From lawn chairs, spread-out blankets and small sets of bleachers, a few hundred soccer fans in Blaine watched the U.S. women’s national team’s first game on home soil in July 1986.
Thirty-five years later, the World Cup and Olympic champion USWNT will play in front of upwards of 19,000 fans inside Allianz Field in St. Paul at 7 p.m. Tuesday as they say goodbye to legendary American player Carli Lloyd.
“A very iconic, sentimental thing to be wrapping up my career here where it all began for this team,” Lloyd, who is retiring after 134 goals in 315 appearances over 17 years of international soccer, said Monday. “I’ve tried to represent the crest the way that they started it — those players before me.”
Lloyd’s decorated career spans half of the women’s national team’s entire lifespan, with its international debut in the Mundialito tournament in Italy in August 1985 the only matches to predate its Minnesota roots.
In the early 1980s, a group of volunteers started Soccer Association in Minnesota (SAM) to pool resources to organize, support and promote the game within the state. They spanned from the professional level (then with an indoor club known as the Strikers) to men’s and women’s amateur levels and through the youth ranks.
With the Sons of Norway, the international USA Cup youth tournament started at Blaine Soccer Complex in 1985, which was soon renamed the National Sports Center.
Paul Beggin of Arden Hills was president of SAM, and he credited fellow volunteer Marge Hartfel for her foresight to see the “next movement” being the U.S. women’s national team.
A contingent from SAM went to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s national convention in Chicago that year, and Hartfel’s proposal to host the women’s team was delivered at a competition meeting. The premise was that the USA Cup was off the ground and had the facilities and support to also deliver games for the nascent women’s program. The federation soon voted to add a few games in the Twin Cities northern suburb for the summer of ’86.
“I don’t think there’s anyone that would say that this would have happened if Marge wasn’t in that position,” Beggin said.
Head coach Anson Dorrance had taken over the team in 1986, and had a roster of women in their 20s with college soccer backgrounds. The roster included future star midfielder Michelle Akers.
That summer, the U.S. played Canada — which was also just starting its women’s program — in what was titled the North American Cup.
The U.S. beat Canada 2-0 in the first game on July 7. The teams played again July 9, with Canada coming out on top 2-1, and that same day, they had a 30-minute mini-match to break the two-game tie. Behind two goals from future USWNT head coach April Heinrichs, the U.S. came out with a 3-0 victory in that one.
“I remember there were more and more people during the second and third games,” said Beggin, a 74-year-old Arden Hills resident who works in Mahtomedi schools. “It wasn’t like this huge thing: ‘Hey, it’s the first game!’ And thousands of people come or whatever. It was just an event on site, and it was impressive because of how it was organized and the quality of play was really good.”
YouTube added a video in May of a Northwest Community Television broadcast of the July 9 games. Other USA Cup games were visible on adjacent fields; the only thing separating the games was a rope with red, white and blue flags; cars were parked just off the end lines; and the mini-game ended just before it would have had to be called off because of darkness.
The broadcast wrapped up before the U.S. team, wearing blue shirts and white shorts, could be captured lifting the silver cup trophy off a card table that was moved on to the field as players and coaches shook hands.
“Both teams do deserve credit for putting on such a beautiful show,” one TV commentator said. “I think they showed a lot of quality, and it’s encouraging for American television to have such a quality game. The American game is picking it up, and it’s getting closer to the European style.”
The U.S. team returned to Minnesota in 1987 to play Norway, Canada and Sweden, finishing 2-2 in those games. The U.S. ran it back in Blaine in 1990, and Dorrance’s team included future stars in Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly, who became the U.S. player with the most all-time appearances. That team beat the Soviet Union, England and West Germany. Crowds were still in the hundreds.
The Americans would go on to win the first FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991 and the first Olympic gold in 1996, setting the bar for the worldwide standard. The U.S. has since gone on to win three more World Cups and three more Olympic gold medals.
During that run which included the inspiring 1999 World Cup victory, the U.S. returned to Blaine in 2001 and played in front of 15,614 fans at the National Sports Center against Canada. In 2002 and 2004, native Minnesotan Briana Scurry was the U.S. goalkeeper in front of crowds of 8,000-plus at NSC. She played alongside legends like Brandi Chastain and Abby Wambach.
Lloyd played games at the National Sports Center in 2006, then at U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016 and at Allianz Field after their latest World Cup title in 2019.
Current coach Vlatko Andonovski will coach his first USWNT game in Minnesota on Tuesday and said he recently learned about the program’s origins here.
“It’s a very interesting moment or detail,” he said. “It’s nice to be back where we started and where it all started. It’s a good opportunity for us to put up a good show and obviously for the state that hosted the very first game and also for Carli.”