Before the World Cup wins or Olympic gold medals, the most successful generation of American soccer talent began coalescing in Blaine, Minn., in 1987. It was the definition of a humble beginning.
“Mia was 15, Kristine was 16, and I was 16,” recalled former US women’s national team midfielder Julie Foudy in reference to her friends and former teammates, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly.
The trio would grow into a larger group that formed the spine of the US women’s national team over the next 15 years. But in that moment, they were simply part of a team that had previously only existed on paper.
“We were on a youth national team that happened to be playing in a tournament with the full women’s national team,” Foudy recalled. “It was typically a youth national team that never did anything and that was basically just a paper team that they’d say, ‘Congrats, you’ve been named,’ but never actually played games. There was no programing for it. For some reason that year, in my first year, they had us play along with the full national team in this tournament.”
Right from the start, there was something special about their group.
“We ended up doing better than the full national team,” Foudy remembered, “and so Anson [Dorrance], he was the coach of the full women’s national team, took five of us off the younger team to China that summer. That was our first trip together.”
It began a unique chapter in American soccer that would see unparalleled success and growth, not merely for the game but for women’s sports. Foudy, one of the leaders in a group full of “characters,” as she described them, was part of a US team that won two World Cups, two Olympic golds, and thousands of converted soccer fans along the way.
Now working for ESPN in her day job, the 47-year-old Foudy is one of several sports legends who will be will be honored Wednesday at The Sports Museum’s 17th annual TD Garden gala, The Tradition. The list of honorees also includes Deion Branch, Don Cherry, Jim Lonborg, Paul Pierce, and Richard Petty. Foudy will be introduced by Lilly, who now lives in the Boston area.
“It’s amazing. I’ve spent a lot of time watching and cheering them on,” Foudy said of her follow honorees, “so it’s going to be quite an honor to be on stage.”
That Foudy’s start as a 16-year-old fighting her way into the national team would end as one of the most decorated players in US soccer history was far from a foregone conclusion. Even the prospect of winning major trophies seemed dim at that point, for the simple fact that many didn’t exist.
“I didn’t go into soccer as a youth thinking, ‘I’m going to one day play in a World Cup or an Olympics,’ because we didn’t have that then,” Foudy explained.
Even those most supportive of her were initially skeptical.
“My mom was like, ‘What the hell is this?’ I mean you didn’t even know what the national team was back then because it was new. It was like, ‘Where are you going? Why are you doing this?’ And I would just say, ‘I don’t know, I’m going to Greece [with the team], mom.’ ”
It wasn’t until after the first women’s edition of the World Cup been played in 1991 (which the US team won) that she began to consider soccer as a career. But, in order to do so, Foudy and her teammates had to confront unequal standards.
“We started to realize that we couldn’t make a career out of it because we were getting paid $10 a day,” said Foudy. “That didn’t seem right. We had no professional league. Couldn’t they help us with some stipend per month if they want us to travel as much as we are? We couldn’t hold down regular jobs with that schedule.”
In this, the US women’s team began a battle that has continued over the years, fighting to gain access to equal resources as the men’s team.
“We started to get smarter and wiser about how to fight for those rights and negotiate for those rights,” Foudy recalled. “Through the ’90s we fought to improve our collective bargaining agreement, so we could make a career out of it.”
At the 1999 Women’s World Cup, they experienced a breakthrough. The tournament, hosted by the United States, was wildly popular. A sold-out crowd of more than 90,000 fans watched the US team defeat China on penalty kicks in the final. It was an event that left a larger legacy Foudy and her “99er” teammates remain proud of.
“I think one of the things that we were always conscious of was that it wasn’t as much about standing on top of the podium,” Foudy said. “It wasn’t just about collecting World Cups or Olympic golds. Of course we wanted those things, but our big thing was, ‘How do we set a standard for what this should look like and feel like for the next generation of players coming through?’ ”
And two decades later, an impending reunion offers the group a chance to keep shaping what they began on the field in Minnesota.
“It’ll be a great opportunity in April when we all get together from that ‘99ers’ group,” Foudy said. “I think it’ll be an opportunity to ask how we still want to do that. What’s the legacy? What’s next?”Hayden Bird can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @haydenhbird.