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2019 Women's World Cup

The history of the USWNT’s four previous World Cup finals

When the whistle blows Sunday afternoon at Stade de Lyon, it will be the record-extending fifth time in eight Women’s World Cups the United States will be part of the final. Here’s a look back at the other four.

November 30, 1991; Tianhe Stadium; Guangzhou, China
United States 2, Norway 1

The inaugural Women’s World Cup came down to the United States and Norway, each playing their sixth match in barely two weeks. At the time, FIFA was so loathe to acknowledge the women that they called it the “1st FIFA World Championship for Women’s Football for the M&M’s Cup” and scheduled the matches for 80 minutes.

Norway made dubious history as the first team to lose a World Cup match when they were shellacked, 4-0 by the hosts in the opener. A day later the U.S. opened their World Cup rivalry against Sweden with a 3-2 win that nearly saw them blow a 3-0 lead. Wins over Brazil and Japan sent them to the knockout round and wins there over Chinese Taipei and Germany had them in the final.

Norway, meanwhile, recovered and took care of New Zealand and Denmark to reach the quarterfinals. They needed extra time to get through Italy and then whacked Sweden, who had taken out China. The stage was set.

Michelle Akers scored the first ever World Cup final goal, heading home a Shannon Higgins free kick to put the U.S. in the lead after 20 minutes. But disaster struck nine minutes later when Linda Medalen went up and got to a direct ball near the top of the six-yard-box that U.S. keeper Mary Harvey came out for. Harvey ran into her own defenders, which allowed Medalen’s flick to roll off the post and trickle in for the equalizer.

Akers struck again in the 78th minute — just two minutes from time in the condensed match. The Norwegian center backs made a mess of what should have been an easy clearance of a U.S. long ball and Akers was there to pounce. Goalkeeper Reidun Seth tried to save the day but Akers beat her as well and walked in the World Cup-winning goal.

July 10, 1999; Rose Bowl; Pasadena, California
United States 0, China 0, asdet (5-4 on penalties)

It was only 20 years ago but the story has been told enough to stretch several generations. Following the success of the 1996 debut of women’s soccer at the Olympics, the organizing committee for the third World Cup decided to take on the challenge of expanding the event into the biggest venues in the country. The U.S. kicked it off against Denmark on June 19 with a 3-0 win. It was on the bus ride to the match that the famous line was uttered, “holy sh*t this traffic is for us.”

The U.S. continued through group play with wins over Nigeria and North Korea before facing their first test in the quarterfinals against Germany. Brandi Chastain scored an early own goal and even after Tiffeny Milbrett equalized 11 minutes later, the U.S. went down again just before halftime. After a tongue-lashing from head coach Tony DiCicco at halftime, a different U.S. team emerged for the second half.

Chastain equalized four minutes into the half and Joy Fawcett scored the game-winner in the 66th minute, sending the U.S. to the semifinals and sending Kate Sobrero (now Markgraff) to the drug store to make good on a bet by dying her hair red in the event Fawcett scored. The U.S. then beat Brazil, 2-0 on the 4th of July to reach another final.

Meanwhile, China was cruising. They conceded to Sweden in the 2nd minute of their tournament but rallied to open with a 2-1 win and then thrashed Ghana and Australia to reach the knockout round, where they took care of Russia in the quarterfinals. Next was Norway. China put the defending champions out of the tournament with a 5-0 beatdown that left many believing they were favorites in the final.

On a sweltering day in Pasadena, the U.S. and China battled through 120 tense minutes of soccer and nary a goal was found. The closest call was in sudden death extra time when Kristine Lilly calmly slid off her position at the post on a China set piece to head away a rebounded shot that had beaten Brianna Scurry. It looked like China’s golden goal. The match was also noted for Scurry’s inadvertent punch of Akers’ head at the end of full time that left Akers concussed and ended her World Cup.

In penalties, Scurry came up with one of the most famous saves ever in soccer when she saved China’s third attempt, from Liu Ying. The other nine takers all converted, including Chastain, whose iconic celebration needs no recap here.

June 17, 2011; FIFA Women’s World Cup Stadium; Frankfurt/Main, Germany
Japan 2, United States 2, aet (Japan win, 3-1 on penalties)

After two straight semifinal exits, the U.S. were facing a World Cup without getting to the final four for the first time ever. They were down to 10 women and less than one minute, trailing Brazil 2-1 in extra time of the quarterfinals. And while Brazil players tried every tactic to see the game out — other than playing actual soccer — Megan Rapinoe drove a long cross to the head of Abby Wambach. The ensuing header tied the match, woke up the women’s soccer fan base back home and sent the match to penalty kicks, where the U.S. prevailed.

The reason the U.S. were battling Brazil and not Australia in that quarterfinal was because of a group-stage loss to Sweden — still the only time the U.S. has ever lost a World Cup group match in 24. The semifinal was also considered the tougher of the two against an upstart France side, but the U.S. sent the French aside, 3-1.

Alex Morgan is not the player you think she is

Meanwhile, Japan was coming through the other side of the bracker. Never thought of as much of a women’s soccer power before the tournament, Japan announced themselves to the World with a 1-0 extra-time win over the hosts and favorites, Germany, in the quarterfinals. Then they dashed any hope of a U.S.-Sweden rematch with a 3-1 win over the Swedes in the semifinals.

Before the final was over, the U.S. would get goals from the future and the present, Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach. The Americans were 9 minutes and then 3 minutes from being world champions, and yet left Germany heartbroken. After  the U.S. dominated the first hour with nothing to show for it, Morgan beat her defender to get on a Rapinoe long ball and then buried her shot to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. But in the 81st minute a Christie Rampone giveaway led to a Japan shot and a poor U.S. clearance allowed Aya Miyama to stick in the equalizer.

Wambach put the U.S. back on top near the end of the first extra time when Morgan found her tucked in between Japanese defenders for a clean header. Japan did not give up, though, and they tied it again in the 117th minute, when a corner kick found Homare Sawa whose finish took a deflection off Wambach and in.

Penalties were a disaster for the U.S. with Carli Lloyd’s miss sandwiching saves on Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath. Saki Kumagi eventually hit the winner to give Japan an unlikely trophy.

July 5, 2015; BC Place; Vancouver Canada
United States 5, Japan 2

The 2015 World Cup did not feature a great start for the United States. After a Hope Solo-inspired win over Australia to open the tournament, and a 0-0 draw with Sweden, they won their group with a tidy victory over Nigeria.

The expanded field meant a round-of-16 match for the first time and the U.S. struggled to get by Colombia, winning 2-0. In that match, Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were shown yellow cards — the second of the tournament for both — meaning they were suspended for the quarterfinal against China.

The suspensions turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The personnel issues moved head coach Jill Ellis to tinker with her formation, and with the 4-2-3-1 alignment the U.S. never looked back. The 1-0 win over China was their best of the tournament, and though they had to shake off conceding a penalty to Germany (that Celia Sasic missed), they were pulling away late in a 2-0 win.

Nobody’s talking about Abby Dahlkemper — and that’s a good thing

Meanwhile, Japan were not expected to defend their unlikely 2011 title, yet here they were winning six consecutive matches all by a single goal. In the semifinal against England, they looked to be passing off control of the match late when an own goal off Laura Bassett gifted the Nadesheko a return trip to the final.

This time, the final was never a contest. Carli Lloyd became the first woman or man to score a World Cup hat trick in normal time, and she did it in 16 minutes, by which time the U.S. had ambushed Japan to the tune of a 4-0 lead. Heath and Holiday also scored in a 5-2 victory that gave the U.S. a record third World Cup and first in 16 years. Holiday’s goal turned out to be the game-winner and Heath’s headed off some Japan momentum two minutes after they had closed it to 4-2 with more than a half hour to play.


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