More than 29 million women and girls are playing soccer around the world today, says Women’s Soccer United. This figure is even more remarkable when you consider the women’s slot in the sport is less than three decades old.
During this 27-year timespan, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) has more than earned its current No. 1 world ranking, given by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA).
The USWNT has won two World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, making the U.S. team the most successful country team in Olympic women’s soccer history, according to the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). While there have been countless highlights, these eight standout moments in the history of the USWNT are uncontestably great.
With Utah Royals FC kicking off a new era for women’s professional soccer in Utah on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium (1:30 p.m. MT kickoff; buy tickets here), let’s look at eight defining moments that brought the women’s game in this country to this point:
1991 Women’s World Championship
1996 Summer Olympic Games
Five short years after its historic World Championship win, the USWNT went on to win Olympic gold in soccer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics with a 2-1 victory over China. What made this achievement especially historic: It was the first time women’s soccer had been an Olympic event.
1999 FIFA World Cup
One of the most talked about games in the history of women’s soccer was the 1999 FIFA World Cup. Forty million U.S. viewers, with over 90,000 attending the event at the Rose Bowl, watched the World Cup final, making it the most-watched soccer match in the history of network television, reported Sports Illustrated.
This 1999 soccer final was a turning point for the USWNT. The U.S. women won the cup with masterful defense against China in a 0-0 tie, ultimately winning 5-4 in penalty kicks.
“FIFA awarded the 1999 Women’s World Cup to the United States and U.S. Soccer pledged it would be the biggest and most successful women’s sporting event ever,” reported the USSF.
The New York Times went on to say women’s soccer “serves as an affirmation of the gains made since the Title IX passage,” which gave equality to women in the world of sports.
After the 1999 World Cup win, the popularity of women’s soccer skyrocketed in America. The USWNT was shown on the cover of Time, Newsweek, People and Sports Illustrated, and top news programs broadcasted interviews. The team was even invited to the White House, reported the USSF.
2008 and the Beijing Olympics
2008 marked one of the best years the USWNT ever had — it only lost one game all year. The team obtained its third Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Olympics that year.
2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup
The U.S. Women’s National Team turned up the drama in 2011 against Brazil when it scored the tying goal with just seconds to spare. Following this nail-biting moment, Abby Wambach scored the latest goal ever in a World Cup match, according to the USSF.
Nicole Barnhart, a Utah Royals FC goalkeeper, played in this World Cup final, as well as in the 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2012 London Olympics, according to the USSF.
2012 London Olympics
The USWNT earned its fourth Olympic gold at the 2012 London Olympics — the first time for any country in both men's and women's categories — with a 2-1 win against Japan. In front of an attendance-breaking audience of 80,000 spectators, Carli Lloyd scored both goals for the USA, with an exciting game-winning goal at the end.
2013 Florida Citrus Bowl
Florida native Erika Tymrak, a current Utah Royals FC player, scored her first goal in her second international appearance at the Florida Citrus Bowl. This win by the USWNT marked the second time in USWNT history — the first was in 2006 — that it achieved an unbeaten record during a year with double-digit fixtures. The USWNT extended its home-unbeaten streak to 77 games, said the USSF.
2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup
2015 proved to be another remarkable year for the USWNT, as it went on to claim the most coveted prize in the sport, according to the USSF: the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Utah Royals FC player Kelley O'Hara was a game standout in Team USA's win over Germany. USWNT teammates Amy Rodriguez and Becky Sauerbrunn, who also play for the Utah Royals FC, were also on the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup roster. The team received accolades in various interviews, including this CBS interview with Carli Lloyd and Becky Sauerbrunn.
In 2015, the #SheBelieves campaign was launched by the USWNT to encourage girls and women around the world to dream big and go for their goals — both on the field and off.
While many of the soccer greats who defined the USWNT are no longer posted on the current team roster, their legacy lives on. Several continue to inspire and amaze on the rosters of the Utah Royals FC, supported by Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen.
“Our goal is (to) build the very best women's sports organization in America,” Hansen said.