The First US Women’s Soccer Team Took Needle and Thread to Their Own Uniforms

The first U.S. women’s national soccer team at the Little World Cup in 1985.

Source Frank MacDonald Collection/Mike Ryan Family

Why you should care

Because a winning culture and team tradition start somewhere — usually by overcoming adversity.

Welcome to The Thread, OZY’s chart-topping weekly podcast. In Season 5, we explore the history-making 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team and all of the unheralded athletes, policymakers and activists that made their journey possible. Subscribe now to follow The Thread on OZY.comSpotifyAppleHimalaya or wherever you prefer to stream your audio.

Who can forget when Brandi Chastain ripped off her jersey and waved it around her head in celebration after landing the game-winning penalty kick in the 1999 Women’s World Cup final? Male soccer players take off their shirts to celebrate goals all the time, but Chastain’s exuberance, and her sports bra, immediately became the talk of the nation. Yet the very first U.S. women’s national soccer team had an even bigger wardrobe problem when they first took the field in 1985.

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Kristine Lilly, No. 9 of the Women USA Soccer team, runs the ball against Sweden’s Malin Andersson during the 1986 Summer Olympic Games in Orlando, Florida. Team USA won 2-1.

Source Getty Images

This week on The Thread, a podcast from OZY where we unravel the stories behind some of the most important lives and events in history, we hear the story behind the team that made the triumph of Chastain and the ’99ers possible. Back in 1985, there wasn’t a whole lot of need for a U.S. women’s national soccer team. There was still no Women’s World Cup, and the sport was not even in the Olympics. But that year, a group of American women was assembled to compete in the Mundialito, or Little World Cup, in Italy. 

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Michelle Akers of the U.S. women’s national soccer team heads the ball during the U.S. Olympic Festival in 1989.

Source Getty Images

It was a whirlwind tour on a shoestring budget. The team practiced for just three days in Long Island before departing to compete against European teams like England and Italy with much more international soccer experience. They were given uniforms, but they were not women’s soccer uniforms — they were hand-me-down men’s uniforms. “The night before the team went to Italy, they were up late with their trainers,” says Caitlin Murray, a journalist and author of The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer. “They had threads and needles, and they were cutting and sewing their outfits to make sure they actually fit them properly.”

 

But the players on the first national team made it work — they endured the ill-fitting uniforms, the lack of compensation and institutional support, the coal-train rides through Bulgaria, the smoke-filled airplanes and so much more, without complaint. And the drive and determination of this group of women would shape a national team that has now won three World Cup championships (in 1991, 1999 and 2015) and gold medals in four of the five Olympics they’ve played in.

Read more: How the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team nearly lost.

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