How the United States dominated Olympic football

Players of the United States team pose for photographs with gold medals after the award ceremony of the Women's Final between USA and Brazil during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)
Players of the United States team pose for photographs with gold medals after the award ceremony of the Women's Final between USA and Brazil during the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (Photo by Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

Over the history of the Olympic Games a number of teams have reached such heights that they can only be described as incredible. Tokyo 2020 revisits the stories of these unforgettable teams and the star players that helped them light up the Olympic Games. In the first part of our series, we look at the United States women's football team. 

How it started

The United States women’s football team is one of the most successful national teams in the world and their record at the Olympic Games is no different with four gold medals and a silver between Atlanta 1996 and London 2012.

However, the national team have grown from humble beginnings. After the passing of Title IX, which prohibited gender-based discrimination in education programmes and activities, college teams were formed across the United States – before this there weren’t many opportunities for women to play sport.

Then in 1985, coach Mike Ryan was tasked with selecting a roster of college players by the U.S. Soccer Federation to participate in an Italian tournament called Mundialito. But Ryan had less than a week to select a team - this means there was no time to train together and they didn't even have proper uniforms. They finished fourth (of four teams) at the tournament, but regardless of the outcome, it was the start of something exciting.

From that point on, the United States continued to grow from strength to strength, finishing runners-up at the 1986 Mundialito. They bowed out at the quarter-finals to Norway at the 1988 FIFA Women’s Invitation Tournament before getting their revenge at the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, beating Norway 2-1 in the final in front of 65,000 fans.

Despite receiving few resources, the women’s national team played in various tournaments in the lead up to the 1995 World Cup, where they finished third after losing the semi-final to champions Norway.

The biggest win

Team USA have had many important wins at the Olympic Games from winning the first-ever women’s football gold medal at Atlanta 1996 and beating Japan at London 2012 after their World Cup loss the year prior.

But there is one gold medal match that stands out.

At Beijing 2008, it was the first time that the United States weren’t favoured to win gold. This is because a year prior, they lost to Brazil 4-0 in the World Cup semi-final. It was coach Greg Ryan’s second loss in his 55-game tenure, and he was removed as the head coach. Swede Pia Sundhage was brought in to become just the second ever female coach of the national team.

Then in July, during an exhibition match, Abby Wambach, the USA's top player, broke her leg - just a few weeks before the Games started.

As the United States began their Olympic campaign, they suffered a shock loss to old rivals Norway – who are one of the only three teams in the world to win a women’s football gold medal. Sundhage’s side rebounded to find wins against Japan and New Zealand to finish top of their group. They then struggled to win the quarter-final against Canada but overcame Japan again in the semi-final.

In a repeat of the Athens 2004 final, USA met Brazil once again. But this time, neither side were able to score within regulation time so the match went into extra time. Carli Lloyd rocketed home as the gold medal winner for the United States just six minutes in.

“The media counted us out pre-tournament,” USA defender Heather Mitts told The Guardian in 2018.

“Everything that could have gone wrong in that first game against Norway did, but we also came together afterwards and looked one another in the eye and said let’s learn from that and win the next one. Our path was different but it was special. We had great team unity on and off the field and it showed throughout the tournament.”

With back-to-back Olympic golds, the United States showed that they were still the team to beat.

The key players

The United States dominance at the Olympic Games spanned 16 years and there have been countless players who’ve graced the football pitch.

But there is one group that formed the spine of the team for so long and that was Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Joy Fawcett.

Hamm was widely recognised as the world’s best, Lilly was known as the best flank midfielder in the world and Fawcett was the formidable central defender with Foudy and Chastain also considered part of the team's golden generation.

There is even a documentary made about their pivotal roles within the national team.

The 'Fab Five', as they were known, last played together was at Athens 2004 where they won gold over Brazil in extra time.

Members of the victorious USA team that beat Brazil 2-1 in extra time stand with their medals on the podium after the women's football match during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Members of the victorious USA team that beat Brazil 2-1 in extra time stand with their medals on the podium after the women's football match during the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
2004 Getty Images

What happened next?

The Rio 2016 Games was the first time in Olympic history that the USA failed to make the gold medal match, losing in a penalty shootout to Sweden. What followed was a year of experimentation, but the United States never lost their powerhouse name.

They picked up the 2018 SheBelieves Cup and 2018 Tournament of Nations titles before going on to win the 2019 FIFA World Cup, becoming the first team to win four Women’s World Cups – conceding three goals and scoring 26 goals throughout the tournament.

And while the USA are beatable – nations like Australia and France prove that, when looking at their results since Rio 2016, they’ve lost just four times in their past 68 matches.

Luckily, for football and Olympic fans alike, the USA are also headed back to the Olympic stage after securing qualification by winning the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying Championship in February.

Will the world no.1's regain their Olympic crown next year?