U.S. national team forward Michelle Akers has been called "the Michael Jordan of women's soccer," but unless you happen to be a rabid soccer fan, you probably haven't heard of her. The best female player in the world was known as Michelle Akers-Stahl when she was married. Does that name ring a bell? "Once a P.A. announcer at a game introduced her as Michelle Aerosol," says Julie Foudy, a midfielder on the U.S. team. "Another time I was at a camp and someone said, 'Oh, you play with that girl...um...Michelle Anchor-Steam!' Yeah, right. Mich is a beer."
Maybe you would recognize the hair. With her unruly mane of curls, Akers is the Alexi Lalas of women's soccer. And at 5'10" she is several inches taller than most of her ponytailed teammates.
When Akers flew back from the inaugural Women's World Cup, held in China in 1991, a little old lady sitting next to her on the plane asked where Akers had been. She explained that she had just played in the world championship soccer tournament.
"How'd you do?" the woman asked.
"That's nice," the woman said.
The win was more than just nice. The 2-1 victory over Norway in the final gave U.S. soccer its first world championship since 1862, when the first team was organized in the U.S. Whereas the U.S. men's team has struggled for the past century merely to be competitive in most international games, the women's team became a power soon after the women's game went worldwide in the mid-1980s.
Akers laughs at the memory of the U.S. team's first overseas trip, to a tournament in Italy in 1985. At the time she was a sophomore at Central Florida. "We didn't look like a national team," she says. "All we had were these lime-green and purple uniforms. No one was fit. It just felt like we were off to Italy on a vacation. We were just a bunch of kids, we didn't know what we were getting into." That team lost three of its four games and tied the other.
By the time of the first Women's World Cup six years later, America's team had changed dramatically. Most of the players who made up the 1991 side had taken up soccer when the game began booming in the U.S., in the 1970s, which was just about the same time European girls began playing their continent's favorite sport. That team, drawn from the first generation of U.S. women players, developed into an offensive powerhouse, led by Akers.
Now there are players on the national team who, as they were growing up, dreamed of being like Mich. "In high school our coach showed us tapes of the 1991 World Cup," says starting U.S. midfielder Tiffany Roberts, who recently turned 18. "She was the best player I had ever seen. I was in awe."