Great athletes always possess a little magic. It’s in the power of Serena Williams’ serve, the gravity-defying lift of Simone Biles’ beam routine, the finesse of Mikaela Shiffrin’s ski runs. With soccer’s U.S. Women’s National Team, everything the team does feels like magic. These 23 women are killers in their own right, but put them together on the pitch and they are the reigning world champions and the number-one-ranked team in the world—masters of the kind of athletic power and grace that makes you sit back and say, “Damn.”
The USWNT has smashed expectations for almost three decades, producing some of the biggest moments in sports: Brandi Chastain’s triumphant celebration in her sports bra after scoring the winning goal in the ’99 World Cup, Abby Wambach’s iconic header, Carli Lloyd’s hat trick in the first 16 minutes of the 2015 World Cup final. (That game drew a record-shattering 750 million viewers.) And off the field, the USWNT players have worked to change sports for women everywhere, most recently filing a mic-dropping federal lawsuit against the U.S. Soccer Federation in the fight for equal pay—all while training to defend their FIFA World Cup title this June.
This is the team that brings us together around TV screens and Twitter feeds every four years to watch them light up the field. This is the team that unites us. That lifts us up. That makes the game—and all of us who watch it—better. As we cheer, it’s easy to forget everything the team has gone through to clinch the top spot, to even exist at all. But knowing their story will make you cheer even louder.
The “Babe Factor”
The earliest women’s soccer matches were played in Scotland in the 1600s as a means for women to—prepare your eye roll—find husbands, according to legend. In Great Britain during World War I, as women started stepping into more equal roles, they formed soccer leagues of their own, but male footballers weren’t having it. They hired medical experts who ruled that women’s delicate bodies weren’t built for such a physical game and that playing might endanger their ability to bear children, Gemma Clarke reports in the book Soccer Women. It could have quashed professional women’s soccer for good, and it nearly did. But unofficial women’s leagues hung on, slowly gaining steam. When Title IX passed in the U.S., in 1972, women’s soccer found its first real foothold, and in 1985 the first USWNT was formed.
From its inception the players have had to fight to get the world to take women’s soccer seriously. The first Women’s National Team didn’t even have its own uniform—the U.S. women stayed up late the night before their first international match attempting to tailor what appeared to be hand-me-downs from the men’s team. (They lost against Italy, 1-0.) With little structure or support, the team struggled to find it's footing. But after a restructuring in 1986, the USWNT won their first championship title five years later.
That win in ’91 catapulted the team to worldwide fame, but many still didn’t see the players as athletes. In the wave of coverage of their victory, many stories highlighted their sex appeal more than their soccer skills, and efforts to establish a network of year-round professional teams across the U.S. failed.
But the team kept fighting. Ahead of the 1999 World Cup, the players took on a grassroots marketing campaign, appearing at kids’ soccer camps to hand out flyers and sell tickets to fill the stands. While they were nominally paid, it was just the latest in what some viewed as a long string of insulting inequities, including the fresh sting some players felt over negotiations with the U.S. Soccer Federation regarding bonuses for the 1996 Olympics—which they won. “We’d joke in the beginning, ‘Oh, it builds character.’ But by the end it was like, ‘OK, I am up to my fucking eyeballs in character,’” Julie Foudy, one of the earliest WNT members and greatest soccer players of all time, said in The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer.
These women did it for the game, not the money. “The ’91 team, the ’99 team, a lot of those players had [other full-time] jobs,” says Carli Lloyd, 36, the team’s veteran forward, who will be playing in her fourth World Cup this summer. “I remember hearing some of them talk about how they had one uniform and they just had to rewash that uniform over and over again. It’s those little things you don’t realize.” They also played on subpar fields—often on artificial turf, which can increase the likelihood of injuries—and amid ongoing sexism. A cringeworthy headline in 1999 attributed at least some of the USWNT’s success to their “babe factor.”
Undeterred, the team kept racking up wins. Girls’ registration in youth soccer in the U.S. soared. The National Women’s Soccer League was finally established in 2012. Players earned stable contracts. They got better playing conditions. “Luxuries” like health insurance and maternity leave that previous players could only have dreamed of. Uniforms that fit. (Nike now outfits the WNT with kits tailored specifically for the body of a female athlete.) “It’s our job right now to continue to fight to pave the way,” says Lloyd. “We’d be doing a disservice to ourselves, and the players before us and the generations to come, had we not continued the fight.”
In 2015 the USWNT won its third title, against Japan. According to FIFA, it was the most-watched soccer match—men’s or women’s—in U.S. history. Ever.
The win made the team the most dominant in the world. That level of success is possible because the players—roster after roster of star athletes we’ve celebrated on Wheaties boxes and followed obsessively on Instagram—recognize they are a team. Despite the fact that these women play against each other on club teams, where the competition is fierce, for most of their careers, they know that when it’s time to represent the U.S., they are stronger together. “I could not imagine a group of people who are more dedicated to being better than each other,” says forward Christen Press, 30. “But this team does an amazing job of coming together and really fighting and putting all that fuel in the same direction.”
That’s the secret sauce, says defender Crystal Dunn, 26. “We always have it in our mind that it doesn’t matter how the game is going: We’re going to win," she says. "We can be down one goal, two goals, three goals, it doesn’t matter—we’re looking each other in the eyes and I’m like, OK, I know we’re going to win.” That can be the deciding factor in a World Cup or Olympics tournament. “A seven-game stretch is long—teams can’t always handle the mental load,” Dunn says. “What our team has always been really good at is pulling each other in and picking each other up throughout a long tournament. Regardless of how the game is going, we’re going to be that team that’s standing at the very last moment.”
It’s More Than a Team; It’s a Movement
One thing is clear: When these women fight—whether it’s for a spot on the roster or against a rival or to gain respect from the male-dominated world of sports—they win.
Just as Hamm and Chastain and Wambach once did, the 2019 team is steamrolling a path for girls to follow in their footsteps. “Before I even saw the women on the National Team play, I probably heard the story of their fight and their journey, and their desire to empower other women and carry that torch,” says Press. We have a tendency to put a lot on successful women, especially athletes—be the best at your job and be a role model for women and girls—which isn’t always fair (dominating your profession is a big enough accomplishment). But for the USWNT, it’s a part of the team’s DNA. “The best players, the most iconic players, they want that cultural significance,” Press says.
Adds defender Kelley O’Hara, 30, who’s making her third World Cup appearance this summer: “At the end of the day, we’re all playing soccer because we love it and we’re good at it and it’s something that we’re passionate about. But I do think that it’s important to understand that we have a responsibility. We are in a place where we can impact the game and impact society—this team has always done a great job of balancing those two things.”
The balance isn’t easy. In March 2016, five of the team’s most recognizable players—Hope Solo, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Megan Rapinoe—filed an official complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, alleging that the U.S. Soccer Federation paid women “substantially less” than men in the sport. Fresh off their World Cup win, they found support: Two months later the U.S. Senate came together to unanimously pass a bipartisan resolution supporting the women and asking the federation to grant the players equal pay. The resolution was nonbinding, but the players got one step closer to victory regardless. In February 2019 the EEOC sent a “right to sue” letter to the team, so this March—on International Women’s Day—that’s exactly what they did. The entire team sued the U.S. Soccer Federation for gender discrimination.
It’s easy to see why they’re frustrated. The women’s team handily outperforms the men’s: They’re ranked significantly higher and hold more World Cup titles. According to the lawsuit, during the year following the team’s 2015 World Cup win, the women drew bigger TV audiences and generated more money for U.S. Soccer. (Meanwhile the U.S. men’s team failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup.) Still, they’re paid significantly less—some players make just 38 percent of what their male counterparts make, according to the lawsuit. “Right now the structure is set up so that our counterparts on the men's national team have the opportunity to make so much more money,” says Press. When the men’s team qualified for the 1990 World Cup, each player got a $10,000 bonus; when the women’s team earned the same honor a year later, they reportedly got a T-shirt.
Things haven’t improved much. For the last Women’s World Cup in 2015, FIFA, the international governing body of the sport, offered the winning team $2 million in prize money. The winning men’s team had been paid $35 million—17.5 times more—in the men’s World Cup a year earlier. (The U.S. Soccer Federation maintains that it hasn’t discriminated against the women’s team, and that the men and women players have fundamentally different jobs, team organizations, and compensation setups.)
Some critics point out the USWNT is among the most well-funded women’s sports programs in the world. But being the highest-paid woman at your company who’s still making less than men at your level isn’t equality. “We’re very grateful for what we have, but we’re definitely demanding what we deserve,” says forward Alex Morgan, 29. “My hope is that the next generation will be able to have [total equality]—it will just be a given.” (To help make it a reality, Secret Deodorant recruited Morgan to launch the brand’s Equal Pay for All campaign, pledging $100,000 to Girls Leading Girls.)
Pissing off the powers that be when they are in some of the most crucial months of their careers is risky for these players—but they aren’t backing down. “It’s part of our job to do this,” says Lloyd. “It’s not something that is comfortable, but in order to get what you deserve, you have to be a little uncomfortable.”
Adds O’Hara: “This is something we’re not going to shut up about—we’re not going to stay quiet. We’re going to keep having this discussion until things change. We’re going to keep standing up for what we know is right. Hopefully, that comes sooner rather than later.”
“We Find a Way to Lift That Trophy”
If there is one downside to everything the USWNT has done to push the game forward, it’s this: In the 2019 World Cup, they will face the most competitive field ever.
“The game keeps getting better and faster and more skillful and technical—we’re pushing those boundaries of what women’s soccer is,” says midfielder Julie Ertz, 27. “That’s the really fun part.” The global interest in women’s soccer is one the USWNT has helped create. “Teams are better because they're getting more resources and more opportunities,” Press says. She’s not worried about the fierce competition this summer: “Hopefully, we say the same thing at the next World Cup.”
As the team heads to France, they know we need something to cheer for. “At a time when we feel divided, our team has the opportunity, if we are successful, to bring our country together,” says O’Hara. “People can put their differences aside and all be excited and passionate and hug each other and cheer together. As one country. As the United States of America.” In a way, just being on the world stage, using their voices to send as powerful a message as their victories, is a win. “For me, the most meaningful thing about what we do is spreading joy and inspiration to others”—including boys, says Press. “The number of little boys that are at our games is almost equal to the number of little girls. Every day men and boys come up to us and say, ‘We love you guys.’ I think that’s special.”
Make no mistake: Feel-good message aside, these women plan to come home as champions. “This team has always found a way to win no matter what the circumstances,” says Lloyd. “We step out onto the field and we give it our all. We all come together and we find a way to lift that trophy.”
On June 11, when Lloyd and Press and O’Hara and Morgan and Dunn and Ertz and Rapinoe and the rest of this legendary team of rock stars kick off their first match against Thailand, we’ll be cheering—and they’ll be listening. “I love imagining us having a quiet moment in the tunnel before we go out to the field—it’s such a significant moment in our lives,” Press says. “But then you imagine everyone in the bars cheering, getting ready for the game throughout the country and in our hometowns. When we play in the World Cup, we have the whole country giving us that energy—it's a power source for us.”
O’Hara has one request: “Cheer loud.”
Video directed by Ashley Batz
This post has been updated with corrections.
Originally Appeared on Glamour