It’s been a really, really good 10 years for the US women’s national soccer team.
Here is a very personal, completely subjective list of the moments from the past 10 years that made me jump out of my seat, scream, and occasionally cry.
A few months ago a friend texted me saying, “Hey, can you send me the video of that one Alex Morgan goal? I’m showing someone the best USWNT moments of all time.”
I didn’t need more info; I knew exactly which goal she was talking about. This is the best goal Morgan has ever scored, and it deserves to be on this list even though it came in a game that ultimately didn’t matter all that much.
I don’t really know that much has to be said about this? I mean, just watch. Now go back and watch again.
You can’t talk about the USWNT’s decade without Hope Solo. She was far from perfect off the field, including a domestic violence arrest that shouldn’t be overlooked (the charges were later dropped). But she was also the best women’s goalie…ever. Watching her was so much fun: ridiculous penalty-kick saves, flying leaps. She did it all with self-confidence and a nice touch of arrogance.
I remember this goal vividly, even though it happened during a friendly, because you can’t help but watch it and say, “What the fuck?” The shot took a deflection, and Hope was already diving the wrong way. Anyone who plays soccer knew that ball was going in the net.
And then, somehow, Solo managed to pivot and fling herself in the other direction, stretching the entire length of her body and knocking the ball away. Then she got to the ball before the Canadians could.
Having her in goal almost felt a little bit unfair — almost.
Was this an important game? Not really. But it’s the moment that epitomized my favorite player, Becky Sauerbrunn, so I’m gonna put it on my list anyway. Does thinking about it make me tear up? Maybe.
You may not have heard of Sauerbrunn, the rock of the American defense, because she doesn’t usually make highlight reels. She’s not the fastest or strongest, she just plays smarter and works harder than anyone else, and does it all with this quiet humility that’s pretty rare among professional athletes.
Sauerbrunn was the best defender in the world for most of this decade — and the best player in the 2015 World Cup. But after 171 appearances for the USWNT, at age 34, she’s never scored a goal.
Which is why this moment is so symbolic. Sauerbrunn got a rare, perhaps once-in-a-career opportunity to score the goal every fan desperately wants for her. And instead of taking the shot, she simply made the smart, unselfish play and passed the ball to Alex Morgan, who had a better angle at goal. Morgan scored.
I still wish Sauerbrunn had been selfish, but if she had been, she wouldn’t be the player she is.
A lot of people (men) had a lot of opinions about how the USWNT celebrated at the 2019 World Cup. First, there were the wild goal celebrations after the team beat Thailand by an astonishing scoreline of 13–0. There was Alex Morgan sipping tea. Then, of course, there was the way the women celebrated after they won the tournament, captured for the world on players’ Instagram stories: a lot of booze-soaked dancing and cursing, followed by several days of public drunkenness.
Were they arrogant? Bad sports? Bad role models?
I’m going to let striker Christen Press answer: “It’s someone’s prerogative to be saying, ‘They shouldn’t be doing this.’ And what makes our team what it is is nobody cares.”
That attitude epitomized the 2019 USWNT. They cared about basically one thing from the moment they set foot in France, and that was winning. If you think you can separate the players who joyfully celebrated their teammates’ 12th and 13th goals against Thailand from the team that battered through France, England, and the Netherlands to win the World Cup, think again. (The Thai coach also said her team had no issue with the celebrations.)
Mostly, it was just pure joy. Kelley O’Hara pouring beer into her mouth an hour after being removed from the final for a concussion? Fucking classic.
But those celebrations were important for other reasons. All of the scolding about how the players were and weren’t supposed to behave laid bare a lot of sexist stereotypes about women athletes.
For way too long, women’s soccer has been allowed to exist mostly as “inspiration” for young girls. The 2019 USWNT players rejected that. They didn’t censor themselves, especially when it came to their own joy or their competitiveness. They just won — and put on a great show while they did it.
I have a Heath jersey hanging in my closet that I wore for every game of the World Cup, so I’m not exactly objective in this, but I feel pretty strongly that her transformation as a player was hugely important for the USWNT.
The first reason is the obvious: It made the team much better. Heath was always good, but she also spent a lot of time messing around with the ball instead of scoring. In 2016, Heath became really, really good. She killed it in the Olympics. She got assists and scored goals — a lot of them.
The reason Heath belongs on this list, though, is because of the way she plays. As more and more people tuned into the USWNT regularly, it mattered that they had a player like Heath to watch — someone so different from the usual direct, straightforward American style. Heath is creative, flamboyant, weird, and joyful. She makes the USWNT so much more fun to watch, because you never really know what she’s going to do. Is she going to nutmeg two players in a row? Score a backheel goal? Do this?
Heath’s artistry, combined with her more recent ability to convert, is paving the way for players like Rose Lavelle and for a more creative, entertaining USWNT in the 2020s. I consider Lavelle’s unbelievable nutmeg in the 2019 World Cup semifinal to be a direct successor of Heath.
For most of the 2000s, there was this feeling with the USWNT — anxiety, really — that 1999 represented the peak of women’s soccer in the US. People worried there would never be a player as beloved as Mia Hamm or a victory as major as 1999.
That’s why Abby Wambach scoring her 159th international goal — overtaking Mia to become the highest-scoring international soccer player in history, and doing it with a hat trick, to boot — was such a big deal. It was a symbol of the USWNT moving on and up, taking the achievements of the ’99ers and building on them.
Two years later, Wambach led the team to win its first World Cup since ’99 — in a diminished role on the field, definitely, but not at all diminished as a leader. Wambach was the screaming, sweating heart and soul of the USWNT for basically every minute she played for it.
Somehow, this is not even the top USWNT double-overtime-stoppage-time comeback of the decade, but it’s still one of the craziest games of soccer ever. This game also solidified Alex Morgan, just 23 years old, as the superstar inheritor of the USWNT’s legacy.
The US and Canada have an absolutely vicious rivalry, and this Olympic semifinal was the peak of it. What happened was this: Canadian Christine Sinclair, one of the best players ever, kept scoring amazing goals. And every time, the US kept coming back — including when Rapinoe somehow scored directly off a corner kick — until the game was tied 3–3.
And then! After a double overtime, in the 123rd minute — stoppage time — Alex Morgan headed the ball into the net to win the game. Morgan fell to the ground, and when she stood up, she was laughing in giddiness and relief, because it was so ridiculously perfect.
5. Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger come out as a couple, and Kelley O’Hara kisses her girlfriend after the World Cup final (2019)
Billie Jean King was the first female athlete to admit to being gay, but only after being outed in a 1981 lawsuit. It hurt her image. Yesterday, after winning the world cup, Kelley O’Hara—who wasn’t previously out—ran to the sideline & kissed her girlfriend. How far we’ve come.
09:02 PM – 08 Jul 2019
This is sort of cheating, because it’s two moments, but the thing is that they really matter when they’re taken together. And they meant more to me, as a gay woman, than I can really explain.
These were two very different coming-out moments. Harris and Krieger, a backup goalie and defender on the team, came out in a big People magazine spread in March, announcing they were engaged. I’d been following them closely enough to know they were dating under the radar, and seeing them decide to come out and being celebrated for it in a mainstream magazine was an incredible feeling.
O’Hara came out by simply kissing her girlfriend in the stands to celebrate winning the World Cup. “She didn’t follow this moment up with an interview, a social media post, or a proclamation of any kind,” Kim McCauley wrote for SB Nation. “She just had an affectionate moment with her partner, then continued her life as normal, because what she did is normal and should not require an explanation.”
The thing about these coming-out moments was that they just…weren’t that big of a deal? And that was in large part thanks to the hard-fought groundwork laid by the queer women on the USWNT who had come before them: Briana Scurry, Rapinoe, Wambach, and many others.
A lot of queer women have always loved and seen ourselves in the USWNT, but this was the year it felt like it burst into the open — and other fans started seeing and celebrating the team’s queerness, too.
Obviously, a large part of that was thanks to the very out, very loud Megan Rapinoe, too. As she said after the US beat France in the quarterfinal: “Go, gays! You can’t win a championship without gays on your team — it’s never been done before, ever. That’s science, right there.”
Lloyd’s third (!!!) goal in the 2015 World Cup final basically represented everything about this amazing, dumb, joyful game: It was so over-the-top crazy that when it happened, I screamed, and then I just laughed.
A hat trick? In the World Cup final? In the first 16 minutes? From midfield? Who does that?
It was all just…ridiculous. The US was playing Japan, who had stunned the team in the World Cup final in 2011. That loss was still raw in everyone’s mind. Carli Lloyd scored in the third minute, seemingly out of sheer force of will, and then scored again two minutes later. Then Lauren Holiday got the team’s third. It hadn’t even been 15 minutes yet; at this point, everyone was kind of in disbelief.
And then Lloyd got the ball at midfield, saw the Japanese goalkeeper off her line, and freaking chipped her from 40 yards out. The goalie stumbled. The ball went in. 4–0. The USWNT won, obviously, and brought the World Cup back to the US for the first time since 1999.
There’s been a lot of talk lately about “sticking to sports” — and keeping politics out of it. But this year, the Women’s World Cup took off in unprecedented ways precisely because of the recognition that sports and politics are inextricable. The country became invested in the USWNT because the team combined soccer with a whole host of social issues — equal pay, LGBTQ rights, racial justice.
There are very few moments, then, that give me chills like this clip from the World Cup final: the USWNT champions again, and the whole stadium in Lyon, France, ringing with chants of “Equal pay, equal pay.”
That chant happened because the USWNT decided to sue US Soccer for gender discrimination just months ahead of the 2019 World Cup. It was the culmination of decades of fighting for equality on the national team. It was also a daring step that took the 2019 team beyond its predecessors.
The USWNT has spent a lot of time in the shadow of the 1999 World Cup winners. But Julie Foudy, one of the most prominent members of the ’99ers, said she’d discussed with her teammates whether they would have had the guts to file a lawsuit against US Soccer months before their most important tournament. The answer was clear, Foudy said: We wish, but no.
That was what made the equal pay lawsuit and its timing so fucking brave — and also so incredibly audacious. It meant the World Cup took on the weight of so much more than just a soccer tournament for the USWNT, which was amazing, but it was also terrifying. Because what if they lost?
It’s undeniable now that the ’19ers have created their own legacy — not just of incredible soccer, but unshakable self-belief and brave-as-hell activism.
I remember what I was doing at the exact second I fell in love with the USWNT again.
I was sitting alone on the couch in my aunt and uncle’s basement. The USWNT was down 2–1 to Brazil in the double overtime of the World Cup quarterfinals. The team was also down a player, going 10 on 11 after a red card. There was no time left for a comeback; they were certain to lose. I was heartbroken. The announcer intoned, “It will go down as the USA’s worst performance ever in the Women’s World Cup.”
I remember that I had to be quiet, because my cousins were sleeping upstairs. Then, in the 122nd minute, Rapinoe made the world’s most perfect cross to Wambach. Wambach’s head struck the ball. I could NOT be quiet.
I’ve rewatched that goal so many times that I can hear the announcers in my head, word for word. I still get chills.
The thing is, tens of thousands of other Americans also fell in love again with the team that night. There were a lot of people that had seen the 1999 World Cup as an aberration, but this game proved again that the whole country could be totally captivated by women’s soccer — that they could fall in love with a whole new team.
The decision to put this moment at No. 2 was honestly agonizing, because in terms of sheer sports moments, this is the unforgettable peak for me. But the thing about this game is…well, we lost the World Cup. The US ended up going down to Japan in the final. And if anyone hates losing more than me, it’s the USWNT.
Which is why the No. 1 moment could only be one thing.
The stakes of this game were so wildly high. It had been hyped up for months, since people realized the World Cup draw had set up the two best teams to meet way too early in the quarterfinal. There was a chance at the World Cup on the line, obviously. But also, the US team’s equal pay suit was built on the back of its soccer record, and for its case to hold up, it really could not lose in the quarterfinal. And there was that Twitter thing with Trump.
If you weren’t following the USWNT, here’s the thing you might not realize about this game: A lot of people didn’t expect the US to win it. The team had won the 2015 World Cup, sure, but it had spent a lot of the next four years in a pretty bad funk. (I’d like to state for the record that I blame coach Jill Ellis.) It hadn’t beaten France in its last three meetups; months earlier, it had lost to France 3–1.
Then there was Rapinoe. There was a time where a lot of people thought she was basically done with the USWNT. After an ACL tear at age 30 and a bad 2016 Olympics, a lot of people were happy to write Rapinoe out — partly because she had knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick. And yet in 2018, Pinoe had come back a better player than she’d ever been, and in 2019, she’d taken the weight of the team and a whole lot of other stuff onto her shoulders.
Somehow the US–France game ended up being even better than the stakes set it up to be. Rapinoe scored twice — basically a storybook vindication and an answer to Trump. Her defiant, cocky, proud pose after scoring became a national symbol, and Rapinoe went on to win basically every major soccer and sports award there is.
It was also just a damn good game. Critics had cast intense doubts on the US defense, but this time, they shut France down (and shut those critics up, as Kelley O’Hara would later say). The French fought back hard, which meant you were on the edge of your seat until the final whistle.
The storybook France game started a cascade of storybook moments in the rest of the World Cup: a goal for Christen Press months after her mother’s sudden death; Morgan’s 30th birthday gift of a goal to beat England; Alyssa Naeher’s penalty-kick save, repudiating the doubts that had swirled around her for years; Lavelle solidifying her breakout tournament by scoring in the final in the most Rose Lavelle way possible. And the World Cup victory itself, of course, and everything that came after. You couldn’t have written the script any better.