— Almost seven years have passed since she unlaced her Air Zooms and kicked off her shin guards for the final time, but Mia Hamm is still hard to shake. Her ponytailed silhouette serves as the logo for the Women’s Professional Soccer league and during the two World Cups that have been held since her retirement, the U.S. Women’s National Team has had to play in her oversized shadow.
At least they did until Sunday. Twelve years to the day after Hamm’s team hoisted the Cup’s twisted gold trophy, our U.S. women pulled off an improbable, unbelievable win over Brazil, the kind that all but ensures you’ll spend the morning talking about Abby Wambach and toggling between that Excel spreadsheet and YouTubed Hope Solo highlights.
And why wouldn’t you? It was a game that left every member of the international audience feeling the best kind of bipolar, regardless of which team they were pumping their fists for. Less than two minutes into the action, the U.S. was up 1-0 thanks to an own-goal by Brazil’s Daiane, a bit of accidental boneheadery (or bonefootery) that even FIFA’s play-by-play summary punctuated with a pair of exclamation points.
The second half saw Brazil’s Marta, the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year get tangled with Rachel Buehler (Buehler? Buehler? Anyone?) who was slapped with a red card and sent off the pitch. After Solo stopped Brazil’s first penalty kick, Lego-shaped referee Jacqui Melsham pressed Edit + Undo for an as-yet-undetermined reason (possibly because of encroachment) and allowed Marta to take a second penalty kick. She connected to tie the game at 1.
Two minutes into extra time, Marta scored again — 2-1 Brazil. The U.S. should’ve been out of it. They should’ve loosened their ponytails, wiped their foreheads with the back of their hands and waited to be crushed beneath 12 years' worth of expectations. They could’ve waited for time to run out, so they could slink past a pile of celebrating Samba Queens, heading toward the locker room and their earliest ever World Cup exit.
Instead, they dug in deeper and pressed even harder, taking advantage of two minutes of injury time, courtesy of some awful, Kardashian-caliber acting by Brazil’s Erika. At the 122nd minute, Megan Rapinoe lasered a cross to Abby Wambach, who headed the tying score past an out-of-position Andreia. It was the latest goal in any World Cup game, Women’s or Men’s, and was Wambach’s 48th header, which should put her on the short list for an Excedrin endorsement.
“I just took a touch and friggin’ smacked it with my left foot,” Rapinoe said. “I don’t think I’ve ever hit a ball like that with my left foot.”
The game went to penalty kicks, the ending that has the potential to be as infuriating as the season finale of The Killing. Every U.S. player connected with her shot; Solo stopped Daiane’s weak attempt, the defender essentially costing Brazil a pair of scores.
“Playing 10 men, coming back from a goal down in overtime, to then go to penalties — I don’t know if you could write a better script,” Wambach told ESPN afterward. “We got a win!”
That they did, the kind of down-for-the-count comeback that typically only happens to Kevin Costner characters. If you watched and weren’t moved by it, if you didn’t involuntarily drop your Pizza Rolls to pump your fist, if you didn’t run a victory lap through your apartment complex, then you have a problem. And if you didn’t see a few fireworks or weren’t overwhelmed by a bit of nationalistic pride, then Donald Trump would like to see a copy of your birth certificate.
Sunday will forever be a “Where were you when . . . ?” type of experience but your answer isn’t important; what matters is that we saw the kind of game that makes us ask that question at all. And before you burn your breakfast, the discussions will have already started about what it means for the team, for women's soccer specifically and for the sport in general. Why? Because that's what we did the last time.
In 1999, the U.S. defeated China in the final, Brandi Chastain flashed the most famous black bra since Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour and women’s soccer almost immediately exploded. That World Cup win sent thousands of would-be Carla Overbecks into the backyard to practice their penalty kicks. It launched the (now-defunct) Women’s United Soccer Association and sent Chastain’s bra to the (now-defunct) Sports Museum of America. And it turned "you play like a girl" into a compliment.
Sports Illlustrated described that game as “the most significant day in the history of women’s sports, bearing the fruit of the passage of Title IX in 1972 and surpassing by a long shot that burn-your-bra night in ’73 when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs.”
The 2011 team has to be both thankful for their '99 counterparts and relieved they don’t have to kick around that kind of cultural significance. Their quarterfinal victory was less a win for women’s sports as it was for sports in general. It was a win — a great win — but it doesn’t have to mean anything other than that we should be proud of our team (and they most certainly are our team) for looking elimination in the face and then heading a ball past her.
We’re too quick to try to quantify victories, to dissect them and arrange them on superlative-laden lists: the bests, the mosts, the all-times. We don’t have to strip every game to parts like they're a fleet of stolen Celicas. We don't have to thumb through the almanac so we can make appropriate comparisons. Sunday's win doesn’t have to be about the future, at least not the future past the semifinals against France. It was a win for today, by a team that had a surplus of heart and soul and Solo.
What does it mean? That regardless of what happens on Wednesday, these women — our women — will come back from Germany knowing they’re bigger than the silhouette on their WPS uniforms and that, finally, they’re out of Hamm’s shadow. Now they can start to cast their own.