Michelle Akers has enjoyed her share of heroics against some of the best teams in the world. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
DEAUVILLE, France — Through the years the U.S. women’s national team has taken on many foes — 52 women’s national sides, to be exact.
Many have fallen to the wayside, others occasionally have made life difficult while there is an elite six teams that have given the Americans a run for their money in some of their most grueling matches and heart-wrenching defeats.
When the USA plays Norway, China, Germany, Brazil, Japan and Sweden, the degree of difficult on the path to victory has gotten much more difficult.
Of the Americans’ 66 defeats, 42 have come at the hands and feet of that sextuplet. The Americans have a 84.1 winning percentage against the world, which falls off to 74.3 against those six sides.
With the U.S. ready to tussle with Sweden (in Le Havre Thursday), which has given the team all sorts of problems the last 10 matches, we figured a look back at the American rivalries in since 1991 would be appropriate.
So, in chronological order, here is a short history of the USWNT’s major rivals through the years, as defined by the Women’s World Cup and the Olympic tournament.
Former USWNT head coach Anson Dorrance used to say that the Norwegians were his team’s sparring partners. While no games actually came to blows, the teams fought in some of the most titanic battles in women’s soccer history.
In the first real confrontation between these two squads, the U.S. eked out a 2-1 triumph, thanks to an 11th-hour goal by the legendary Michelle Akers to snap a 1-1 deadlock. Akers scored with two minutes remaining in the 80th-minute match (these were the rules at the time before they were finally changed to 90 minutes).
Akers intercepted a pass from Tina Svensson and beating onrushing goalkeeper Reidun Seth on the left side.
“Everyone on the team said their hearts were stopping because they didn’t think I would ever shoot the ball,” Akers said. “I was making sure we wouldn’t miss.”
Four years later, the Scandinavian side gained revenge by showing the USA the exit in the semifinals in the second Women’s World Cup in Sweden via a 1-0 semifinal result.
The Norwegians, who went on to defeat Germany for the title, were so elated they defeated the hated Americans they did produced a unique way to celebrate.
The players were joined hand to ankle, crawling around the field in a maneuver called the Train. It was an affront to several American players.
“It was very shocking,” former U.S. international and Hall of Famer Tiffeny Milbrett told The New York Times. “I don’t think I had ever seen anyone on the team cry.”
“We were so happy when we saw the disappointment in the American eyes,” Norway captain and defender Linda Medalen said. “It was like, Gold, they couldn’t believe it was true. That gave us the spirit to win the final when we saw how disappointed they were. It lifted us up.”
In 1996, the Americans gained the upper hand again, defeating their despised opponents in the very first Olympic women’s soccer tournament in Athens, Ga. Akers converted an equalizing penalty kick before Long Island-born Shannon MacMillan struck for the Golden Goal in extratime to boost the USA to a 2-1 semifinal win. The hosts went on to win the gold medal, the first of four, in a 2-1 win over China.
Four years later at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, these teams met twice in their first and final matches. In the group stage, the U.S. walked out of the Melbourne Cricket Ground with a 2-0 win as Milbrett and Hamm tallied.
Norway, however, took home the gold in an entertaining and dramatic final. Deep into second-half stoppage time, Tiffeny Milbrett, the smallest player on the field, headed home a right-wing cross from Mia Hamm to send the game into extratime. This time another Golden Goal won it, this time by the Norwegians, who stood on the podium with their prizes around their necks after an exciting 3-2 result. Dagny Mellgren scored the game-winner in the 102nd minute.
Norwegian midfielder Hege Riise sent a long ball into the penalty area that defender Joy Fawcett tried to head away from Mellgren. The ball hit the upper left arm of Mellgren and fell to the ground. With defender Kate Sobrero on her back, Mellgren fired a low, seven-yard shot toward the right corner. Goalkeeper Siri Mullinix dived and tried to slap it away. “She got a good shot,” Mullinix said. “I got a hand on it. It wasn’t enough.”
In a group-stage match at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Norway stunned the favored USA in its opening match via a 2-0 win. No team had lost a first-round match and won an Olympics, but the USA found a way, besting Brazil, 1-0.
The USA realized its participation at the 1995 WWC in Sweden was going to be a bizarre one as it managed to draw China, 3-3, in its opening match. Tisha Venturini, Milbrett and Hamm found the net in that game. Hamm found the net in another way as she wound up playing as an emergency goalkeeper after starter Briana Scurry was red carded for carrying the ball out of the net. It was an excruciating match in so many ways as Akers was forced out with a knee injury in the seventh minute and by the time she returned to action later in the tournament, Akers was a shell of her former self.
In a rare double confrontation at a high-level FIFA event, the USA blanked the Chinese in the third-place match, 2-0, as Hamm and Venturini celebrated goals.
A year later at the 1996 Summer Olympics, they met twice yet again. After playing to a scoreless draw in the group stage in Miami, a MacMillan goal snapped a 1-1 tie and lifted the U.S. to 2-1 victory in the gold medal match.
Perhaps the most well-known Chinese confrontation came in the 1999 World Cup final as the USA bested their foes in penalty kicks, 5-4. Scurry saved one shot, which was enough for the host side. If you don’t know that Brandi Chastain drilled home the winning PK for the USA, then shame on you. Just as famous was Chastain ripping off her shirt in celebration, revealing her sports bra.
In one of the best women’s games ever played, thanks to the ebb and flow of the match, goats becoming heroes and a clash between two talented sides, the U.S. survived a quarterfinal encounter via a 3-2 win at the 1999 WWC in Landover, Md.
It was the worst of all possible scenarios. With the game barely five minutes old, Chastain accidentally kicked the ball into her own net. Chastain atoned for her miscue by heading home the equalizer off a Hamm corner kick in the 49th minute after a Milbrett score. And only 20 seconds after she stepped onto the field for Julie Foudy, MacMillan’s corner kick found Joy Fawcett’s head and eventually the back of the net for a stirring comeback victory.
Four years later, the Germans exacted some big revenge by recording a 3-0 victory over the Americans in Portland, Ore., connecting twice in second-half stoppage time as the hosts lost out on winning back-to-back crowns.
At the 2004 Olympic Games, the U.S. got past the Germans on Heather O’Reilly’s extratime goal in a 2-1 quarterfinal win in Herakio, Greece.
It would take 11 long years before these sides tussled again in a FIFA match, this time at the 2015 WWC semifinals in Montreal, Canada. The U.S. prevailed, 2-0, as Carli Lloyd and Kelley O’Hara tallied, setting the stage for that memorable championship game in Vancouver several days later.
In their first high-profile confrontation, the USA shut down the vaunted Brazilian attack with some timely saves by Scurry and goals by Cindy Parlow and Akers in the 1999 WWC.
The next time they met was the 2004 Athens Olympics gold-medal match in which a tiring American squad held on for a 2-1 victory behind Abby Wambach’s extratime goal. It turned out to be the final competitive match for four of the USA’s Fab Five — team captain Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett, Kristine Lilly and Hamm.
At the 2007 WWC, he Brazilians defeated the USA for only the second time, sending their opponents to their worst defeat in WWC or Olympic history, 4-0. You just might remember what transpired prior to the match, when U.S. head coach Greg Ryan decided to bench regular goalkeeper Hope Solo in favor of Scurry, even though Scurry hadn’t played in months.
A year later at the 2008 Olympic final, Solo was back in the goal (with Pia Sundhage as coach) as the Americans recorded a 1-0 win as a revived Lloyd started her string of historical goals by being the lone scorer.
Three years later, they banged heads again in the 2011 WWC quarterfinals as the USA prevailed in penalty kicks, 5-3 after playing to a wild 2-2 draw in regulation and extratime. Hope stepped up to make some big saves, including in the tie-breaker as Shannon Boxx, Lloyd, Wambach, Megan Rapinoe, Ali Krieger and Wambach converted their spot kicks.
This rivalry has a much short time span, but it has pitted the two best women’s squads in the world in the last three major tournaments.
At the 2011 WWC championship game, Japan got past the USA on penalties, 3-1, as Wambach put home the lone PK for the Americans, after the teams played to a 2-2 tie. Alex Morgan and Wambach scored the USA.
The next year at Wembley in London, Lloyd continued to write her name into international soccer history by becoming the first player — man or woman — to score in back-to-back Olympic gold-medal victories, a 2-1 U.S. win.
Lloyd again stole the show at the 2015 WWC final in Vancouver, connecting for a stunning hat-trick in the opening 16 minutes en route to a 5-2 crowning victory. In case you were wondering, Lauren Holiday and Tobin Heath also scored for the winners.
The Swedes are the latest thorn in the Americans’ sides, although the two teams did meet up in the inaugural 1991 WWC. The USA defeated Sweden in its group opener, 3-2, as Carin Jennings (now Gabarra) and Hamm scored goals in Punyu, China.
They were the last team to upend the U.S. in running play at the WWC, a 2-1 defeat in the final group-stage contest at Germany 2011 in Wolfsburg, Germany (Wambach had the lone U.S. goal).
Since then the USA has rattled off a 13-game unbeaten streak (10-0-3) at the Women’s World Cup (remember, FIFA counts a shootout as a tie, so the 2011 final vs. Japan official goes down as a draw).
No doubt Sweden has played the Americans tough since then as well. They held the 2015 champions to a scoreless draw in Canada as Meghan Klingenberg was forced to head a certain goal off the line in the group stage.
The Swedes made history as they stopped the USA reaching the semifinals of a major FIFA competition for the first time with a 4-3 penalty-kick shootout win after a 1-1 deadlock at the 2016 Rio Olympic quarterfinals. Morgan and Christen Press failed to convert their PKs while Lotta Schelin, Kosovare Asilani, Caroline Seger and Lisa Dahlkvist (the game-winner) put in their attempts.