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Brandi Chastain: the goal that changed U.S. women's soccer

Chastain chats about the evolution of soccer, her life since retiring as a player, and what more is needed to elevate women in sports.

Vincent Laforet/Getty Images

On a scorching hot day in 1999, in front of 90,000 fans, Brandi Chastain walked up to the penalty spot—the weight of a country on her back. Miss, and China has the chance to rip a World Cup victory from the U.S. Convert, and the U.S. earn their second World Cup trophy.

With her left foot, she buried a shot into the side netting, beyond the reach of Chinese keeper Gao Hong.

In a moment of unbridled passion, Chastain tore off her shirt and collapsed to the ground, her fists raised in the air triumphantly. The crowd erupted, the country celebrated, and the '99ers were forever sewn into the fabric of women’s soccer.

Photo credit: Lutz Bongarts/Getty Images

Brandi Chastain became a household name that day. But while that goal will always be at the forefront of her mind, it wasn’t her biggest soccer moment. That came four years earlier, on a soccer field without any reporters or fans screaming her name.

You see, that ’99 World Cup roster spot was one Brandi worked hard to earn.

"I was on the ‘91 World Cup team, and then I was cut," Chastain recalled during our interview, which took place while she was in Seattle for the World Cup Victory Tour. After changing her college path, and experiencing two ACL injuries and an MCL reconstruction surgery, Chastain missed the 1995 World Cup roster. It would have been easy to give up, but she always believed she belonged on the squad.

"When you hear 'no,' it can be deflating. It can make you believe you are not good enough," said Chastain. "But I loved soccer so much that I didn’t let it stop me."

Chastain worked her way back. She trained hard, and was finally rewarded in the late fall of 1995, just months after her teammates returned from the World Cup.

"When I came back to my first practice, that first day putting on my oversized training shirt and shorts—as they didn't make women's gear back then—that was probably the proudest I had ever been. Because I persevered. I knew I belonged there."

Little moments like this can create powerful memories. Chastain’s story is proof of that. And those little moments have been leading to exciting developments in women’s soccer since the last World Cup victory.

For one, soccer is more popular than ever in America. Back in 1999, while 90,000 fans filled the Rose Bowl for the final, Chastain argues that the type of fan was different. It was patriotic Americans curious about the game, and invested in the individuals on the field. The fans at this year’s World Cup? Chastain says most were dedicated, sophisticated soccer fans. They lived and breathed the game.

Brandi Chastain with the Bay Area Cyberrays during the Inaugural Game of the WUSA. Photo credit: Nick Wass/Getty Images

"When I was growing up, I got to watch one soccer program a week. Now you can find soccer on nearly 24 hours a day," Chastain notes. "My younger son is 9, and he only knows soccer. He doesn't see it as something that happened somewhere else and was brought to America. To him, it's an American sport."

This year’s World Cup was evidence of that. The championship match was the most-viewed soccer event in U.S. history. Ever. Sponsors have been knocking on the doors of Carli Lloyd and all her U.S. Soccer teammates since the triumphant tournament.

In fact, Chastain was in town as an ambassador for Liberty Mutual Insurance, an active sponsor of U.S. Soccer. When you walked into CenturyLink Field on Wednesday, it was hard not to notice Liberty Mutual’s presence. Fans tugged on roll-out banners and donned Statue of Liberty crowns with Liberty Mutual logos plastered on them. It might feel subtle, but for Chastain, it’s exciting to have such a big sponsor not only support the players, but their fans as well.

"Back when I was on the National Team, the idea of big companies coming out and saying, ‘You’re important not only for what you do on the field, but how you impact the communities you’re in’—that was a big statement," says Chastain.

Photo credit: JaneG. Photography

With stories like this, it’s easy to believe that women’s soccer is progressing at a rapid, positive rate. Certainly, that’s true. The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) will soon be entering its fourth season, making it the oldest professional women's soccer league in North American history. Stadiums hosting World Cup Victory Tour matches are regularly seeing attendance over 20,000. More people watched the NWSL final on Fox Sports 1 than an MLS match on the same channel the next week.

But for all the barriers that have been broken, Chastain believes we have a long way to go. There’s still just one female coach on 10 NWSL teams, Seattle Reign’s tactical genius Laura Harvey. And while you’ll hear women as sideline reporters during soccer matches, they haven’t broken into regular play-by-play or commentator roles.

Chastain references the work her friend Marlene Bjornsrud recently embarked on, which is seeking to answer why—especially during a time where more women are playing sports than ever before—so many are being forced out of sports leadership positions—as coaches, managers, and athletic directors. What she found was rather shocking: while more women than ever are playing sports, roughly 17 percent of all NCAA women's sports teams are actually led by women.

"That’s just a microcosm of everything else," Chastain argues. "You typically see fathers step up to be the coach of the youth teams. You see youth sports run by men, and then you see collegiate and professional teams led by males. It needs to change."

But how? Chastain didn’t have all the answers, but she’s been searching for some solutions for nearly a decade. Ten years ago, Chastain, Julie Foudy, and Bjornsrud launched the Bay Area Women’s Sports Initiative (BAWSI, pronounced "bossy"), dedicated to empowering young women through sports.

The organization works with Title I schools, where more than half of all students come from families living under the poverty line. College soccer players connect with the young girls to serve as role models, help them with goal-setting, and teach them a new vocabulary – focused on integrity, teamwork, discipline, communication, and leadership. These are all words that, for generations, boys have been learning from a young age, and Chastain hopes to help young girls become their own bosses.

"We help break a cycle – whether it's poverty, or lower education, or early teen pregnancy. And we help these girls see their future as something different than the four blocks they live on."

As she raises her two boys, Chastain is also focused on growing BAWSI to help more young women see their potential and expanding on her already-extensive soccer career through coaching. In fact, while the U.S. women hoisted their World Cup trophy, Chastain was watching in Oregon with a group of U-20 athletes she coached over the summer.

"For me, being a coach is really important. I really hope that at some point I have another opportunity to impact the lives of young aspiring national team players and then, maybe one day, work with the national team players."

Whether it’s as a coach, or player, or ambassador for women’s soccer, Chastain has left a legacy that drove thousands of girls to pursue soccer and follow their dreams. Today, what excites Chastain more than anything is that a whole new generation will be inspired by this World Cup memory.