This story first appeared in the July 19, 1999 issue of Sports Illustrated.
She wasn't even supposed to take the kick. Not when the list of U.S. shooters was first drawn up, anyway. In the waning moments of extra time during last Saturday's scoreless Women's World Cup final in Pasadena, U.S. coach Tony DiCicco asked assistant Lauren Gregg to write down the players who could convert their shots with the weight of a nation on their shoulders in a penalty-kick shootout. Only five would be guaranteed a chance, and defender Brandi Chastain was not among Gregg's choices. She was sixth on the assistant's list, a reserve to be used only if the U.S. and China were still tied after five rounds.
Until four months ago Chastain had been among DiCicco's top picks to take a penalty kick--but then she banged a rightfooted shot off the crossbar in a 2-1 exhibition loss to China. Still, DiCicco didn't feel comfortable leaving her off the list. He had watched his team practice PKs in training all week, had watched Chastain work on blasting shots with her less dominant left foot and had liked what he'd seen. He also knew that penalty kicks, like free throws, have almost nothing to do with physical skills. In a city park on a summer day, most semiathletic citizens--Americans, even--could poke the ball 12 yards past a well-trained goalkeeper. But as a method of deciding a World Cup final, penalties are without a doubt sports' most diabolical invention, requiring a Zen-like concentration. As DiCicco would say later, "Brandi always wants to take penalty kicks. Not many players do."
So he played a hunch, sending Gregg over to Chastain for a short talk. "Brandi, do you think you can make it?" Gregg asked.
"Yeah, I do," Chastain replied.
"You'll have to use your left foot."
Chastain nodded. Ten harrowing minutes later, taking the shot that could break a 4-4 tie and give the U.S. the Cup, she sent a laser past Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong. With one swift kick Chastain coronated the U.S. women as Queens of the World, which seemed like the next logical step for a team that had gone from near obscurity to a national conversation piece in just three weeks. With an estimated 40 million U.S. viewers, the Cup final was the most watched soccer match in the history of network television, and the turnout of 90,185 at the Rose Bowl was the largest ever at a women's sporting event.
A media throng of 2,100 attended the tournament as well--or 2,099 more than greeted the U.S. team in 1991, when it returned from China carrying the first Women's World Cup trophy. Entering this year's event, the favored Americans faced a doubly daunting task: win the tournament and make a case for the start-up of a women's pro league in the U.S. Their victory was a seminal moment in women's sports and will no doubt engender years of debate over who was the biggest hero of this Cup. Was it goalkeeper Briana Scurry, whose diving save on China's third-round penalty kick set the stage for the game-winner? Or forward Mia Hamm, who keyed the U.S. attack without scoring a goal in the last four Cup games, then overcame her self-doubt during the shootout? Or Kristine Lilly, the midfielder who robbed China of victory in extra time by heading a ball out of the goalmouth? Or was it Chastain, who kept her cool before her climactic boot and lost her shirt afterward?
All those Americans are worthy, but none more than the one who wasn't even on the field during those last nerve-racking moments. Instead, midfielder Michelle Akers was on a gurney in the U.S. locker room, wearing an oxygen mask and with an IV in each arm. At the end of regulation, Akers had smacked into Scurry on a Chinese corner kick and slumped woozily to the turf. After being led off the field, she was surrounded by doctors trying to decide whether her concussion and dehydration merited a trip to the emergency room.
"I was loony," Akers said late Saturday night, after absorbing four liters of fluid intravenously, twice the postgame dosage she normally receives to combat chronic fatigue syndrome. Akers was so loony, in fact, that during extra time she kept asking for the score, even though a TV in the room was tuned to the game. She struggled to even follow the shootout, but when it came time for Chastain's kick, she pulled herself up to watch. As soon as Chastain scored, Akers ripped out her IV lines, tossed aside the oxygen mask and walked--haltingly, but under her own power--to the field for the awards ceremony.
The team's oldest player at 33, Akers was also its most important--just as she had been in '91 when she scored a Cup-high 10 goals. Because of chronic fatigue, she has since been forced to move from forward to defensive midfield, yet she's still dominant. On defense Akers retreated time and again to make crucial clears. On offense she played the most pressure-packed position, receiving the ball in the midfield and making split-second decisions before defenders converged on her. "She'll keep nine out of 10 balls when she's under pressure," says Jim Rudy, Akers's coach at Central Florida. "That gives the midfield great confidence to go forward immediately, which forces the other team to defend in numbers. It changes the whole psychology of the game. It's like, Here they come again."
So go ahead, lionize Akers. Her teammates do. They call her Mufasa, after the gallant feline in The Lion King, ostensibly for her long mane of curly hair but just as much for her unsurpassed strength. Though a devout Christian, she plays with a vengeance, and it was no coincidence that she was the only U.S. player to get a yellow card (two, in fact) in the tournament. "It's not like I go out there and think I'm the Terminator," she says. "I play hard, and people just bounce off me, or I go through them. I don't notice it until after I get hit in the face."
The KO of Akers nearly revived the Chinese, who had entered the final with the tournament's most potent offense. For almost the entire game the Americans had harried China with their version of a full-court press--the 100 defense--which prevented the Chinese midfielders from giving quick support to their forwards. But with Akers off the field during extra time, the Chinese began attacking with greater abandon. After taking just two shots on goal in the game's regulation 90 minutes, they fired three in the 30-minute extra time, including one that should have been decisive: defender Fan Yunjie's header off a corner kick. "I was like, Uh-oh, the ball's behind me," Scurry said later. But so, too, was Lilly. Stationed at her usual spot on the near post, she headed the ball off the goal line. "Just doing my job," Lilly said.
The Americans recovered to force the game into penalty kicks, which were knotted at two when midfielder Liu Ying faced Scurry. "I saw her body language when she was walking up to the penalty spot," Scurry said. "She didn't look like she really wanted to be there. Her shoulders were slumped, and she looked tired. I thought, This is the one."
Just as Liu approached the ball, Scurry sprang forward from her haunches and immediately leaped to her left, where she parried Liu's strong but poorly placed shot with ease. Though Scurry had violated the rules--goalkeepers are allowed to move laterally before the shot but forbidden from advancing toward the shooter--she was willing to take the risk. "If I jump out and save it, but the referee calls it back, they have to do it again," she said. "Now I know where they're shooting, and it's even more pressure on them."
Did somebody say pressure? After Lilly nailed her PK to give the U.S. a 3-2 lead and China drew even again to open the fourth round, no player had more pressure on her than Hamm, whose ensuing shot was a fascinating character study. When asked earlier in the tournament why she wasn't the team's top choice for taking penalty kicks, Hamm, the greatest goal scorer in soccer history, admitted that it was due to a shortage of confidence. Sure enough, in the last anxiety-filled minutes before the World Cup shootout, Hamm asked Gregg if forward Shannon MacMillan could take the shot instead. She couldn't, because DiCicco had already submitted the list--with Hamm's name on it--to the referee.
None of it mattered. Hamm, who went goalless after scoring twice in the first two games, banished her demons and buried her kick. After China's last kicker, star striker Sun Wen, converted to tie it at 4-all, up stepped Chastain, who had blamed herself for the loss to the Chinese in March. "I thought I had let my team down," she said on Saturday night. "In this environment everyone works so hard and puts themselves on the line. They didn't look at me and say, 'God, you let us down,' but I felt like that inside."
At the start of the Cup, DiCicco had made an odd request of the 30-year-old Chastain: Switch to your left foot when practicing penalty kicks. "Whenever Brandi kicked with her right foot, she would always shoot to the goalkeeper's left," he explained. "It got to the point where the keeper knew where she was going." But Chastain is the U.S. player who is most adept with both feet, and she didn't flinch, just as she didn't when DiCicco moved her ahead of midfielder Julie Foudy on Gregg's list. Upon beating Gao--to the keeper's left, no less--Chastain fell to her knees like Bjorn Borg after winning Wimbledon and ripped off her jersey, waving it above her head to the thundering crowd.
It was the second time that a World Cup final at the Rose Bowl had ended on penalty kicks after a scoreless tie, though this was an entirely different game than the 1994 men's final, in which Brazil beat Italy. The main reason, of course, was that American fans were following their own team, suffering with it, waiting for that one tiny advantage that finally came in the shootout.
Whether the U.S. team accomplished its other mission--to generate a fan base and corporate support for a women's pro league--remains to be seen. Mark Abbott, the former CEO of Major League Soccer, is expected to present a business plan to the U.S. Soccer Federation by the end of the year for a proposed league that would begin play in 2001. The international soccer community, however, is circumspect. "There's a huge difference between the short focus of the World Cup, where all the stars are concentrated, and week-in and week-out games at a lower level," says FIFA spokesman Keith Cooper. "There are 30 outstanding, hard-core female players in the world. If you want a national league, say 10 teams, you only have three per team. There's a rapid falloff in talent from the top."
Crowds and TV viewers haven't exactly flocked to MLS, despite the commercial success here of the '94 Cup and a broader talent base of male players. Still, it's conceivable that a U.S. women's league would cater to more women and more suburban households than MLS. The U.S. team will also have another chance to drum up national support next summer, when it defends its Olympic title in Sydney.
While the U.S. squad should remain largely intact, Akers hasn't decided whether she will retire or play for one more gold medal, and she wasn't inclined to think about it last Saturday night as she shuffled onto the veranda of the Pasadena Ritz-Carlton for the team's celebration party. She looked typically drained. Her face was wan and discolored with pale blotches, and she wore a butterfly bandage on the crook of each arm where the IV's had left their marks. She was smiling, though, cradling a nonalcoholic beer and speaking with her parents, Bob and Sue, and with 1991 World Cup teammate Carin Gabarra. As if on cue, Gloria Gaynor's I Will Survive came over the loudspeakers.
Then Akers, whom DiCicco calls the best woman player ever, couldn't resist repeating what President Clinton had told her when he visited the U.S. locker room after the game: "From someone who knows how to take a hit, I really admire you."