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Twenty years ago, the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup and changed the sport

Goalie Briana Scurry blocks a shootout try by China's Liu Ying in the 1999 World Cup final. (Eric Risberg/AP)

Beamed around the globe and splashed on the cover of Newsweek and Sports Illustrated, the photo of Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey with a primal howl, after dropping to her knees upon blasting the winning penalty kick, became the defining image of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s 1999 World Cup triumph.

But without 5-foot-4 Kristine Lilly leaping at the split-second a miracle was needed to bat away a surefire Chinese goal in the 100th minute of the scoreless standoff, the United States wouldn’t have gotten to the penalty shootout.

And without goalkeeper Briana Scurry’s saves to that point — not to mention the penalty shot she rejected by a Chinese player — there would have been no U.S. World Cup victory that July 10 at the Rose Bowl, where thousands of screaming fans cheered on the Americans.

“The ’99ers,” as that World Cup champion squad of 20 years ago is known, became the country’s first superstar women’s team — achieving fame, fans and rock-star status previously accorded female champions in individual sports, such as figure skater Dorothy Hamill, heptathlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee and gymnast Mary Lou Retton.

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Members of the U.S. women's national soccer team talk about their fight for gender equality ahead of the Women's World Cup in France. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Then, as today, the ’99ers stand as one, having proved on the World Cup pitch and believing to their marrow that unity was their indomitable strength. Apart from matters of technique and training that are a given among elite athletes, their formula for success could be distilled to the simple equation: One plus one equals three. They were greater than the sum of their parts.

At a recent panel discussion commemorating the 1999 World Cup championship, Chastain was asked how kicking the winning penalty changed her life. She redirected the premise as deftly as she struck the ball that day with her left foot, as Coach Tony DiCicco had instructed, rather than her preferred right foot.

“My life changed dramatically when I joined this team,” said Chastain, 50, gesturing to the former teammates on the panel. “It changed because of the influence of all these women, from 1991 to now. Being given the responsibility and trust of taking the fifth penalty kick forever changed my life, but, really, being with these women and watching them work every day, being such a great influence on my life as a person — that was the greatest part.”

The team’s success and the buildup to the gold medal game in Pasadena, Calif., raised soccer’s profile in the United States, inspired girls and boys alike to play and launched the first women’s professional league, the Women’s United Soccer Association, which folded in 2003. But the team’s impact is still felt as the United States prepares to open its 2019 Women’s World Cup bid against Thailand on Tuesday.

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For the veteran leaders of the current U.S. team, who were soccer-crazed children 20 years ago, the 1999 World Cup was transformative.

“I was in my living room with my dad watching the final, and when they won and were celebrating, I remember saying to my dad: ‘I need to know what this feels like! This is what I want to do!’ ” said defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who grew up in St. Louis. “From that point on, my family was all-in.”

Remembered Alex Morgan, who grew up about 20 minutes from the Rose Bowl: “It captivated the country in a way that hadn’t been done in female sports, at least not in my lifetime.”

Megan Rapinoe, who was born in Northern California, went to the 1999 team’s semifinal with her parents, her twin sister and a handful of teammates from her club team. The quality of soccer, the intensity of the effort and the electricity of the crowd blew her teenage mind.

Twenty years later, Rapinoe feels a direct descendant of that squad.

“We’re all of the same thread. You have different personalities that pop up with each generation, but I very much look at that team and ourselves as fighting for the same goals, on and off the field,” Rapinoe said. “We are all cut from the same cloth, the United States women’s national team.”

Mia Hamm, the breakout star 20 years ago, for example, resisted the corporate push to make her the face of U.S. women’s soccer, insisting that any commercials she was part of included other members of the team.

What steeled and defined the 1999 team was a competitiveness rooted in the core members who had led the United States to victory in the inaugural, 1991 World Cup — Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Scurry, Hamm, Lilly and Chastain, among others. Their work ethic and insistence that every practice be treated as if it were the World Cup final became a requisite of young soccer players who joined their ranks.

“We would knock the crap out of each other, and then pick ‘em up — or not,” Akers said.

To this fierce ethic, the team’s mental skills coach, Colleen Hacker, added what she calls a “secret leading edge” of mental toughness and chemistry.

With an expertise in kinesiology and performance skills, Hacker joined DiCicco’s coaching staff in advance of the 1996 Atlanta Games, where women’s soccer was to make its Olympic debut.

“Colleen, how would you like to help me win the first gold medal in Olympic soccer history?” DiCicco asked over the phone in recruiting her for his staff.

Olympic gold achieved, Hacker stayed on with the team, relocating from Washington state to embed with the U.S. squad throughout its residency camp before the 1999 World Cup.

On the field, DiCicco, who died in 2017, pushed players to their limits, creating one pressure scenario after another in which they would have to battle back from a one- or two-goal deficit.

“Playing Kristine Lilly day in and day out, one of the best in the world, and getting my butt kicked — I thrived in that,” Shannon MacMillan said. “I wanted that because I never wanted to make it easy. I wanted it to be hard. And that prepared me.”

At the same time, DiCicco built a family dynamic and constantly reminded his players, individually and collectively, that he believed in them.

Akers remembers DiCicco standing before a chalkboard in his pregame talks: “Tony had this beautiful cursive writing, and it always said up there, ‘You are the best!’ He underlined it, with the exclamation point!”

They were one team, with countless inside jokes and mantras. A favorite, just before taking the field, depending which country they were facing: “It’s a bad day to be German!” Or, “It’s a bad day to be French!”

Said Akers, “It was like we wanted to punish them for being out there and even thinking about beating us!”

At so many key moments in the 120 scoreless minutes of the 1999 World Cup final and the penalty kicks that settled it, the U.S. team’s mental toughness and mutual belief made the difference.

Recalled Scurry, who had been pulled out of position on the sequence that gave China the potential game-winning shot at the 100-minute mark: “When Lill made that save of that kick, I just knew: ‘This is it! We’re going to win this thing!’ If that wasn’t the time, it wasn’t going to happen for them.

“And it was because everybody did their job. I remember Tony telling me, very distinctly: ‘If you do your job — just make one save — everybody is going to do their job.' I completely and utterly believed that. So I had no doubt everybody would make their kick. It was just the culture of the team.”

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