Three Stars at Last

In my parent’s house in Southern California, I have an old magazine cover spread tacked to a bulletin board, a momento from my childhood, a piece of my own history. I put it up in 1999, shortly after the US women brought a capacity Rose Bowl to their feet with their second World Cup win. I decided that day to keep it up until the US women won the World Cup again. On Sunday night, 5 July, I got that opportunity at last.

Soccer: FIFA World Cup Final: Overall view of Team USA players victorious on field after winning match vs China at Rose Bowl Stadium. Pasadena, CA 7/10/1999 CREDIT: Peter Read Miller (Photo by Peter Read Miller /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (Set Number: X58265 TK3 R5 F5 )

The spread of the 1999 World Cup team that was tacked to my bulletin board for 16 years. CREDIT: Peter Read Miller

I won’t say it’s the first thing that popped into my head after the final whistle blew at BC Place in Vancouver, British Columbia. After all, that memory had to fight with the in-the-present sight of my beloved women’s national team leaping joyfully into each other’s arms and jumping onto the stadium boards to hug their families and kiss spouses cheering in the stands. It wasn’t on my mind when the jumbo-tron screen flashed images of Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, the two center backs responsible for an almost record-breaking World Cup shutout streak (539 minutes), tearfully embracing in the center circle, surrounded by photographers. I didn’t even think of it when the confetti cannons exploded as captain Christie Rampone and world-leading goal scorer Abby Wambach hoisted the World Cup trophy together on the podium with their teammates.

It hit me later that night as I was sitting in the hotel room with my friends, exhausted but elated. I was looking through the press releases and news reports discussing the game and the stellar performance by Carli Lloyd and company. A tear-jerking piece by former WNT captain Julie Foudy about what the third star that now adorns the women’s jerseys means brought me back to that July 10, 1999, and how it kicked off a passion for me that will undobtedly last a lifetime.

I remembered how it felt watching the penalty kicks on TV in 1999, how it felt to watch the confetti shower down onto the floor of the Rose Bowl, and wishing that I could experience that level of elation. I remembered my pre-teenage self tacking that spread to the bulletin board in my bedroom, vowing never to take it down until we had achieved a podium again.

The 2003 World Cup came with the ’99ers still on the roster, but the semifinal slipped through our fingers after Germany scored twice in stoppage time to win 3-0. Every day I came home from grade school, then high school soccer practices, then college, and saw that Sports Illustrated spread still tacked to the board. The vow held.

2007 came and went in what is now a blur of fear and anger and heartbreak. To this day, it remains the major tournaments that I remember least. It was what I consider to be the lowest point of the US women’s soccer team, a team split apart through poor coaching decisions and one player’s choice of words at the wrong time. The US fell at the hands of Brazil in what is still the worst US loss in the history of the women’s tournament. Another defeat in the semifinals, another quadrennial to wait.

Then came 2011, well into the Age of Pia. The 2008 Gold Medal was already ours, but the World Cup tournament wasn’t a great one for us, and we scraped through to the semifinals. What looked like a sure loss to Brazil in overtime was turned on its head as Abby Wambach’s 122 minute goal sent the game into penalty kicks. Ali Krieger’s converted 5th kick was a moment compared to the Chastain goal in 1999, and a moment that seemed destined to carry the US to victory.

But America wasn’t the Team of Destiny in 2011. That title fell to Japan, a country ravaged by earthquake and tsunami only four months before, a country that had never beaten the US in 25 previous meetings. Japan came from behind twice, and finally beat the Americans in a penalty kick shootout that days before the US used to stamped their ticket against Brazil. Japan won with class and heroics, and inspired their nation in the dark days of recovery.

The Sports Illustrated spread stayed on the board, though by now it had been taken off the wall of my childhood bedroom and moved to a basement closet along with the other belongings that had been left behind after my cross-country move.

Fast forward four years to 2015. Having not attended any of the World Cup games when it was hosted in the US in 1999 and (at the last minute) 2003, I jumped at the opportunity to get tickets when it was announced that Canada would be hosting. Never mind that the US was drawn into group D, which competed in middle-of-nowhere Winnipeg. I was there. And I was.

At Winnipeg Stadium on June 9, 2015, just prior to kickoff of the 2015 Women's World Cup group D stage.

At Winnipeg Stadium on June 9, 2015, just prior to kickoff of the 2015 Women’s World Cup group D stage.

I’ve seen the US in some difficult times, and the group stage of the 2015 World Cup was one of the worst in terms of play. Trapped in a decade-old and tired 4-4-2 formation, the team struggled to control the midfield against technically advanced teams, but scraped through the “Group of Death” on top with 7 points, a far cry from the dominant squad in 2012. A scrape it may have been, but they faced a relatively easy path to the semifinal: Colombia and a China squad far removed from their legendary 1999 status, standing in their way. Colombia put up a fight, as expected, and the US may have won 2-0, but one only had to watch the game to se that the US team was drowning.

It took fairly drastic measures, including quarterfinal suspensions of half of the midfield, Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, for the US to return to dominance. The utilization of Morgan Brian in the place of Holiday turned out to be a boon, and Ellis still had some tricks up her sleeve. In a ballsy move (or what my dad referred to as Jill having “ovaried up”) she changed her formation for the semifinal against tournament favorite Germany, using a 4-5-1 and utilizing Brian, Holiday and Carli Lloyd together in the midfield, with Brian acting as a holder, leaving Holiday to playmake and Lloyd to attack with Alex Morgan just below her. The change was instantly successful, and the Germans were outplayed from the starting whistle. Helped by one of the loudest women’s soccer crowds I’ve ever heard, the US fairly strolled to victory. For the second tournament in a  row, the US were headed to the World Cup final.

Photo credit: Reuters

The US women celebrate defeating Germany 2-0 and advancing to the World Cup Final.

Against Japan, who had lost their 2011 sparkle, it was a different feel. There was no feeling of dread leading into the game. Only confidence. The US dominated, scoring four goals in 16 minutes, with Lloyd earning the first hat trick in a World Cup final. The US cruised to a 5-2 victory, securing their first World Cup win in 16 years.

As the confetti settled and the stadium finally emptied, the importance and grandure of the occasion hit me and my two closest soccer friends: We were World Champions again…at last. It was a moment my teenage self only dreamed would happen sooner. There were tears several times that night, and I cherish the experience I had and know how lucky I was to witness one of the greatest sporting events in history.

I had the presence of mind to snap this about 10 seconds after the final whistle blew. Pure elation.

I had the presence of mind to snap this about 10 seconds after the final whistle blew. Pure elation on the faces of some who waited longest.

With Sports Illustrated releasing a special cover this week and vowing to cover the Cup extensively in their next full issue, and (I expect) cover photos coming for TIME, People, and hopefully more, it looks like I’ll finally be able to take down that fabled 1999 spread. It might be framed, or it might be saved in a  box. But it will be replaced by a spread earned by this 2015 team, the team people are already referring to as the ’15ers, the team that, for me, seems more accessible and more human than ever before. This is the first team that I’ve been connected to more than that legendary 1999 team. While I’m more invested in the team than many, due to my 16 day stretch in Canada during the Cup, I am not alone in feeling the impact and inspiration from the women who fought so hard to bring the World Cup trophy back to the United States.

As Carli Lloyd put it, “We looked down at these stars and one of those stars belongs to us and will always belong to us.” I like to think she includes all of us in that quote.

Three Stars. The Top is courtesy of the '15ers

Three Stars. The Top is courtesy of the ’15ers

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