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Brandi Chastain: The Evolution of Women’s Soccer

Featured photo by Matthew Eisman

Brandi Chastain is one of the most decorated soccer players in US history. She was a member of the very first US women’s World Cup team in 1991, and the first US women’s Olympic soccer team in 1996. (Her teams won gold in both tournaments.) But it is her iconic game-winning penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup finals—giving the US women’s national team a victory over China—that inspired a generation of female soccer players to pursue their dreams. Now a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, Brandi recently sat down with AQ to discuss a new first—the first ever International Champions Cup women’s tournament which will take place this summer, including the North Carolina Courage of the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League), and the women’s clubs of Olympique Lyonnais, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City.

This will be the first women’s International Championship Cup. What kind of effect do you think it will have on the women’s game?
It will be an experience they’ve never had before, for young girls especially. I was talking to one of the parents from the club team that I coach, and I said, “One day, your daughter could be playing in this tournament as a professional soccer player.” And it doesn’t necessarily mean that she has to play for an NWSL team. She could be playing for Paris Saint-Germain, or Olympique Lyonnais, or Manchester City. Someday, maybe it will be a team from Brazil or Japan. It’s very important for this tournament to exist for those dreamers, because it didn’t exist for me. Luckily, I had the old NASL (North American Soccer League) in my neighborhood when I was a kid.  I got to see the New York Cosmos and Pelé. Those are the players that inspired me. This will be a paradigm shift for young girls in this country, for the professional players, and for the status quo of what is the quality and the standard for these teams and the coaches. It’s only going to get better.

Did the women’s playing style evolve over time on its own? Did the original part of it come from the men’s game, because that’s what you watched when you were a kid? Initially that was our coach, Anson Dorrance, because he’s such a competitor. His words were always something to the effect of “You’re going to dominate the player that standing across from you.” To do that, you had to be mentally tougher. You had to be more aggressive, more assertive. And I think he did something that probably most coaches didn’t do in women’s sports, which was kind of unleashed this beast kind of mentality.

It’s almost like an NFL mentality.
Right, we’re going to line up against each other. I’m going to smack you in the mouth. You’re going to smack me in the mouth, and who’s going to be standing at the end? When things move to Tony DiCicco as head coach, I remember him talking to us about how we’re a collective melting pot. Our country is built on immigrants, and soccer for a long time was considered a foreign sport. So we are going to look at Norway, China, Brazil, Germany, and we’re going to look at all the things that make them great, and we’re going to adopt those things. We’ll make them ours and that will be us, because we are the United States of America! And so that’s how we did it. It was actually quite brilliant, because sometimes, if you look outside, and you examine how other people are doing things, you say, “Well that’s not us.” So maybe you don’t look at what the good things are about that. We weren’t too proud to say, “Hey, that works, so we’ll do that too.”

You’re more willing to adapt.
Absolutely. And I thought because we were open, that helped us tremendously. That’s what’s great about this ICC tournament. We’re going to see two teams from France, a team from England and a team from the US. There are some players that have international experience, and some that only have domestic experience, and we’re going to see soccer culture out on the field, which is something on the club level that we’ve never seen before. So that’s another reason why I’m really excited about the tournament in July, because it’s another chance to examine soccer on a different level.

After the first World Cup, you went to play in Japan. As a pro, what were your playing options at that time?
Pretty much nothing. Sweden might’ve also been an option. I think because Japan was closer to us, and there was a gentleman that was living in the northern California area that was associated with the women’s league over there, and he said, “Hey, would you be interested in playing there?” And I was like, “I think I would!” As a young player, I went overseas to the Gothia Cup. and the other huge tournament in Sweden, and it was just eye-opening.  Hearing all the languages, and there was soccer everywhere you could look. And I just thought, what a wonderful opportunity it would be.

So you embraced the opportunity to play in Japan.
Totally! It was great because at the time, I wasn’t on the national team. After ’91, I was let go from the national team, and Anson wasn’t picking me up for the next group of training. So when I said I was going to Japan, he was like, “Why are you going there?” And I was like, “Well, I’m not playing for you, so what do you care? I want to play soccer.” I’d like to think that I was ahead of the curve. I knew something special was going on in Japan. The players were fantastic. What they were lacking was a little bit of the mental edge that we have in the US—the belief that they could be good enough and that their soccer was not only quality, but that they could assert themselves on other teams. They’re just so polite and so gentle in their demeanor and their wonderful culture. This idea of being more athletic, being stronger, they were just so gentle and nice initially. But as we saw when they won the World Cup, they were technically good, athletically equivalent, and in terms of the overall ability soccer-wise, they were definitely much better.

We see the growing pains at the pro level in the women’s game. The player experience is very inconsistent in different markets. When you started in the WUSA (Women’s United Soccer Association), the first women’s pro league, what was that initial experience like for you?
It was fantastic, but with some speed bumps. We had this brand new league. We’re being run by people who don’t really have soccer experience, but they have business acumen. And we’ve got a big office here on Fifth Avenue, and we think we’re the big boys. Yet, we are spending money in the wrong places and playing on crappy fields. No disrespect to Villanova, for example, but we’re playing on this little patch of turf that absolutely should have been condemned. At the time, we didn’t have alternatives. So what do you do? You put up with some things, and you push for other things.

In hindsight, what would you have pushed for?
From the beginning, I said it back then, and I believe it now—soccer should have always stayed together. It shouldn’t have been men’s soccer and women’s soccer. It should’ve just been soccer. For MLS to exist, I think women’s soccer should’ve been a part of their program, because together, we’d both be moving in the same direction. Everybody was like, “We need to have a women’s league on its own!” And I was like, well, soccer in this country doesn’t have that foothold. We don’t have that deep dug well with the cement built. We’re not that sturdy. So why are we battling each other, when we should all be pushing in the same direction? I felt that was always not to our benefit, because we had men’s soccer kind of semi-pushing us down, and trying to live up to these big standards was really hard. I think that’s pretty much why we lasted three years.

Can you describe how you felt that men’s soccer was pushing you down?
I don’t think it was intentional. I just think that, together, we could have been so much stronger. Let’s say for example, we have a soccer-specific stadium like Dallas. On the days that they are not here, who’s using it? You could be getting double use out of the field. You could be sharing in the people power to promote soccer. The more ears, the more eyes, now all of a sudden we have fans coming to both men’s and women’s soccer, and there’s no conflict. They’re all in line with each other, and I don’t think that there was an intentional pushing. I just think they were driving so hard to make men’s soccer successful, that if anything came in the way, it wasn’t a priority.

It has always amazed me that they wouldn’t do double headers. Back in the 1950s, the NBA teams would play a doubleheader with the Harlem Globetrotters, who were a bigger attraction at the time. That’s what helped get people in the seats. For soccer, you’re bringing your son and daughter to the game. And let’s say the New York Red Bulls are playing. Why wouldn’t you stay to watch Carli Lloyd and the Sky Blue play the game after that, or the game before?
Absolutely. I think it makes sense, and I can say that looking from the outside in. But I also get the idea that we want women’s soccer to be able to stand on its own two feet. We wanted to say, “I want to sell a women’s ticket,” and people will say, “Yes, I’m going to buy it like that!” I think that’s also valuable. I think we were having this kind of internal battle for no reason, in my opinion. I think the players always felt that in terms of men’s soccer and women’s soccer, we should be supporting each other. I think structurally and financially, that was the difficult part, and we didn’t. We didn’t succeed in that the first time around, and we didn’t succeed in the second time around. But we learned a lot of lessons, and I think that’s why right now it’s much better.

Chastain scores the game winning penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup final.            Robert Beck-Sports Illustrated-Getty

The more I speak to players in the women’s game, I feel like there is always this kind of push/pull. They feel a responsibility to grow the league.
Absolutely should.

But they also want to know what it’s like to play abroad and have that experience.
Absolutely should.

So when you were doing the US pro league together the first time with the WUSA, and even the second time with the WPSL (Women’s Premier Soccer League), I’m sure you must have felt a responsibility.
Still do, right?

But what was it like for you? Were you all saying, “We’re staying! We’re fighting for this!”
Well, we really didn’t have anywhere to go. I mean there was Sweden, and maybe Germany, to some degree in Japan, but the options weren’t the same as they are now. And I think for everybody, you have this ideal. The ideal is you want to play professional soccer in your own country. How amazing would that be? You live in your own home. You go to work everyday to the soccer field. You put in your hours. You work really hard. You grow it in your neighborhood and get to play on the weekend. Who doesn’t want that? I think the international experience is valuable because the world seems to be a big place, but it’s pretty small. Even in those times, it was bigger because there was no Internet, no FaceTime. There weren’t the things that keep us close to each other now. And, at times, it did feel like I was a world apart from my family and my friends. But the experience was absolutely worth it, and I recommend it to anybody who will ask. I think it’s valuable.

Well, that’s what’s exciting about the Women’s ICC tournament, because during the World Cup, obviously we get to see people with their national teams. Occasionally, we are lucky, and we get a player like Marta to come over and play here. But for the most part, we don’t get to see those other teams.
Maybe Champions League, or maybe the FA Cup final. But I absolutely hear what you’re saying, and I agree. I think it’s really spectacular to be able to see players you don’t get to see on a regular basis. And if you’re a real fan of women’s soccer, this is a great opportunity, because you’ll get to see four tremendous teams up against each other. And if you’re just learning the game, you get to watch soccer and say, “Oh, this is how they do it!” Now you get to appreciate the differences in the same game. That’s like, to me, when I watch the Golden State Warriors play anybody else, right now, here’s a team that plays a certain brand of basketball, and everybody’s trying to figure out how they can stop it. So now all of a sudden, we’re talking about basketball on a tactical level. I think that’s what’s happening with soccer. Having this international experience will allow people to talk about soccer on a different level than we have before.

And also the players get to play in a different context. I always compare the US Women’s national team to the Harlem Globetrotters. Because everywhere they go, they’re expected to win, and they are expected to entertain. They are that good. Even when they draw, it’s like, “What happened? Why did they play so poorly?” The expectations are so high. So as a player, is it different to be able to go out and play without having to carry those expectations on to the field?
Well, I’d like to say that it doesn’t exist, but I absolutely know that it does and it should. The expectation is that every time you go to the field, you’re going to figure out a way to win the game. We were discussing why this tournament is so important, and I really believe that here in the US, it will raise the standard of what the club expectations should be. It’s not just those five national team players that you have on your team. It’s really the sixth through the 18th, those have to be quality players. It’s not just, “Okay we’ll just take her,” you know? To have that standard set, then maybe it forces the pay to go up because you can’t have a part-time player being asked to do a full-time professional job. You just can’t, and you have to have quality coaches, and you have to have quality development. So this tournament is really providing something that they don’t even know that they’re providing, which I think is excellent. Besides the entertainment value of watching, I think it really will change the standard of what our clubs should and could be doing.

The first ever International Champions Cup women’s tournament takes place at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida from July 26th-29th.

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