Players whose influence reaches beyond the pitch
The U.S. women's national team has been around for only 27 of the U.S. Soccer Federation's 100 years of existence, but no centennial celebration would be complete without acknowledging the influence of the women's side of the game.
The USWNT has provided some of the country's most indelible soccer moments, from the inaugural World Cup win in 1991 to the magical summer of 1999 to a slew of Olympic triumphs. In the process, the U.S. women have inspired fans of both genders and raised the level of passion for the game in this country.
What follows is a list of the 11 most influential American female players. This is not to be confused with the 11 best players. While quite a few of the performers mentioned would find their way onto both lists, the players here are the ones whose impact could be felt beyond just results or statistics.
1. Mia Hamm
It's not an exaggeration to say that, even in retirement, Hamm remains the most recognizable soccer player, man or woman, in the country. Her 158 goals in 275 matches remains a U.S. record, but her exploits during a 17-year international career made her the face of the women's national team and an inspiration to countless young girls throughout the country.
"When Mia came along, our game was nothing and nowhere," said Anson Dorrance, who coached Hamm at the University of North Carolina, as well as at the 1991 World Cup. "When she left it, it was something and significant. Mia was a part of that transition. And every little girl wanted to be Mia. She had almost a Beatles-like presence whenever she was in the stadium."
Hamm's stardom was somewhat at odds with her reserved personality, but she still projected a charisma that dovetailed perfectly with her all-world ability.
"She was the perfect person with a principle-centered life that served as a role model for us during a vital time in the development and promotion of our game," Dorrance said.
2. Kristine Lilly
If goals are how fans remember Hamm, then Lilly's consistency and durability are what set her apart. Her record of 352 international appearances looks flat-out unreachable. Alex Morgan already has 65 caps at age 23, but assuming an average of 23 national team games per year, she'd have to appear in every game for the next 12 years just to get close to Lilly's mark.
Former U.S. national team manager Tony DiCicco recalls how Lilly had a unique ability to sense what the team needed during a match and then deliver, whether that meant defending, making penetrating passes or scoring. All of this started in training, where Lilly was rarely on the losing end in practice matches.
"Lilly trained with such a consistency that everyone else tried to aspire to her level," DiCicco said.
Almost lost amid such accolades is the fact that Lilly's 130 goals are third all-time on the U.S. team, despite playing most of her career as a flank midfielder.
"Lilly was remarkable in many ways," added DiCicco. "She had the ability to turn defense into offense so quickly that most teams weren't ready for it. She defined the way that the U.S. wanted to compete in every game, and the work that they wanted to put in."
3. Abby Wambach
If there's any doubt that Wambach is the most devastating striker the women's game has seen to date, know this: Wambach is poised to break Hamm's goal-scoring record despite playing about 70 fewer games. And Wambach has tended to deliver when the lights have been brightest, whether it was the overtime winner in the 2004 Olympic final, the dramatic equalizer against Brazil in the 2011 World Cup quarterfinals or the five goals she scored in last summer's Olympics. The World Cup goal against Brazil is noteworthy, as it staved off elimination and allowed U.S. fans to embrace the national team all over again.
"Wambach has to be in the discussion to be the best U.S. player ever," DiCicco said. "In the 2011 World Cup, she carried that team to the final. She was so dominant."
It wasn't always so. Former U.S. under-21 women's head coach Jerry Smith recalls how Wambach, while talented, lacked the discipline to impact the game in other ways besides scoring, and he told her so. Wambach took Smith's advice to heart and was soon on her way to the full national team.
"Once she embraced those other components, she got onto a path where soon she's going to pass Mia Hamm," said Smith, currently the head coach at Santa Clara University. "Any time you can do the hardest thing in our sport better than anyone else in the history of the sport, you've got to be in the conversation for being the best."
4. Michelle Akers
Before Hamm dazzled the world with her goal-scoring ability, it was Akers who set the sport alight, tearing defenses apart with 10 goals at the inaugural Women's World Cup in 1991. But what was even more impressive was the way Akers adapted her game throughout her career, even as she battled chronic fatigue syndrome. She started out as a forward in 1991, but shifted into a tenacious holding midfielder who provided defensive grit for the 1999 team.
"Akers was this iconic warrior," Dorrance said. "I would still say, to this day, she is the most complete player of all time. You can look at all the different players that have been named the best player in the world, and you could still pick out flaws in their game. Michelle Akers, at her best, was a player without a weakness."
Akers could score with both feet, was tough in the tackle and an incomparable header of the ball. There were moments when her combative qualities got the better of her, including the 1999 Women's World Cup final when she was forced to leave with a concussion near the end of normal time. But, overall, she helped drive home the point that competitiveness and tenacity were just as much staples of the women's game as they were for the men's.
5. Brandi Chastain
No discussion of iconic soccer moments would be complete without mentioning Chastain's jersey-tearing celebration following her match-winning penalty at the 1999 World Cup. While the result was historic, the image also served as the ultimate celebration of female athleticism.
The irony, of course, is Chastain battled fitness issues during the early part of her career only to be become, as Dorrance put it, "the poster child for biceps and deltoids." She was also willing to sacrifice her ambitions to play as a forward and became one of the most devastating attacking outside backs the women's game has seen.
But Chastain also played a vital role off the field. In a team full of reluctant stars, Chastain was only too happy to preach the soccer gospel to anyone who would listen, something that continues to this day.
"You need someone that wants to grab the mike, that wants to go to the front of the parade and grab the flag," Dorrance said. "[She would] agree to a speaking engagement in any corner of the earth if she's asked and would never turn down an interview. That had a powerful impact for the sport, as well."
6. Julie Foudy
At first glance, Foudy's legacy can be tough to pin down. She was never really known as a goal scorer; in terms of pure soccer ability, it seemed as though other players had more notoriety. Yet Foudy, currently an analyst for ESPN and espnW, found a way to make a unique contribution. Not only did she have the ability to impact the game on both sides of the ball, but she was also the team's emotional center.
"When you're talking about Foudy, you're talking about one of the all-time great leaders in our sport," Smith said. "In terms of all the leadership components -- verbal, nonverbal, on the field, off the field -- for me, Julie has been the best one."
Smith noted that being a leader can be a tricky role to navigate. Do you push or do you pull? Do you crack a joke or keep things serious?
"Julie always had the right feel for the situation, and that is extremely valuable, maybe even the most valuable," he said.
7. Alex Morgan
It's mind-boggling to think that 16 months ago there were questions about whether Morgan would be able to crack the U.S. starting lineup. Then-manager Pia Sundhage seemed wedded to a lone striker alignment that had room for Wambach and no other forwards. But after a 2012 that saw her score a team-high 28 goals, Morgan is one of the first names on new coach Tom Sermanni's team sheet. And given her broad appeal among fans, she seems poised to be the sport's next megastar.
"Look at what Morgan has accomplished," said DiCicco, who coached her back in 2008 when she was with the U.S. under-20 national team. "You've got to start saying, 'Is Morgan going to be better than Hamm?' She's scored more goals at the beginning of her career. The kid has just been phenomenal."
At Sundhage's urging, Morgan has added more variety to her game and even scored with her head in the epic 2012 Olympic semifinal victory against Canada. Morgan might only be 23, but the impact she has already had has been massive.
8. Joy Fawcett
Prior to the 1991 World Cup, U.S. marking back Megan McCarthy went down with a serious knee injury, and Fawcett, a midfielder at the time, was the one drafted into defense. Fawcett went on to become one of the game's premier defenders and never once complained about having to make the move.
"I think her legacy is not just her performance on the field, but her impact on team chemistry, her likability," Dorrance said.
Fawcett had another, even more impressive legacy -- being the first true soccer mom on the national team. Fawcett has three daughters, Kaetlyn (born in May 1994), Carli (May 1997) and Madilyn (June 2001), yet managed to play every minute of every major tournament between 1995 and 2003. It's a feat any parent can appreciate.
"Watching her raise her family throughout her soccer career -- and this is respected by all of us -- she was uncompromising, putting her family and husband first," Dorrance said. "She wanted to compete in soccer at a high level but not at the sacrifice to her family."
9. Hope Solo
By her own admission, Solo is adored by some fans and despised by others. She has never been one to shy away from controversy, whether it was her postmatch tirade following the Americans' elimination at the 2007 World Cup, her criticisms of opposing fans during the days of the now-defunct WPS or even criticizing broadcast coverage by Chastain at last summer's Olympics.
"Hope is a player that has genius, and you have to deal with some of the baggage that goes along with that genius," DiCicco said. "She has a great relationship with her teammates, and you want her in goal at the biggest events."
Given the struggles the women's game has had at club level, the sport is one that can never have too much publicity, and Solo has provided loads of it. Some of that attention has been through Solo's play, where she remains the preeminent female goalkeeper in the world. That she has done so in the face of some major injuries makes her contributions even more impressive.
"She's tremendously competitive, she's a great athlete and she has a tremendous confidence about her," DiCicco said. "You see that every time she plays. Goalkeepers like Solo don't come around very often."
10. Christie Rampone
The latest incarnation of the national team soccer mom, Rampone has contributed on a variety of levels. She remains an athletic freak of nature, and her speed -- even at age 37 -- was a key component to the U.S. defense last summer at the Olympics. But her steady leadership has also proved to be a boon for the Americans. When Solo was starting her reintegration into the team following her infamous outburst at the 2007 World Cup, it was Rampone who helped smooth over any lingering mistrust.
"Not only is Rampone super fast, she's fast in the 120th minute," Smith said. "In our sport, that's incredible. And Christie embraced the burden of leadership -- and I really see it that way, as a burden. That's a tough responsibility, and she's taken it on."
11. Megan Rapinoe
Rapinoe is one of those players whose presence on this list is due to a combination of on-field excellence and off-field impact. The Redding, Calif., native's unpredictability, flair and long-range passing made her a mainstay on the 2011 World Cup team and last year's Olympic gold medal-winning squad. And, at age 27, she has plenty of time to build even further on those performances.
When Rapinoe announced she is gay prior to the 2012 London Olympic Games, she became an inspiration to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and has since become active in gay rights advocacy.
"I think Rapinoe has made a big difference," Smith said. "I know I have players here at Santa Clara who absolutely look up to her and say, 'She's my favorite player on the U.S. women's national team.' She brings absolute entertainment to our sport on the field and [inspiration] off the field, and that has influence."