.Tracey (Bates) Leone, Higgins-Cirovski, Foudy, Hamm and Lilly made up the midfield, with Chastain joining Gebauer, Akers, Heinrichs and Gabarra up front. Ten players from the 1991 Women’s World Cup Team are in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

“Anyone that’s ever played for that team is a part of the legacy and part of that U.S. Women’s National Team,” Gabarra told USA Soccer on the 30th anniversary of the 1991 World Cup. “It’s special because we continue to be dominant, and we continue to win big tournaments. Everybody also has the ability to fight for what they believe in. It’s a really special group to be a part of.”

Learn more about the legendary women who blazed athletic trails in this five-part series, “Remembering History,” as On Her Turf celebrates Black Heritage Month and Women’s History Month with features on Alice Coachman, the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team, tennis great Althea Gibson, race car driver Janet Guthrie and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King‘s win over Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” 


2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
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The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like to play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: Alissa Pili revives her love of basketball with record season at Utah

Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said regarding the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

RELATED: 2023 March Madness 2023 — Updated bracket, scores and schedule for NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship