While soccer is a growing sport in the United States, it continues to lag behind Europe and South America when it comes to the development of the game, and few American male soccer stars have yet to emerge.
With the women, though, it has been different, and the USA has established itself as the most international team of all, with four World Cups (including in France this year), four Olympic gold medals, and eight regional CONCACAF Championships to their name.
There are multiple reasons for this dominance, including the removal of barriers of entry to the sport at both federal and state-level because of favorable affirmative legislation. American women got a head start on the rest of the world because there, in many instances – England and Germany, for example - the sport was banned as an organized sport for many years. Other countries are now catching up, but the USA retains its edge.
Another reason for the massive popularity of women’s soccer in the USA is the legacy of the World Cup, which the country hosted for the first time in 1999, and which made the sport a national event, and members of the winning team national heroines overnight. Here are some of the great women soccer players that America has produced.
Former striker Mia Hamm is widely regarded as the first international star of the women’s game. She began playing soccer at an early age and, at aged 15, became the youngest player to appear for the US National Team. Hamm went on to win the World Cup with the USA in 1991 and 1999, and to claim Olympic Gold with the team at Atlanta in 1996, and again in Athens in 2004. When she retired from the game, she had made no fewer than 276 appearances for the national team, and had scored 158 goals, a record that stood until another American, Abby Wambach, broke it.
Hamm, at the height of her playing career, was a massive media star. Widely regarded as the most marketable athlete of her generation, she had numerous sponsorship deals, appeared in TV commercials with Michael Jordan, and had her own video game. Five times US Women’s Athlete of the year, she was the first female player inducted into the World Hall of Fame.
Abby Wambach is the all-time international goal scorer in women’s football, with 184 goals in 255 appearances for the USA. Wambach was part of the team that defeated Japan in the final to win the World Cup in 2015 and won Olympic Gold in Beijing in 2008, and again in London four years later. FIFA Player of the Year in 2012, a year earlier, she became the first soccer player of either gender to be named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press.
Wambach was known for her physicality and aggressive approach on the field, and was known for her heading ability - a diving header became her trademark. Although she was primarily known as a striker, she could also drop back into midfield to help supply her teammates and is third on the all-time list of assists for her country as well.
Defender Christie Rampone played for the United States national team 311 times – only her former teammate Kristine Lilly made more international appearances. She played in 4 World Cup finals and four consecutive Olympic Games and captained her country to gold medal success in Beijing in 2008 and London four years later. She was also a World Cup winner in 1999 on home soil, and a runner-up in 2011.
Renowned for her strength and athleticism on the field, Rampone battled back from serious injury on several occasions, and she also had to cope with the debilitating effects of Lyme disease. Despite these problems, she continued playing well into her early 40s.
Rampone was an infrequent goal scorer – she found the net just four times in all those internationals. Her function on the pitch was to stop them from being scored, and she did that to significant effect throughout her long career.
Co-captain of the US women’s national team, Lloyd has been named FIFA Player of the Year twice and has made more than 278 appearances for her country, scoring 113 times in a career that is still very much active. She currently has the third most international caps for her country and stands fourth in the all-time list when it comes to goals and seventh when it comes to assists for the USA. A two-time Olympic champion, Lloyd had the distinction of scoring the gold medal-winning goals in both the 2008 and 2012 finals. She also had the honor of captaining her country to World Cup success in 2015 in Canada, a tournament that saw her score six times, including a hat trick against Japan. She was awarded the Golden Boot, given to the best player in the competition.
Her club career has seen her feature for several US teams, including Central Jersey Splash, Western New York Flash, and Houston Dash. She currently plays for Sky Blue FC. She continues to set records. In the 2019 World Cup, her goals in the USA’s opening group games against Thailand and Chile made her the first woman to score in six consecutive World Cup games.
Megan Rapinoe is one of the best-known athletes in the USA in any sport because of her public profile which has seen her come out as a leading advocate for LGBT rights, and equal pay for men and women on the soccer field, as well as her opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump.
Yet she is also one of the top players in the world just now, having played more than 150 times for her country, scoring 50 international goals in the process. Co-captain of the team that won the World Cup in France this year, she also won the same event in 2015, and also was part of the victorious side that won the Olympic Gold medal in London in 2012.
She won the Golden Boot for her performances in France this year and became the oldest woman to score in a World Cup final.
Since its inception in 1985, Player of the Year award recipients, in multiple branches of sport, has gone to win countless professional and college championships. Previous recipients who have gone on to become household names include Abby Wambach, six-time US Soccer Athlete of the Year, and twice an Olympic gold medallist; American football star Peyton Manning; NBA’s Karl-Anthony Towns, and Derek Jeter, who plays Major League Baseball.
Each year a selection committee made up of sports journalists, and coaches, trainers and administrators choosing national winners from 12 different sports – boys’ and girls’ soccer; American football; girls’ volleyball; boys’ and girls’ basketball; baseball, softball, and boys’ and girls’ cross country and track and field.
The 12 winners are then whittled down to one male and one female athlete, who then earn the accolade Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year.
Awards are based not just of athletic excellence, but also high academic standards, and the demonstration of exceptional character on and off the pitch.