The former Women's World Cup hero and USA legend breaks down this summer's tournament and explains why the United States have reason to dream about winning their third world title.
How should the United States women’s national team approach the task of winning their first Women’s World Cup in 16 years?
"Here’s how I look at it,” said Briana Scurry, eagerly setting the scenario. "You throw the kitchen sink at that first game. You get three points. You want to be running the whole time. You don’t want to be chasing."
Scurry added: "I would put every ounce of focus on that first game and once you get that down, you’ve put your stamp on the tournament. You have to strike fear as soon as group play starts. If I was Jill (Ellis), I would bring all guns out in that first game, otherwise without three points, the psychological wheels start turning,” she said.
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Briana Scurry knows the score.
As the goalkeeper who led the U.S. to one of the most emphatic and seminal moments in all of women’s sports — in all of sports — Scurry’s moment of glory is crystallized in time, under bright sun in the packed-full Rose Bowl, when women’s soccer blasted its way into global consciousness.
Sure, Scurry may or may not have flinched off the line just seconds ahead of Liu Ying’s penalty kick — just enough momentum forward to make the save that helped hand the U.S. women’s national team it’s 1999 World Cup victory. The referee didn’t blow the whistle and besides, Scurry had read the shot right. She knew. She would make that save.
"I don’t make that save, we aren’t talking right now,” Scurry said in a phone call from her Washington D.C. home.
She’s not bragging. She’s reliving the amazing achievements of a team called the 99ers, which she was a part of, the greatest goalkeeper according to her former national team coach, Tony DiCicco. Scurry, the two time Olympian and World Cup savior, is pumped these days. Why not?
At 45 years of age, her soccer career ended on a series of disappointments and even controversy. Scurry was inserted in the 2007 World Cup semifinals against Brazil and gave up four goals, prompting the regular starter back then, Hope Solo, to unleash a reaction that caused Solo’s exile from the team. Then came a crippling situation suffered during a game back in 2010 that left her straining with memory and balance and depression issues. Only a ground-breaking surgery in 2013 that removed scar tissue from her brain has allowed for renewed health.
"I could not do anything. I couldn’t get off the couch. I was really depressed, anxious. I was released by my doctor last year and have resumed normal life,” she said.
This new life includes a lot of speaking engagements about concussions, including testifying in front of Congress. It has also reinvigorated her enthusiasm about the U.S. women’s national team, which kicks off a three-team Send-Off Series this Sunday in San Jose against the Republic of Ireland (live, FOX Sports 1, 2:30 p.m. ET) then taking on Mexico and Korea Republic before departing for Canada.
"As a fan and an alum, I’m looking forward to this World Cup for a lot of different reasons. This is an incredibly powerful roster and this should be a very interesting World Cup. It’s one thing to see names on paper, to see players coming in and out of camp, it’s another thing to put that product on the pitch,” Scurry said.
"I see a team that is every single one of them could start. There are 23 quality starters. I seen a tremendous defense with Meghan Klingenberg, Lori Chalupny, Becky Sauerbrunn, Christie Rampone or Julie Johnston. It’s just solid,” she said.
"I see old hands in Christie Rampone, Abby (Wambach) and Shannon Boxx. I see Carli Lloyd is wearing the armband now. She’s the captain and a beast and a silent deadly goal-scorer. She scores or serves it up or is in the back digging it out. If you track (Lloyd’s) movement end-to-end, sideline to sideline, she works for 90 minutes and has fantastic big games,” Scurry said.
Where Scurry advises fans to really watch is on the U.S. attack, where the 34-year-old Wambach will be used in a different way during this World Cup, which is being played on artificial grass. The U.S. strength is speed up front, with Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez and, especially, Christen Press, who Scurry raves about as the player to watch in Canada.
Scurry doesn’t buy any narrative that says Wambach’s age or diminished ability to work in behind the defense could spell trouble for the U.S.
"This is a blessing in disguise. Abby takes up a whole lot of acreage and will command attention from the defense, so Jill can get those younger players to run off Abby, which could lead to a goal-scoring Christmas for Leroux, Ali Krieger, Morgan and Press. I mean, look at the goal Klingenberg scored (against New Zealand April 4 in St. Louis). The defense has to squish against our strikers and it opens up shots for our defenders,” Scurry said.
Like everyone who sees the U.S. under the gun in Group D’s "Group of Death" match play, Scurry says Sweden is the key to whether the U.S. finishes No. 1 or No. 2 in the group that also includes Australia, against whom the U.S. opens on June 8, and Nigeria.
"The U.S. is a clear No. 1 or No. 2 in that group, but that’s where it gets dicey,” she said.
"Sweden is the biggest underachievers in the world. They lack that killer instinct and I hope they don’t find it this time (against the U.S. on June 16 in Winnipeg). Australia is scrappy but we’ll be fine and Nigeria — we have too much firing power,” Scurry said.
While Germany and Japan have won World Cups since the last time the U.S. won, and countries like France and Sweden and Canada have poured money and resources into developing top-flight women’s soccer development programs, Scurry said the team that the U.S. is sending to the World Cup can win it all.
And as for the months-long hand wringing by soccer aficionados against Ellis, who took over the team a year ago after the abrupt firing of Tom Sermanni, Scurry scoffed. The U.S. women set the bar high back in ’99, and other countries have worked hard to catch up and are now putting their stamp on women’s soccer.
"They handled it well. You always need a plan and I think Ellis had one and kept it to herself and within the ranks. If she was moving players into different roles, maybe it was to allow other players a chance to get some experience at positions. You never know the reasoning or what’s going on inside the camp. You don’t know,” she said.
You throw the kitchen sink at that first game. You get three points. You want to be running the whole time. You don’t want to be chasing.
Briana Scurry, on USA's mindset heading into their opening match against Australia on June 8.
In particular, Scurry knows first-hand the competitiveness and shark-like mentality among her 99er pioneers that helped set a tone for camps and how new players would get integrated into the national team. When Sermanni attempted to change the U.S. style, to introduce new players into the system and take it away from the direct style that has defined this historically powerful side, there appeared to be a sudden shift that could have come as a result of veteran players who put their foot down.
"We want to play to win," seems to be the U.S. women’s mantra. Taking months or years to shift to a new style that plays through three lines and relies less on speed and strength and athleticism … that was a tough shift.
"It’s hard to overhaul a team that’s winning or comes incredibly close every time,” Scurry said. "Do you really want to disrupt that? Like any criticism, show me what you’re talking about? Tell me where the players are? Let’s have a couple of training camps and see if they can sink or swim,” Scurry said.
"A system built on the European game takes time and money and other countries are doing that. I am just thrilled to have been part of that (99) team because the world saw what can be done when you give women the money and the resources. If that event didn’t occur, I don’t think we see the explosion of women’s soccer or the incredible parity we’re now seeing. Culturally, it wasn’t a huge step for women in this country (to train and compete and get the resources and respect) but it is a really big deal in other countries. To have been part of that is incredible,” she said.
Part of it? Scurry had more than a part in the women’s soccer explosion. She had two big mitts in it.