When the U.S women take the field against China, it will be the first time the Americans have faced the Chinese since July 10, 1999. The U.S. women were victorious that day. And there is still one player remaining who was on the top of the podium that day.
The date was Feb. 28, 1997.
It was the day 21-year-old Christie Pearce made her debut with the United States women’s national team.
The 5-foot-6, two-sport star from Monmouth University had caught the eye of then-U.S. head coach Tony DiCicco, who was impressed by the New Jersey forward’s remarkable athleticism.
It didn’t take long for the future Hall of Fame coach to realize Pearce’s potential, immediately converting Monmouth’s all-time leading goal scorer into a defender.
Forty-eight caps and two goals later, the Point Pleasant, N.J. native was named to the 1999 Women’s World Cup team as the seventh-youngest member on the 20-player roster.
Back then, Pearce was the self-described shy, quiet personality among a team of American icons in Carla Overbeck, Michelle Akers, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm.
During that summer, DiCicco’s squad captivated an entire nation and inspired a generation of future U.S. soccer stars in the process, winning the country’s second-ever World Cup title in front of 90,185 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.—the largest crowd to ever witness a women’s sport event.
Fast forward to today and that 1999 team is still considered the greatest U.S. women’s soccer team in history.
It also represents the last time the U.S. has ever claimed the proverbial holy grail of soccer.
Those stars of 1999 have moved on. In their place are the current generation of stars—the likes of Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan, thirsty to engrave their names into U.S. soccer folklore.
But one member of that 1999 roster still remains; she just doesn’t go by Pearce anymore.
You probably best know her now by her married name, Rampone. Christie Rampone. The captain of the United States women’s national team.
That’s right: Captain.
Long gone is the shy, quiet 23-year-old girl. In her place is a 40-year-old mother of two daughters Rylie (born Sept. 29, 2005) and Reece (born March 6, 2010), who has partaken in her fifth World Cup, a feat only four other women can claim.
Once a laid back spectator who observed and learned from the iconic leaders in front of her, Rampone has blossomed into the loud, exuberant captain that young players now idolize.
The only thing Rampone resembles from her younger days is the athleticism that made her stand out all those years ago. Current head coach Jill Ellis told USA Today that Rampone is still one of the fastest players on the team following their fitness test in January.
But despite being second on the all-time caps list (305) with the U.S. national team, the most capped active player in the world and winning three Olympic gold medals (twice as team captain), there is one thing Christie Pearce has that Christie Rampone still craves: a World Cup trophy.
It’s something Rampone came agonizingly close to lifting in 2011 when the U.S. team was twice minutes away from winning the World Cup final only to twice concede in the closing moments.
In a title run that nearly matched the national buzz of the great 1999 team, it was Japan, not the U.S., which proved to be the team of destiny.
Rampone, who captained the team and played every minute of that World Cup, had to settle for silver instead in what is one of the more crushing defeats in U.S. history.
Yet, while Rampone remains captain entering this summer’s tournament, her role may more resemble that of 1999, where she was a sparingly-used sub off the bench, rather than 2011.
One of the reasons is match-fitness.
After being praised by Ellis during that January camp for her athleticism, Rampone endured torn back muscles while working in the weight room which sidelined her for six-to-eight weeks. That included missing the Algarve Cup hosted in Portugal where the U.S. captured its 10th crown with a 2-0 win against France.
Rampone eventually returned to training in mid-March only to suffer a medial collateral ligament sprain blocking a shot from teammate Carly Lloyd with her left leg in training. The injury kept Rampone out another three weeks with before she made her 2015 playing debut with the U.S. as a halftime substitute against Mexico May 18.
Leading up to her leave with the national team, Rampone had played in three matches with club team Sky Blue FC. The first two games, she was subbed out in the second half to avoid risking injury.
In her final game against the Washington Spirit, she logged 90 minutes for the very first time in 2015, but the result was a 3-1 drubbing with Crystal Dunn, a recent cut from the U.S. roster, tormenting Sky Blue’s defense.
Still, Rampone was pleased with playing a full game without tape on her left knee, something she had done the previous two matches for extra protection from injury.
“It felt good to get 90 minutes to, you know, try and feel comfortable playing out there again,” Rampone said postgame. “Especially with no tape on the knee, so it was definitely good to get 90 minutes in. Wish it was a better result, but it was a good match against some good speed up top so it was nice to get challenged.”
The second reason for a potential limit in Rampone’s minutes is the emergence of Julie Johnston.
A midfielder converted to defense, Johnston made her name captaining the U-20 U.S. national team to win the FIFA under-20 World Cup in 2012. She also collected the Bronze Ball award as the third most outstanding player of the tournament.
Although representing the U.S. and the chance to win a World Cup was plenty of motivation to begin with, Johnston said it was a sincere letter from Rampone that pushed the team’s desire to succeed even further.
Three months after the tournament, Johnston finally met her role model for the first time in her home state of Arizona, where the U.S. was preparing to face the Republic of Ireland at the University of Phoenix Stadium as part of the 2012 Fan Tribute Tour.
During their conversation, Johnston told Rampone how she was in awe of watching the first team in person.
“You’ll be here,” Rampone said.
“One day, maybe,” the humble Johnston retorted.
“Don’t doubt yourself,” Rampone grinned as the two gazed towards the field. “You’ll be here, and I’ll be watching.”
Whether she knew it would happen this early is another story, but given Johnston’s form and seamless transition next to defender Becky Sauerbrunn at the heart of the U.S. defense, the 23-year-old seems poised to be among this summer’s breakout stars.
Rampone’s role extends farther than just on the field.
Her experience playing in four World Cups and being the only active U.S. player to win a World Cup provides the team with a vital asset and leader.
“Whether veterans are on the field or off the field, it’s making sure that we get the locker room going and make sure that everyone’s confident and dealing with the pressure,” Rampone said on her role this World Cup. “And embracing that pressure, because when we’re under pressure, we tend to do better and it’s a lot of fun. You just have to enjoy the ride.”
Even in a limited role, Rampone is still likely to start at least one game since this year’s matches will be played on turf, making the risk of injury more likely and the need for depth important.
It could also be ironic if Rampone were to finally score her first World Cup goal as a super-sub, after playing in nearly every single World Cup game the last three cycles.
The last time a woman participated in her fifth World Cup, it was Japan’s captain Homare Sawa who scored the vital equalizer to earn her country its first ever World Cup trophy.
If Rampone were to contribute in a similar fashion, it would be a fitting end to an illustrious international career.
If she chooses to retire that is.
“Everyone keeps saying I’m old,” Rampone said about her future. “Every time I get these MRIs back they say my knee looks like a 17-year-old’s. No arthritis, no damage, everything clean. So, you never know.”