Glory At The Rose Bowl
Akers sparked the Americans to a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics, and the United States team aimed for their second World Cup title in 1999. Much had changed in the American sports landscape since the previous Cup victory in China eight years earlier. Women's sports were now more in the spotlight, and the soccer talent pool was deeper. As more girls in elementary, middle and high school levels were opting for soccer as their outdoor sport of choice instead of field hockey and track, dividends were paid for the national soccer program. "Now there are players on the national team who, as they were growing up, dreamed of being like Mich," Whiteside wrote.
With visibility, however, came pressure to succeed, both on the field and off. "As they were constantly reminded, the pressure on the U.S. players was far more than just a desire to win the World Cup," the Washington Post's William Gildea wrote. "This event was seen by some as a bellwether of women's sports in America. Could women's teams fill stadiums, draw advertisers and attract television viewers in a non-Olympic event?"
The team proved that they could, largely due to its high-drama victory over China in the title game at the Rose Bowl on a Saturday afternoon in July, before a crowd of more than 90,000 that included President Clinton and scores of celebrities, as well as a national television audience. The 5-foot-10 Akers, known largely for her scoring prowess—her late penalty kick had sealed a 2-0 semifinal win over Brazil—was a defensive standout that day, neutralizing star Chinese forward Jin Yan. She had at least three collisions and banged into an advertising board outside the playing field. Neither teams scored in regulation time and Akers, one of the world's most durable athletes, could hardly play in the sweltering heat, estimated at 110 degrees Fahrenheit on the field that day. "Finally, as time expired in regulation, she could go no farther, collapsing in front of the goal she was defending," Steven Goff wrote in the Washington Post. "It took about five minutes for her to stand, braced by two trainers who kept her from falling over. As the team gathered before the start of overtime, Akers sat slumped on the bench, her head covered with a wet towel. As the match proceeded, few of the 90,185 in attendance noticed her being taken to the locker room for further examination."
Neither team scored during overtime play and penalty kicks would settle the championship. Rules prohibited Akers, a logical choice for a shootout, from re-entering the game. Chastain's goal following a pivotal save by the U.S. goalkeeper, Briana Scurry, gave the Americans the title as bedlam erupted in the Rose Bowl. "I'll never know how I made it to the podium for the trophy presentation, but I'm glad I did," Akers wrote in Sports Illustrated for Women. "Standing there with the team was such an intense moment, and so was the scene afterward when I wobbled off the stage and the crowd started chanting 'Akers! Akers! Akers!'" Coach Tony DiCicco had this to say about Akers, "Michelle Akers inspires me and I know she does the same for everybody on the U.S. team."
The entire tournament had worn on Akers. "The grueling schedule and physical battering of the tournament tested her growing faith," author Judith A. Nelson wrote. "Michelle required two liters of intravenous fluid following each game. Her right knee troubled her; and, in a freak accident, a fan grabbed her hand and yanked her shoulder out of the socket." Too drained to join her teammates in a whirlwind publicity tour, Akers relaxed on a Santa Monica beach with a friend, former teammate Amanda Cronwell the following day. The salt water soothed Akers, but the dining out provided no reprieve. Fans besieged her in a Mexican restaurant.