• Kristen Saibini

The Big 21: Thank you, 99ers

Soccer fans always have mixed emotions when games go to penalty kicks. After playing for 120 minutes, that’s what it comes down to? Love them or hate them, there is one penalty kick that changed the game forever. One that led three girls from Nevada, Washington and Texas to careers working in college athletics media relations, writing about the U.S. Women’s National Team and coaching high school soccer. One that will be talked about for decades to come. That penalty kick was Brandi Chastain's blast 21 years ago today, going with her non-dominant left foot. Those three girls were sitting in the stands of the Rose Bowl on a sweltering July day, along with 90,182 other fans who may or may not have known the impact of what they just witnessed. On today’s anniversary of that game, those three girls share what the game meant to them and how even to this day, 21 years later, it has a lasting impact on their lives and careers. From Pasadena to Covering the Game Susie Rantz @susierants

Susie (back row, right side, black headband) and her club team pictured with 1999 USWNT defender and World Cup hero, Brandi Chastain. Back in 1999, I was a shy, unsure teenager in a small town who was trying to find her place in the world. Who wasn’t, right? While I was pretty darn awkward and lacked some major confidence, virtually all of those concerns disappeared whenever I stepped up to the plate in softball, walked onto the basketball court for tip-off, or chalked my boots in a soccer match.

Sports had been a unifier for my family as far back as I could remember. None of us were overly crazy about any particular team or sport, but evenings revolved around watching the Seattle Mariners or heading to my brother’s baseball tournament or my basketball game.

When I entered high school, I would have told you basketball was my favorite sport. But two things happened: a coach who believed in me and the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

A friend’s dad invited me to his soccer practice. He coached the only select club team in all of Eastern Washington and wanted me to try out. At the time, I had never been truly coached, but he knew I loved to run and was eager to learn. I immediately fell in love with the team-oriented aspects of the sport, and I was thrilled to see how much I could progress with a little practice.

Fast forward two years, and my family didn’t have a summer vacation planned in 1999, so we bought tickets to the World Cup final at the Rose Bowl on a whim. We honestly had no idea what we were in for. My parents were still learning the game as much as I was at that point.

We marched up to our seats in the rabid heat, just one row from the very last in the giant stadium. When Brandi Chastain ripped off her shirt after scoring the game-winning penalty kick, I’ll be honest, I don’t think I even realized then what that moment meant to me. But I’ll never forget the sound of 90,000 raspy voices and heat-stricken mania.

It didn’t really hit me until Chastain randomly showed up at one of my club games that winter. A player who'd just won a World Cup was standing right in front of me! Let’s be real, I knew I was never going to be as good as Chastain, but I saw myself in her at the same time. Here was a woman who was fierce and strong. Those two concepts could live in the same sentence.

I walked away from that encounter with a new passion for the beautiful game. I wanted abs like Brandi and the tenacity of Michelle Akers. Soccer brought this shy girl out of her shell, took me to college, and stays with me today as a fan, a writer who gets to cover the game, and someone who still plays the sport as much as I can.

I was blessed to be able to interview Chastain in 2015 to close this circle of inspiration, and it meant even more to have my mom and best friend join me for yet another World Cup final in France. Soccer has taught me that there is power in my voice -- something I never would have thought possible when I was a shy, teenage girl. I have the 99ers to thank for the start of that journey and now also have the badass women of 2019 to thank for showing me that soccer is so much more than a game. I can’t wait to see what the next generation does. From Pasadena to Athletic Media Relations Kristen Saibini-Floyd @kris_ten15

Kristen (right) and her sister, Ashley, pictured in the Rose Bowl during the 1999 World Cup Final and in 2019 at the USWNT Victory Tour game. I started playing soccer when I was 8 years old, and for as long as I can remember it was my everything. When I entered high school in 1998, I made the varsity team as a freshman and my passion really took off. I devoted every free minute to the game, even traveling an hour each way to practice just to play for a better team. When I was growing up in Reno, Nev., soccer was pretty much non-existent, so imagine my surprise when I played Division I at a school in California alongside my twin sister. To this day, I am a huge U.S. Women’s National Team and National Women’s Soccer League fan. From collecting any product with a player on it, to entering and winning the U.S. Soccer Fan of the year contest in 2019 and going to two FIFA Women’s World Cup Finals, this team has been part of my life for 21 years. So how did all of that lead me to work in athletic media relations at Ole Miss, halfway across the country in Oxford, Mississippi? A hot, sunny July day in Pasadena. That’s how.

Honestly, I don’t remember how I learned about the USWNT team in 1999 at the age of 14. All I remember is my dad got himself, my sister and me tickets to the 1999 Final, and I was so excited to go to my first game. I remember going to a celebration party the night before the game where I got an official “Watch Me Play” slogan bracelet that I put on and didn’t take off until I had to in 2002 during my freshman year of college soccer. Sitting in that blazing sun with 90,182 other fans through two games was nothing short of life changing. My twin sister and I, dressed in our Mia Hamm jerseys and faces painted, didn’t realize the magnitude of what we witnessed, but we started to get a small understanding the next morning at the airport back to Reno, when CNN televised post-game fan interviews that included my sister and me. And little did I know that five short years later that game would dictate my career.

I’d always loved writing and soccer, but that game showed me I wanted to be a part of something special, something in athletics and something working with badass women. But how? Since that 1999 final, I wanted to write about soccer, be in a press box and be part of a team. After that game, my ultimate goal was to do media relations for the USWNT. After two years playing at Fresno State, I transferred to the University of Nevada, Reno, to finish my degree, and reached out to the first-year soccer coach there to see if I could write for her. Next thing I know, I’m meeting with their sports information director (SID), given full responsibility for the soccer team and boom. That meeting kicked off nine years working as an SID with Division I soccer and basketball at UNR and Ole Miss. I handled media relations for an NCAA soccer tournament appearance as a senior in college and got to work with a Brazilian national team player. While dreams don’t always come true the exact way you imagine them, mine ended up being perfect. That 1999 final led to my dream career and to becoming the ultimate USWNT fan, having traveled to nearly 20 games and two World Cup Finals, including the 20-year reunion game last year in LA and being back at the Rose Bowl in 2019 for the victory cup game after the 2019 World Cup win. I ended up in an elevator at our hotel with my sister along with Julie Ertz, Crystal Dunn and their media person, and for those 10 seconds I had to hold it together, knowing I was with the best of the best. I met Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain at the Victory Tour game in Chicago and had them sign a photo of us at the final. They thanked us for our fandom, when we were thanking them for changing the game. This team grows and evolves with the world around it and even helped me come out to my twin sister in 2015 after reading Megan Rapinoe’s coming-out story in ESPN The Magazine. The team is bigger than life, and for me, it’s why I’m sitting here right now, freelancing for Backline Soccer. It all can be traced back to that hot, sunny July day in Pasadena. From Pasadena to Making Unforgettable Memories Nikki Flores The summer of 1999 was the summer before my senior year of high school in Texas, and I was spending a whole lot of time making sure I did a whole lot of nothing. But then I got a phone call, like on a real phone, because I didn't have a cell phone yet. It was my mom calling from work, but this time, she wasn't calling to nag me about loading the dishwasher. The words that came out of her mouth when I said hello are forever etched in my mind: “Do you want to go to the World Cup?” Do you really even have to ask a kid who’s been playing soccer since second grade, who, months before, started in the State Final, who was aiming for a college scholarship, if she wants to go to the World Cup?

This was out of nowhere, my mom talking about getting tickets to the semi and the final in California. The quarterfinal hadn’t even been played yet. I had to ask why, and my mom said something that ended up changing my outlook on life – although not until I became an adult. Her coworker had come into her office – her coworker knew how into soccer I was because my mom talked about me all the time – and asked my mom if she knew that the World Cup was happening on U.S. soil. And then my mom's coworker told her she should take me, because life is short, and experiences matter more than things, and because you don’t pass up once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.

We sat at home and watched the quarterfinal against Germany, the game where Chastain scored an own-goal in the 5th minute, and the USWNT went down again just before the half. I remember thinking, my mom just offered to take me to the World Cup semis and final, and we have TICKETS, and what if we lose? We could actually lose.

We didn’t lose.

My mom and I packed into her car and drove from Texas to California, arriving in Stanford the night before the match against Brazil. This was before the time of getting on the internet and booking a hotel. When we rolled into the city, the only hotel we could find looked kind of sketchy and my mom didn't want to stay there. Besides, she said, there would probably be all sorts of traffic before the game. We slept in the car in the parking lot at the stadium. Who does that? It's cold at night in California, by the way. Even in July. Even in a car.

But it's also a memory.

One week later, I sat in sweltering heat. I felt my stomach drop when Michelle Akers went down and didn't get back up. I screamed when Kristine Lilly headed the ball off the goal line, forever cementing my belief that post players matter on corners. I held my breath with 90,184 other people on every single PK. As a fellow goalkeeper, I leapt out of my seat when Briana Scurry made that save. I was crying before Brandi Chastain even got her shirt ripped off.

But that trip was about the memories I made with my mom in between games, and in the car, as much as it was about soccer; I just didn’t get it then. I didn’t get it until she lost her battle with breast cancer 13 years later, and I realized that World Cup road trip was the only mother-daughter trip we ever took. Cancer might have taken my mom, but no one can steal those memories. Read more here.