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Brandi Chastain and the never-ending push for progress

(Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

In the annals of women’s sports iconography in the United States, not many images hold greater space in the minds of a generation than Brandi Chastain, jersey off, screaming on her knees in triumph after scoring the game-winning penalty kick for the U.S. women’s national team at the 1999 World Cup. That moment etched the team’s second star, one they wouldn’t add to for another 16 years, and it continues to loom large over the storied program.

Twenty-three years later, Chastain believes that victory set the USWNT on a path toward excellence, serving as one chapter in a long history of a team that always seeks to rise and meet the moment in front of them.

While there’s never a bad time to commemorate a cornerstone of women’s sports history, this year has thrown into sharp focus just how important the push for progress has been in the years since Chastain kicked the USWNT to glory.

“We had an excellent balance,” she says now of the ‘99 team. “And I think it’s that kind of humility and grace and awareness, that if every company could have that, they would be Fortune 500. I know the significance and the depth of the well of resources that are women, and women’s soccer players specifically. It’s undeniable.”

The lasting image of Brandi Chastain celebrating her game-winning penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup final. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Just Women’s Sports’ first conversation with the former defender came not long after the women’s national team had settled its equal pay lawsuit with U.S. Soccer; by the second conversation, the USWNT had signed a historic CBA, the country had celebrated 50 years of Title IX, and the Supreme Court had struck down Roe v. Wade, which made access to abortion a constitutional right for nearly 50 years. To call the past few months an emotional rollercoaster for women’s rights would be an understatement.

Within all of these historic moments, Chastain feels that the public has gained a better understanding of who the USWNT was in 1999, and what the players hope to be now. Recently, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach participated in a roundtable for ESPN’s Title IX documentary “37 words.” Goalkeeper Briana Scurry, whose penalty save against China made Chastain’s winning moment possible, has come out with both a memoir and a documentary this summer to great acclaim.

In 2022, the movement the USWNT kicked off in 1999 is finally getting the widespread appreciation it deserved. Conversations around the team also appear to be more representative of what it took to transform a corner of the sports world with just one kick.

“Part of the national team, if you play for the women’s soccer team, part of your mandate is to raise the bar for equal pay, and the other part is obviously to play brilliant soccer and win everything,” Scurry told Just Women’s Sports in June. “Those are two really high standards to hold.”

External forces surrounding the team, however, haven’t always lived up to the moment. Even after the USWNT achieved prominence in ‘99, the needle never moved quite fast enough, and the players watched as the rest of the world moved on.

“You’re winning big tournaments like the World Cup, and yet you’re anonymous,” Chastain says. “You know that you need to continue to push forward, and you feel that your own group is not taking you as seriously or holding your value the same as they hold someone else’s.”

The players and coaching staff were the glue that held the team together during the years when it felt like nobody else cared. Chastain still speaks glowingly of Tony DiCicco, who led the team to the ‘96 Olympic gold medal and ‘99 World Cup title with a coaching style that was firm but kind, gentle but with high expectations.

“I had some great coaches, great role models. They didn’t always look like me, but they cared about the space a lot, they were willing to be in a space that was not traditionally that cool,” she says. “They wanted each one of the players to blossom into the best player that they could be.”

Chastain also remembers the mental and emotional burden that fell on the players, the extent of which many are only beginning to speak about now.

“The shoulders of Mia [Hamm] and Michelle [Akers], in particular, before anything really got traction, they carried the most weight,” she says. “And they may have carried the most significant weight.”

Chastain and Mia Hamm (back) wave to the fans after winning the 1999 World Cup. (Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The public didn’t always get to see the team as people first, but merely what they represented to the larger cause. “The patchwork that made up the quilt, I think, is really phenomenal,” Chastain says. “We had such a wonderful array of people, and we loved each other. And we competed hard.”

The fight for relevance and equal pay took a toll on the whole group, and the marked progress this year comes with a mixture of gratitude and exhaustion. In a way, this year’s CBA marked both the long-anticipated closing of a chapter and the ushering in of a new era that will present its own challenges.

“I’ve said many times that I will have the conversation, and I’m happy to have the conversation about equal pay,” Chastain says. “I will keep fighting and keep working and keep talking about it, but it’s exhausting.”

Watching the USWNT’s youth movement blossom after the Tokyo Olympics last summer, Chastain has the perspective of both a former player and a current coach. She has been a volunteer assistant coach for the Santa Clara Broncos, her alma mater, since 2010. Chastain’s husband, Jerry Smith, has run the women’s soccer program since 1987. Her experience on the other side of the equation has allowed her to evaluate the team with the same gentle but firm approach she got from her own coaches.

Chastain eschews the binary of old school versus new school (“I’d like to understand the definition of a modern player,” she says with a smile), but she sees conversations about technology, outside expectations and player approaches as part of the natural evolution. While no one wants to go back to the days when women’s soccer teams had to fight for facilities, staffing and other basic support structures, Chastain hopes that a level of discipline remains. Moving goals, setting up cones, working toward something bigger as a team — she doesn’t want that element to disappear even as the sport evolves.

“I feel like I want the players to feel the ownership piece forever, not [just] for this team, but forever, because they own it,” Chastain says of the USWNT. “They’re a part of the legacy of women’s soccer, and they have to own that.”

Chastain was in attendance for the USWNT's victory over Canada in Monday's Concacaf final. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The external pressures on young players are mounting at the highest levels, as social media and name, image and likeness opportunities turn athletes into small businesses long before they even graduate college. With progress come expectations, Chastain says, and it’s all about how you meet the moment mentally.

“External forces can really create chaos, and they can create problems if the group or the people are not prepared to handle them,” she says, underlining the need for strong veteran leadership to help maintain a culture that feeds on a desire for progress.

On the field, Chastain has enjoyed the increased emphasis on versatility. She’s a big fan of rising USWNT star Catarina Macario’s game, and how she both manipulates pressure from opponents and creates chances with her elite skills on and off the ball.

As the global talent pool deepens with each major tournament cycle, Chastain respects the difficult roster balance the current team is trying to strike. Having traveled to Monterrey, Mexico to watch the U.S. win the Concacaf championship Monday night in person, she recognizes how much work the USWNT has to do between now and the 2023 World Cup.

“It’s not an easy process,” Chastain says. “Just trying to decide what pathway to finding out who the best, most cohesive unit is, is not easy. I listen to the comments and I have my own, too. I just know how difficult it is.”

The sport has changed in obvious ways since her playing days, becoming both faster and more technical. Chastain would have relished the opportunity to play that style in her prime. She references the four moments of soccer — when a team is in possession, losing possession, out of possession or regaining possession.

“Modern players [are] asked to be all things in all four moments of the game, really being asked for defenders to be attackers, attackers to be defenders, and in transition, we all have to be both of those things,” she says. “I would have liked to have been challenged to do a little bit more, maybe have our team be a little bit more sophisticated in that way.”

Chastain, 53, sees the tactical aspect of coaching as the next step forward, as access to different styles has never been easier to obtain.

Her affinity for quick adjustments on the pitch echoes her guidance for the USWNT as they continue to push for progress off the field. While the team has achieved major wins in recent years, she’s keenly aware of how quickly things can slip backwards if you let your guard down.

“If you look at the state of the world, you don’t get too close to anything. Because if you get too comfortable, the next thing you know, someone’s trying to pull the rug out from under you,” Chastain says.

“It’s like in a game, you make a play, you don’t get to spend time thinking about that play — good or bad. You have to move forward, and you have to be ready for the next play.”

Perhaps it makes sense then that there’s no young player Chastain is harder on than her former self. With the hindsight of years of work paying off, and many of them in anonymity, she wishes she had known from the very beginning that she, with the same fierceness of her triumphant World Cup celebration, was up for the challenge. She hopes this next generation of players have the desire to overcome their own fears, too.

“Now I look back, and I’m like, ‘God, you were so soft, Brandi. It wasn’t that hard. It was challenging, but if you had just told yourself from the beginning, when you were scared, that you could do it — yeah, you would have been fine.’”

Editor’s Note: This story is a part of the Just Women’s Sports inaugural Legends Collection. Check out our stories on the other legends, Sheryl Swoopes and Billie Jean King.

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

Other former players contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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