My, how time flies.
Here on this final day of the year of 2015, the United States stands atop the women’s soccer world again. The Americans have done so during each of the last three Olympiads, but — as they were so often reminded — they hadn’t lifted the World Cup since 1999, an unspeakable drought (but relatively not much of one) for the world power.
Carli Lloyd became the first woman to score a hat trick in a World Cup final, thumping in her third tally from midfield to emphatically stake her claim to something she has long said: She wants to be the best player in the world.
This year will go down as one of the most epic in the history of the United States women’s national team. The Americans won the World Cup in front of record-setting TV audiences and crowds in Canada, drawing parallels to the pandemonium of 1999. (It’s unclear if any crowd will ever top what was seen that day at the Rose Bowl in front of 90,185 people.)
But it’s funny how things can change so quickly.
This time last year, there was significant worry surrounding the U.S. women. They didn’t look all too convincing against some of the minnows of CONCACAF in qualifying in October 2014 (remember the 1-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago to open the tournament?) and last December they had just come off of some unconvincing results, including a 3-2 loss to Brazil in which Marta lit up the U.S. backs for a hat trick (before a 0-0 draw in the rematch a few days later).
Then came February, when the U.S. was thoroughly outplayed by France in a 2-0 loss in Lorient, and the alarm bells went off. Things got better with an Algarve Cup triumph, but many, including this author, didn’t see this U.S. team as one which was about to march to its first World Cup title in 16 years.
And the start to the World Cup didn’t portray that dominant image, either. Australia proved capable but wasteful against the U.S., who followed up that result with an ugly, gritty scoreless draw with Sweden and a wasteful showing of their own in a 1-0 win over Nigeria. Even a 2-0 win over Colombia in the Round of 16 did little to quiet critics.
But changes loomed — and yes, some by force. Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe would both end up suspended for the quarterfinal against China, forcing U.S. coach Jill Ellis to make changes so many fans and pundits implored her to make. Kelley O’Hara came in and brought energy on the wing, combining with Amy Rodriguez on that night. And Carli Lloyd was finally released and allowed to be Carli Lloyd, a goal-hungry midfielder who is a borderline forward and lethal from all areas of the field.
That quarterfinal on June 26 — a 1-0 win smack in the middle of the calendar year — was the turning point for the U.S. women. From there, everything clicked. Their swagger was restored. There was palpable confidence and belief, things which literally everyday in interviews they told us had never wavered but only then had truly become visible to the outside world. They took that and carried it on to the semifinal, where strong play combined with some fortune in a win over Germany and an eventual title-game triumph over Japan. The U.S. women were back on top of the world, at a height greater than any ever previously reached — talk shows, magazine covers, even the first-ever New York City parade for a women’s sports team.
All of that led to the victory tour, one of those things built into contracts well ahead of any World Cup or Olympic gold medal. The victory tour proved to be a messy mix of insufficient facilities which led to players striking against competing on the artificial turf at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii earlier this month, continuing an equality battle which served as a significant political and cultural sub-story to this entire year of competition. (The 2015 World Cup was the first senior World Cup — men’s or women’s — on artificial turf, and a group of women led by Abby Wambach fought unsuccessfully to have the 2015 tournament played on grass. That saga can be tracked in full here.)
The cancellation of that match cut Wambach’s career short by one more game, but she eventually exited professional soccer to fanfare not often seen for female athletes, fitting for such a legendary player. Appropriately for such a strange year for the U.S. women, they lost that game, 1-0 to China to end a 104-match, 11-year home unbeaten streak, truly signifying the end of an era. Wambach ended her career with 184 goals.
Now, the Americans find themselves in a place of transition as the embark on their journey for a fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal. Ellis’ training camp roster full of young faces spells that out explicitly.
Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny have joined Wambach in retirement, all with incredible and legendary careers in their own right. Holiday goes out as the official scorer of the World Cup-winning goal (despite Lloyd’s hat trick) and someone who years from now will be viewed as a quiet pioneer for both the national team and the National Women’s Soccer League. Boxx was the original story of why the U.S. needs a domestic league, turning strong play in WUSA in 2003 into a World Cup roster spot despite then not having an international camp. And Chalupny was once one of the best left backs in the world, then she disappeared from the international scene for five years due to concussions only to be cleared in time for one last World Cup.
All said, it was an incredible year for the United States women’s national team. Really, it was an incredible year for women’s soccer. But it did not come without some of the most wild ups and downs, drama and storylines which define sport across all genders, ages and levels. That may be the most lasting impact of 2015.
Memorable moments of 2015
France 2, USA 0
Two goals in just over a minute led to France’s first-ever win over the U.S., but the scoreline didn’t do justice to just how much the Americans were run off the pitch in Lorient. This is one of those losses you hear coaches say “needed” to happen. It was a wake-up call and a low point for the U.S. and ultimately an overlooked piece of their revitalization.
That Christen Press goal
We saw the potential of Christen Press on full display in a win over a short-handed France team in the Algarve Cup final. Press’ up-and-down year was a microcosm of the United States’ to some degree, but it started and ended on high notes.
Tobin being Tobin
There are these moments when Tobin Heath looks like Lionel Messi — moments that make your jaw drop. Heath’s continued challenge (and Jill Ellis’, too, to be fair) is making those happen more consistently for Heath. There were a couple of them in 2015 that really drew some deserved attention: First in May against Mexico and then in December against China:
Klingenberg’s Best Kristine Lilly Impersonation
One of the shortest players on the U.S. team made the most important goal-line clearance since Kristine Lilly’s 1999 World Cup final save against China.
USA 1, China 0
The importance of this game cannot be overstated. It changed the course of the United States’ World Cup, which is a history-altering event.
Julie Johnston’s Yellow Card
Johnston had a phenomenal tournament, earning all-star honors from FIFA. (Somehow, counterpart Becky Sauerbrunn did not, despite being the United States’ most important player through all seven games.) That Johnston got away with just a yellow card for her last-player-back tackle against Germany kept U.S. hopes alive. The U.S. kept 11 players on the field and Carli Lloyd scored the winner 10 minutes later.
Lloyd’s hat trick, USA’s triumph
The United States conquered the world once again, and Carli Lloyd put in one of the greatest single-game performances in all of soccer history.
Boxx, Chalupny, Holiday all say goodbye
This all happened in a four-day stretch, making for some emotional moments for the U.S. women.
Hawaii turf protest
Lessons for news editors: Never sleep on a developing overnight story in Hawaii, because it isn’t anywhere close to overnight out there. Seriously, though, this was a major stand from the U.S. women against not just turf, but inequality. As this author has written, the implications of this were meant to be felt in 2016 and the message is loud and clear as collective bargaining agreement negotiations ramp up.
Wambach’s final match
It was strange but fitting — to use Wambach’s word — how the world’s all-time goal-scorer exited the scene, but she will be remembered as the star of this generation and arguably the greatest player to ever step on the field, joining the conversation with Michelle Akers and old teammate and mentor Mia Hamm. Now, Wambach looks to change the world off the field so the next generation has better playing and living conditions.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) December 17, 2015