On August 1, 1996, the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) defeated China 2-1 and captured the first women’s soccer gold medal in Olympic history, avenging their disappointing third place finish at the 1995 Women’s World Cup.
At the time of the women’s victory in Atlanta, the USWNT was the apex of women’s professional soccer in the U.S. as playing for a club professionally was not always a viable option. Due to the lack of professional opportunities globally, many of the U.S. Women’s National Team players did not play for a professional club prior to the 1995 Women’s World Cup and 1996 Olympic Games.
Instead, players trained and found games with amateur clubs, college teams, or in the case of Kristine Lilly, with a men’s professional indoor soccer team, the Washington Warthogs.
At the time of her signing with the Warthogs in the summer of 1995, Kristine Lilly was already the USWNT’s most capped player and arguably the best player in the country. She earned the first of her world record 352 international caps in 1987 while still in high school at the age of 16. She was one of five U.S. Women’s U-19 players — including Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, and Mia Hamm — that would emerge as the golden generation of the USWNT, which won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991.
Washington Warthogs and Lilly’s Signing
The Washington Warthogs were a professional indoor soccer team that competed in the Continental Indoor Soccer League (CISL) from 1994 to until the league’s collapse in 1997. Prior to the debut of Major League Soccer, the Warthogs were the only professional club in Washington D.C. The Capital outfit featured some of the country’s and area’s top talent in Phillip Gyau, Goran Hunjak, and Dante Washington. The club also made national headlines during their first season in the CISL by signing the club’s first female player in local product Colette Cunningham. The Warthogs signing of Cunningham proved instrumental in Lilly’s signing during the summer of 1995 as it proved the club was willing to sign talent no matter the gender of the player. During the club’s existence, US international Jim Gabarra — who also happened to be married to USWNT forward Carin Jennings-Gabarra — coached the Warthogs and was heavily influential in obtaining Lilly’s signature.
It was during the Women’s World Cup in Sweden that Jim Gabarra began gauging Lilly’s talent and judging whether she could bring anything to the Warthogs. Travelling to support his wife Carin, Gabarra decided over the course of the tournament that Lilly was just what the Warthogs wanted as the club sought to sign a female player prior to the 1995 season. Lilly fit the bill, and just happened to be both one of the best female players in the world and without a club after the tournament, which provided Gabarra with a win-win scenario in approaching Lilly to sign with the indoor club. Gabarra described what he saw in Lilly to The Washington Post, “she has great skills, she has an exceptional work rate, and she’s a competitor…. in the right situation a woman can play with guys, and I know Kristine can do it.” Gabarra singled out Lilly for these qualities and decided against pursuing any other USWNT members after the tournament as none of the players stood out more than Lilly, and their schedules were not compatible with that of the Warthogs.
Lilly, understanding that Gabarra and the Warthogs offer was not a marketing ploy, signed with the Warthogs shortly after the USWNT exit from the Women’s World Cup. She signed with every intent to compete and raise her level of play for the 1996 Summer Olympics stating, “I am really excited about playing indoors…. I really think this will help my game.” Lilly’s signing offered her an arena to compete at a high level as she admitted she “didn’t have anyone to work out with” when she was not with the USWNT. The opportunity to play in the CISL also forced her to improve her ability on the ball and helped sharpen her mental and physical quickness. Her debut for the indoor club had to wait until late August while she honored her commitments with the national team. Just a month after the Women’s World Cup, the USWNT committed to compete in the first women’s edition of the US Cup which was an annual tournament sponsored by the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) that pitted three other international teams against the US in a round robin tournament to spur interest in the game within America (the USWNT won the tournament).
Lilly began training with the Warthogs in late August 1995. She saw her first action not take long after her arrival making her Warthogs debut on August 27 coming on with 7:52 remaining in a game against the Monterrey La Raza, registering one shot in a near minute on the field. Gabarra limited her time in order to gradually introduce her to the pace and physicality of the indoor game. Her appearance garnered significant media attention nationally that culminated in a short article in Sports Illustrated, in which she reiterated her commitment to compete and improve her game for the USWNT bid for Olympic gold. Following her debut, Lilly made a handful of other appearances for the Warthogs, never notching a goal.
Though she never made a significant impact on the club, she achieved her stated goal of finding consistent competition to raise her level of play for the Olympics. Gabarra’s wife, and Lilly’s USWNT teammate, Carin joined the Warthogs at training on a handful occasions giving the Warthogs another connection – albeit a tenuous one – to the USWNT and Olympic gold. In the end, Lilly’s stint proved nothing more than a brief stop with the indoor club that provided her with a scheduled training regimen and guaranteed high-level competition outside of her USWNT appearances. Her limited number of games and frequent training kept her fit and aided in honing her already world-class skills for international competition.
Following a brief contract dispute with the USSF, Lilly, Carin Jennings-Gabarra, and seven other players joined the USWNT in January 1996 in preparation for the Atlanta games. The USWNT went on to win gold at the Olympics attracting a world record crowd of 76,481 to the gold medal game, firmly establishing the women’s game in the United States in the process. The USWNT’s success at the 1996 Olympics was the precursor to the more famous 1999 Women’s World Cup victory starring a shirtless Brandi Chastain that definitively cemented women’s soccer in the US, and gave birth in 2000 to the first fully professional women’s league, the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA).
Lilly went on to compete for the USWNT for a total of twenty-three years, playing in five World Cups and three Olympic Games. In 2014, she was a first-ballot inductee into the United States National Soccer Hall of Fame and a member of the USWNT All-Time Best XI. Her time with the Warthogs serves to highlight the difficulties professional women soccer players faced during the game’s infancy and the growth of women’s soccer in the United States since the 1996 Olympic Games.
In writing this article, I relied on numerous sources. I am indebted to Jim Gabarra and Carin Jennings-Gabarra for taking time out of their coaching schedules to acquiesce to my interview requests. I also relied on articles from Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. In addition to these sources, I also consulted The New England Soccer Journal and, as always, The American Soccer History Archives.
A version of this article first appeared a A Moment of Brilliance on April 23, 2014.