Twenty years ago, American soccer player Brandi Chastain peeled off her national team jersey and celebrated scoring the winning penalty-kick goal in the World Cup final before millions of people in her black sports bra.
That iconic sports moment, an enduring symbol for both spontaneity and women’s empowerment, helped ignite a movement that continues to gain steam.
The sport could receive another shot of adrenaline, both locally and nationally, with the United States’ run to Sunday’s World Cup Final against the Netherlands in Lyon, France.
The U.S. team, bidding for its fourth World Cup title, features marketable and outspoken stars, like Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, who don’t shy away from hot-button issues, such as female players receiving equal pay to their male counterparts.
Today, in Frederick County alone, nearly 1,000 girls play for the local soccer club, FC Frederick, in addition to those who play for various other youth leagues and on their high school teams.
“It’s been an amazing journey for all of us,” said Bo Eskay, the executive director for FC Frederick. “It absolutely connects back to the exposure and growth [of the women’s game] and the idea that the U.S. and women are capable of high-level things. That belief just becomes part of the culture.”
On July 10, 1999, then 8-year-old Julia Roberts of Urbana walked into a Bethesda sports bar with her family for a watch party for the Women’s World Cup final between the United States and China.
Earlier in the tournament, Roberts had attended World Cup games with her father, Ralph, and some of her club soccer teammates in Landover at FedEx Field, which was then known as Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.
“Just being able to be in that environment,” Roberts said. “It was such a large crowd for a women’s soccer event. I think, for me at that age, [it] was really cool to see.”
At the watch party, Roberts was not only transfixed by the penalty kicks and Chastain’s victory celebration, but by all of the other players that made that U.S. team so great.
“I just remember thinking whenever I would go to practice, I would try and be like Michelle Akers. She was so fearless on the ball,” Roberts said of the former striker and central midfielder who helped lead the U.S. to World Cup titles in 1991 and ’99 and is now in the National Soccer Hall of Fame.
“Other players like Shannon MacMillan and [Joy] Fawcett, just the different things from their games. [Julie] Foudy’s leadership on the field, again, I was young, but I remember thinking that all of us would go to practice, and we would try and emulate whatever they had done on the field.”
Roberts went on to become a high-level central midfielder in her own right. She led Urbana to its first state title in girls soccer in 2007, scoring seven goals over the Hawks’ five-game playoff run, and skipped her senior year in 2008 so that she could play for the U.S. in the Under-17 Women’s World Cup in New Zealand.
On that World Cup team, Roberts played with current U.S. national team members Morgan Brian, Crystal Dunn and Samantha Mewis.
Later, after graduating from the University of Virginia, Roberts played with Rapinoe, Ali Krieger, Hope Solo and Ashlynn Harris during brief professional stints with the Seattle Sounders and Washington Spirit. Roberts also spent two years working for the Sounders as an academy administrator and team-services manager.
“It’s been really cool to see all of their success and some of the younger players step up so well,” said Roberts, 28, who lives in Tysons Corner, Virginia, and does financial work for MicroStrategy, which develops software to help businesses analyze data. “I am just proud of them.”
Almost a decade after Roberts led the Urbana girls to their first state title, another talented All-State central midfielder came along to help lead the Hawks to their second.
Via a corner kick, Isabelle Eskay notched the assist on the lone goal in Urbana’s 1-0 victory over Northern of Calvert County in the 2016 Class 3A championship game.
Eskay, 17, who graduated from Urbana in June and is preparing to begin her Division I soccer career at George Washington University, has lived her entire life in the glow of the ‘99 World Cup victory.
“I think [the national team’s] success has actually helped people of my generation for the future in terms of things like equal pay,” Eskay said. “It brings a lot of attention from all around given how successful they are.”