Success is not guaranteed for the USWNT. Just ask China’s Steel Roses

<span>Photograph: James Elsby/AP</span>
Photograph: James Elsby/AP

Sporting history is littered with Sliding Doors moments, instances when future fortunes pivot on one swing of a bat, one toss of a ball or one swipe of a boot.

So named for the 1998 movie in which alternate realities of Gwyneth Paltrow’s lead character’s life play out simultaneously, diverging at the point at which she did or didn’t get on a tube train, the most consequential example of a Sliding Doors moment in the history of women’s soccer came on 10 July 1999 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

After a goalless 120 minutes, and preceded by nine-tenths of the subsequent penalty shootout, Brandi Chastain steadied herself. Briana Scurry, the United States goalkeeper, had saved Liu Ying’s effort. Everyone else had scored. If Chastain converted on her turn from 12 yards, the US women’s national team would be world champions for a second time. Chastain struck her left-footed shot high into the corner of the net. Then, in a moment reproduced the following day on the front pages of Newsweek, Sports Illustrated and numerous newspapers, she peeled off her jersey and fell to her knees as 90,000 fans exploded in jubilant celebration.

Brandi Chastain celebrates after scoring the game-winning penalty against China during the Women’s World Cup Final.

In an instant, women’s soccer was catapulted into the American sports consciousness. The USWNT, who’d won the inaugural World Cup in 1991, would go on to claim two more titles over the next 20 years.

For 1999’s defeated finalists, China, an opposite trajectory was traced. As they prepare to face the US for a double-header of friendlies starting on Saturday, the Chinese women’s national team are only now showing signs of escaping their post-Pasadena doldrums.

The Steel Roses had been building momentum ahead of the ’99 final. They’d hosted the first World Cup in ’91, finished fourth at the next edition four years later, and earned a silver medal at the 1996 Olympics, where the US had taken gold on home soil. They had also won the Asian Cup seven times in a row and looked fearsome through the earlier rounds of the 1999 World Cup – three wins from three in the group stage, with 12 goals scored and only two conceded, followed by a 2-0 quarter-final victory over Russia and a 5-0 thrashing of Norway in the semis.

The initial reaction to the narrow ’99 defeat was one of anger at their opponents. The Chinese media protested that Scurry had crept forward from her goalline to save Liu Ying’s penalty. “Everyone does it,” was the American keeper’s response to the allegation. But then interest – and, more crucially, funding – in the Chinese women’s game waned. There was a stark illustration of how China had been eclipsed as a power in the region when, in 2011, Japan became the first Asian nation to win the women’s World Cup, a tournament for which China failed to qualify.

Meanwhile, the Steel Roses have had to watch as the men’s team has been prioritized for funding and infrastructural development. In 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping, a self-professed soccer fan, put forth a plan to pump money into the men’s game in an effort to make the world’s most populous nation a footballing powerhouse. It didn’t work. The Chinese men’s team still rank a lowly 79th in the world and boast just a single World Cup appearance, in 2002. Many of the men’s game’s administrators fell foul of anti-corruption enforcement and the country’s national league has been diminished by fading investment.

China’s Wang Shuang and Wang Shanshan hold the Women’s Asian Cup trophy and celebrate with team members.

More recently, the Chinese women’s team has begun something of a resurgence. Last year, they won their first Asian Cup title since 2006 and, in March of this year, rose to 13th in Fifa’s world rankings, equalling their highest mark of the past decade and a half. The fact that the Steel Roses squad for the 2023 World Cup included a record six players based outside China suggests a growing quality of players being produced by a once-insular football nation.

China entered the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand this past summer with the aim of reaching the quarter-finals, a level they last reached in 2015 when they were eliminated by the United States. But they fell short, exiting at the group stage after a 6-1 battering by eventual runners-up England. They have since fallen to 15th in the world rankings. They haven’t been inside the Top 10 since 2006.

Twenty-four years on from the World Cup final triumph that set the table for two decades of domination, the USWNT have hit their own pivotal moment. Emma Hayes will take the reins of the United States women’s team when her contract with Chelsea expires next year. The Englishwoman’s appointment coincides with a period of rare uncertainty for the USWNT, coming on the back of a last-16 exit at the World Cup – their worst-ever performance at the tournament – and with such pillars of past success as Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz and Ali Krieger having retired.

Whether or not the US are able to regain their position atop the women’s game will depend on Hayes’ stewardship of a side centred around a new generation of still-developing stars like Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman. “I know there is work to do to achieve our goals of winning consistently at the highest levels,” Hayes said upon the announcement of her appointment. “To get there it will require dedication, devotion and collaboration from the players, staff and everyone at the US Soccer Federation.”

Those within Chinese women’s football’s governing body are now plotting for greater success in the 2030s. Along with upgrades in infrastructure and the processes of talent identification, a plan announced last October outlined a target of attaining top-three finishes in the World Cup and the Olympics in the early part of the next decade.

“Women’s soccer is where they can build hopes and dreams,” Tom Byer, a consultant for youth soccer development who has worked with the Chinese government in developing grassroots training programs, told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s a way to take the pressure and focus off the failures of the past few years.”

A couple of positive results against the US this winter would at long last be a first step toward banishing the ghosts of Pasadena and prying open the doors.