At the Rose Bowl in 1999, the U.S. women’s national team faced China in a penalty kick shoot-out to decide the World Cup Final.
During the third round of penalty kicks, goalkeeper Briana Scurry launched to her left and blocked Liu Ying’s shot. The moment was pivotal in the team’s 5-4 win over China and for women in sports. Fans worldwide remember defender Brandi Chastain with her jersey in hand celebrating triumphantly after scoring the deciding penalty kick that Scurry’s save made possible.
Scurry went on to become the first Black woman and first female goalkeeper inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Between 1994 and 2008, she made 175 appearances for the national team and compiled 72 shutouts, two Olympic gold medals and that World Cup championship.
The members of Team USA captivated the world over the course of the tournament and spawned a new era of interest in women’s soccer and women’s sports. Scurry’s save, and the image of her pumping her fists and roaring in exaltation, was etched into the minds of boys and girls all over the world – including that of a 9-year-old Black girl from Salina, Kansas, named Adrianna Franch. Franch, now 30, is playing in her first Olympic Games as a backup goalkeeper for the U.S. team, which will face the Netherlands in the quarterfinals on Friday. She is the first African American keeper for the national team since Scurry.
Franch credits Scurry for helping her achieve her dreams. “She was someone who helped pave the way for young athletes like myself, showing us [what is] possible,” Franch said by email from Tokyo. Scurry’s save in the 1999 World Cup, “helped fuel my aspirations to want to play soccer for a living and for this team.”
Two years ago, when the SheBelieves Cup coincided with Women’s History Month, members of the national team wore jerseys bearing the names of women who had inspired them. Franch, of course, chose Scurry, sharing at the time, “I grew up watching her on the national team and that’s who I wanted to be when I was a kid. When I was little, the U.S. team came to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City … I gave her a high-five on her way out of the field and I was like, ‘I’m never washing this hand again!’ ”
“The coolest thing that I’ve discovered about inspiration is that one encounter that she had with me was a positive encounter, and it completely changed the trajectory of her life,” said Scurry, who is now an investor in the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League. “Seeing me and meeting me served as the little beacon for her in the times when maybe things got a little bit difficult and she kept going. Now, there she is. She is in the exact place that she saw me when she was little, and to me, there is really no greater gift.
“Inspiration begins with what you see. That’s how it starts.”
Born in 1971 in Minneapolis, Scurry had no Black female soccer players to look up to. Twenty years before the first Women’s World Cup, no women played soccer internationally or professionally, so Scurry drew inspiration from other sports. Her role models were members of the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, who beat the Soviet Union during the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, in what came to be known as the “Miracle on Ice.”
Twenty white men standing on the podium adorned with gold medals was inspiration enough for Scurry. As a gay Black girl in high school, she found success on the diamond, court, track or soccer pitch while being unapologetically herself. “I never had a formal time where I said, ‘I’m here, I’m gay,’ I just was who I was,” she said.
She carried that same spirit to college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the national team. “I had a girlfriend when we were in training camp in Orlando for the World Cup in ’99. The six months before the World Cup, my girlfriend lived with me and all my teammates knew,” she said.
“I just wasn’t someone who was worried about being gay, really. It’s interesting because my journey is very different from a lot of my friends. I had a lot of friends in college who really had a struggle with who they were becoming, and whether their family would accept them or that society would accept them.”
While Scurry was comfortable with who she was, sometimes the world was not.
“When I ran into the stands after the ’99 World Cup,” she recalled, “the camera is following me, and once they realized that who I go to greet is not my boyfriend, or my family – it was my girlfriend at the time – the camera cut away, right away, from that scene.”
In the years since, society has progressed. White players on the team, most notably Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe, have been out and championed by the media. In 2015, after the U.S. women triumphed over Japan in the World Cup Final, Wambach sought out her partner in the stands to celebrate. This time the cameras did not turn away, and the kiss Wambach shared with her wife became an iconic image of the 2015 World Cup.
While diversity across sexual orientation in women’s soccer has made strides, racial progress has taken longer to attain.
Soccer in America is a predominantly white sport. Barriers to entry, such as cost and location, keep large numbers of Black players from competing at a high level. Representation also plays a factor. When kids see someone who looks like them achieve greatness, it’s powerful, said Scurry. “What happens is that child then sees themselves in that other person and says, ‘Hey, you know what? She can. I can, too.’ And I think that is important because I didn’t necessarily have that for soccer in particular.”
Franch, known as “A.D.,” who plays professionally for the Portland Thorns, is also openly gay. Franch shows viewers that queer Black kids belong in soccer, too, and can succeed. While the world may not have known Scurry’s girlfriend was cheering her on in the stands, with the advent of social media, young people can see Franch’s wife supporting her along every step of her journey.
Though Franch has not gotten a starting nod so far in the Olympics, her presence on the team is meaningful, Scurry said. “It’s important that she’s there and it’s important that she’s representing and that people can see her. Because she, I guarantee you, she’s inspiring a ton of kids just being there and having her name be on the roster, and for the contribution that she’s going to make.”
Scurry also sees a quality goalkeeper. “I think she’s got the tools, you know. She can break through, and once she gets her opportunity to start, I think she’s going to run with it.
“And you never know, I mean, I got my opportunity from an injury to the starting keeper way back when, and sometimes that’s how it happens.”