The 2012 Summer Olympics in London marks the fifth edition of the women’s soccer tournament at the Games, the first of which took place in Atlanta in 1996. The US women have been the dominant force in the tournament, winning gold in Atlanta, Athens in 2004, and Beijing in 2008. Their worst finish was silver in Sydney in 2000. Along with Sweden, who have never medaled, and Brazil, who the US defeated in extra time for gold in 2004 and 2008, the US is the only team to have qualified for each of the women’s tournaments.
Following victory over Norway in the first Women’s World Cup final, hosted by China in 1991, the US was defeated by Norway in the semifinals of the 1995 Women’s World Cup in Sweden to finish third in the tournament.
It was a devastating loss and the desire for revenge would be an ever-present motivator in the months leading up to the first Olympic women’s soccer tournament. But the possibility of winning a gold medal in the first Olympic tournament, and doing so on US soil, was perhaps an even greater motivator. US soccer budgeted $1.6 million for the women’s team, three times what was made available for the preparations of the men’s team. Winning the first women’s soccer tournament at the Olympics on home soil was the singular goal.
Preparations for the Olympics were interrupted in December of 1995 when nine core players—among them such names as Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, and Briana Scurry—refused to report to camp because of a contract dispute with US Soccer, only eight months before the 1996 tournament was due to begin. The dispute centered around team bonuses—the federation had offered a bonus of $250,000 if the US women won the gold; silver or bronze would result in nothing. A compromise was reached after a month of negotiations and training with the full squad under coach Tony DiCicco resumed.
The US drew China, Denmark, and Sweden for its first round group. In front of 25,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando on July 21, the US defeated Denmark 3-0 with first half goals from Tisha Venturini and Hamm, and a second half goal from Tiffeny Milbrett. In Orlando two days later, the US defeated Sweden 2-1. Venturini opened the scoring with an assist from Milbrett early in the 14th minute, Shannon MacMillan—who had found a place on the team first a replacement during the walkout before the Olympics— making it 2-0 in the 62nd minute. Although Sweden pulled a goal back only two minutes later, the US held on.
On July 25 in front of 43,000 fans at the Orange Bowl in Miami, the US next faced China. While both teams were guaranteed to advance from the group, the chance to avoid Norway in the semifinals would go to the first place finisher. With Hamm sitting out the game due to injury, the match ended in a scoreless draw. Because of China’s superior goal difference, the US would face Norway in the semifinals on July 28.
Some 64,000 fans filled Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga. to see the US concede a goal only 18 minutes into the match. Despite controlling much of the match, the US failed to find an equalizer until Akers buried a penalty kick after Norway handled the ball in the box. Soon after, Norway was down to ten players when Hamm was fouled from behind. Still, the US could not find the winner and the game went into sudden death extra time.
Six minutes into extra time, DiCicco subbed in MacMillan for Millbrett. Four minutes later she scored the game winner off of a pass from Foudy. The US had found its revenge and was headed for the gold medal game. There they would face China, who had defeated Brazil 3-2 in the other semifinal.
In front of 76,000 spectators, then a new record for a women’s sporting event in the US, MacMillan opened the scoring for the US 19 minutes into the game. China equalized in the 32nd minute and the game remained tied at the end of the half. The US found the winner in the 68th minute when Milbrett finished a play that began with a through-ball from Hamm to Fawcett, who then centered for Milbrett’s strike.
Despite the fact that the US had beaten the world champions on the course to winning the first-ever gold medal for the event, NBC did not broadcast the historic final and only ran highlighted version of the game.
The US entered the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney as world champions after their spectacular triumph at the 1999 World Cup, hosted by the US. They entered the tournament under the leadership of April Heinrichs, who had replaced Tony DiCicco after his retirement from the national team. The legendary Michelle Akers had also decided to retire from the game. Still, 15 players from the World Cup-winning team would be on the US roster at the Summer games.
The US was drawn into the Group of Death and would play Norway, China, and Nigeria to advance to the semifinals. They faced Norway on September 14 with Millbrett opening the scoring for the US in the 18th minute. Latching onto a long clearance from US goalkeeper Siri Mullinix, Millbrett raced through the Norwegian defense to fire on goal. When the shot was deflected she finished from seven yards out for the early lead. In the 24th minute, Hamm ran on to a ball from Lily to make it 2-0, the final scoreline of the day.
On September 17, the US faced China, who had defeated Nigeria in their first game. The US took the lead in the 38th minute off of a Foudy header but, despite numerous chances, could not further capitalize. China equalized in the 67th minute and Lilly’s penalty kick in the 74th minute was saved. The game finished 1-1 with both teams tied in the group and both teams in need of a win in their next match to guarantee advancement to the semifinals. The US topped Nigeria 3-1 on September 20 in the final game of group play with first half goals from Chastain and Lilly and a second half goal from MacMillan. While the US won the group, China was eliminated after falling to Norway 2-1.
The US faced Brazil in the semifinals on September 24 in a tough game with few scoring chances. But in the 60th minute, Hamm capitalized on a Chastain free kick from 45 yards out. After being headed on by Lorrie Fair, Milbrett and the Brazilian keeper collided and Hamm finished the loose ball. The US held on for the 1-0 win to advance to the final on September 28 when they would face their old nemesis, Norway, who had defeated Germany 1-0.
In the 5th minute of the final, Millbrett opened the scoring for the US, only for Norway to equalize in the 44th minute. While the US dominated the second half, they again could not find the decisive strike and Norway got the go-ahead goal in the 79th minute. The US fought desperately for an equalizer and with one minute left in stoppage time, Milbrett headed a cross from Hamm into the back of the net.
Norway’s sudden-death winner came 12 minutes into extra time. Despite coming from a clear handball, the US protests were for naught and the team left the tournament as silver medalists.
The USMNT had to chance to reassert their supremacy at the 2003 Women’s World Cup. Originally scheduled to be hosted by China, site of the first World Cup in 1991, the tournament was moved to the US by FIFA in May of 2003 after the SARS outbreak. But while the US found some measure of revenge when they defeated Norway 1-0 in the quarterfinals, they were defeated 3-0 by eventual World Cup winners Germany in the semifinals. Only weeks before the start of the 2003 World Cup, WUSA—the world’s first women’s professional soccer league, started in the glory days following the 1999 World Cup win—had announced it was folding shortly after the conclusion of its third season.
For five players who had been at the heart of the women’s national program since its start–Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm, and Kristine Lilly—the Athens Olympics would be their last tournament together.
After automatically qualifying for the previous Olympic tournaments as either the host country or reigning champion, the US outscored their opponents in CONCACAF qualifiers 24-2 en route to the Athens games. There they were grouped with Greece, Australia, and Brazil.
The US opened group play on August 11 with a 3-1 victory over Greece. Newcomers Shannon Box and Abby Wambach scored in the 14th and 30th minute, respectively, and the veteran Hamm finished the scoring in the 81st minute. Three days later they defeated Brazil 2-0. This time Hamm scored first in the 58th minute with Wambach finding the back of the net twenty minutes later. A 1-1 draw—Lilly scored in the 19th minute—saw the US through to the quarterfinals where they would face Japan on August 20.
In front of a sparse crowd of only 1,418, the US went up late in the first half with another goal from Lilly only to see Japan equalize three minutes into the second half. Wambach scored the game-winner in the 58th minute to send the US into the semifinals on August 23. There they would meet Germany, the team that had beaten them less than a year before in the World Cup semifinals.
Against Germany, the Lilly-Wambach partnership bore fruit when Lilly volleyed home a Wambach pass in the 32nd minute to put the US up 1-0. The US would dominate the rest of the match but could not find the final moment of quality to put the game out of reach for the Germans. They would pay for this when Germany scored the equalizer two minutes into stoppage time to force the game into extra time.
Tournament rules now stipulated that there would be no golden goal—the entire 30 minutes of extra time would be played out regardless of who scored first. With play now wide open with both teams pressing for a winning goal, the US broke through nine minutes into the first period of extra-time with a goal from Heather O’Reilly who, after earlier clanging an effort off of the crossbar, now buried an end line pass from Hamm. The US held on for the remaining 21 minutes to claim the 2-1 victory and their spot in the finals.
The August 26 final would pit the US against Brazil, who they had earlier defeated in group play. In a gritty match that featured 47 fouls, Lindsay Tarpley scored first for the US in the 39th minute. In the second half, the US pulled back to protect their lead and Brazil began to dominate. Finally, Brazil broke through to equalize in the 73rd minute. With the post proving to be a welcome 12th defender on the pitch for the US, the game entered extra time. Three minutes from the end of the first extra period, Wambach headed in a Lilly corner kick to give the US the winner and the gold medal.
The US found disappointment at the 2007 World Cup in China, being routed 4-0 by Brazil in the semifinals to finish in third place. Two month’s after the disappointing World Cup campaign Pia Sundhage replaced Paul Ryan as head coach of the team. She would have only nine months to ready the team for the 2008 Games in Beijing.
The CONCACAF qualifiers had proven easy in the beginning, the US outscoring its opponents 11-1 before Canada, though they ultimately were defeated, forced the US to penalty kicks in the final qualifier. At the Olympics, the US were drawn with Japan, New Zealand and Norway. There they would be without Wambach—the team’s leading scorer and then just one goal shy of her 100th international goal. In an exhibition game against Brazil on July 16, the last game before the start of the Olympics, Wambach had suffered a broken leg in a collision with a Brazilian defender.
The US got off to a shocking start, losing 2-0 to Norway on August 6 but then bounced back with a 1-0 win over Japan on August 9 thanks to a Carli Lloyd goal in the 27th minute. The US next faced New Zealand on August 12. A win would assure them of at least second place and advancement to the quarterfinals and they did not disappoint. A goal in the first minute from O’Reilly was followed by a goal from Amy Rodriguez in the 43rd minute. In the 56th minute, Tarpley made it 3-0. Four minutes later, Angela Hucles scored to make it 4-0. While the US was defeating New Zealand, Japan was thumping Norway 5-1 in the other final game in the group and the US would finish first in the group above Norway on goal difference.
Because they had finished on top of the group, the US was able to avoid Brazil, who would go on to defeat Norway 2-1, in the quarterfinals. But the US had drawn Canada, the team that had forced the CONCACAF qualification final to penalty kicks. Hucles scored in the 12th minute to give the US the lead, but Canada equalized in the 30th minute. In between, play had been halted in the 19th minute when a lightning storm forced an hour-and-forty minute delay. The US would dominate the second half but could not find the decisive goal to settle the contest and the game went into extra time. With Canada looking to play for penalty kicks, Natasha Kai scored in the 101st minute with a diving header. Canada could find no response and the US was through to the semifinals on August 18 to face Japan.
Japan opened the scoring in the 17th minute in front of a crowd of 50,937. The US answered with two goals in a three minute span with Hucles scoring in the 41st minute and Lori Chalupny netting in the 44th minute. If the US had started flat, they showed their mettle in the second half and O’Reilly put the game out of reach with a looping shot in the 70th minute. While Japan would get a goal back in stoppage time, the 4-2 victory for the US set up a replay of the 2004 final against Brazil.
While both teams would have chances, it was a case of the well-organizing US defense bending but not breaking in the face of Brazilian technique and flair. Once again the match went to extra time. Then, in the 96th minute, Rodriguez laid the ball off just outside the left corner of the box for Lloyd. Splitting two defenders, Lloyd delivered a vicious dropping shot into the corner of the net. The US women had again won the gold.
After winning the first Women’s World Cup in 1991, the US won the gold at the first Olympic women’s soccer tournament in 1996 following a disappointing finish at the 1995 World. Indeed, each of their Olympic gold medals have followed disappointment in the World Cup, their silver medal finish in 2000 following their only other World Cup triumph in 1999.
The US enter the 2012 Olympics after a stinging defeat in the 2011 World Cup final to Japan. But the team showed its resilience during the CONCACAF qualifiers, outscoring its opponents by an astonishing 38-0.
For many of the veterans on the US team, this will prove to be their last major international tournament and the question remains as to whether this will be the last tournament for Sundhage as manager. Whether the US veterans and new emerging stars such as Alex Morgan and Sydney LeRoux can repeat the kind of swansong for the end of a generation of US stalwarts such as happened in Athens in 2004 remains to be seen.
One thing that everyone, from the players to the coaches, has made clear is anything short of a gold medal will be considered a disappointment.
How’s that for pressure.