Shoreline’s Lori Henry Helped Light The Spark For Women’s Soccer in the U.S.
By Brian Beaky
In many ways, they were the spark that lit the match. Shoreline’s Lori Henry and her Washington Youth Soccer teammate, Michelle Akers, were just 19 years old when head coach Mike Ryan — himself an Evergreen Stater and one of the founders of Washington Youth Soccer — invited them to join the newly-formed United States Women’s National Team for its first-ever series of games in Italy.
Lori Henry (left) celebrates winning the 1991 World Cup title with teammate Mia Hamm.
The year was 1985. Women’s soccer was an afterthought for much of the world — it would be another six years before the first FIFA Women’s World Cup, and more than a decade before Atlanta would play host to the first women’s soccer match at the Olympics. As they traveled to Italy for their first match, the U.S. Women’s National Team didn’t even have their own uniforms, wearing hand-me-downs from the men’s squad. What they did have, though, was more important — a single-minded focus to put women’s soccer on the map.
“It was just incredible,” recalled Henry on the 20th anniversary of that first game. “We were really the underdogs, but the realization that I was representing my country was an incredible honor. We were not just playing for ourselves, or our team; it was very clear that we were representing our country. We had seen other national teams in other sports, and in the Olympics, and I think we realized that’s where we were headed. We wanted to represent well.”
The U.S. lost the tourney — with Akers scoring the first-ever goal for the U.S. National Team — but accomplished their goal. The Women’s National Team was now officially established — and there was nowhere to go but up.
For the next four years, Henry teamed up with fellow Washington Youth Soccer alum Shannon Higgins and future U.S. stars like April Heinrichs, Kristine Lilly, Carla Overbeck at the University of North Carolina, leading the Tar Heels to four-straight NCAA championships. Henry was twice named a first-team All-American, and was one of 11 players picked to Soccer America’s All-Decade Team in 1990.
Her play at North Carolina, and her previous National Team experience, no doubt played a significant role in her selection to the USWNT for the inaugural FIFA Women’s World Cup in 1991, coached by Tar Heels legend Anson Dorrance. Once again, Henry and Akers were paired, the only two players to appear in both the inaugural USWNT game in 1985, and the inaugural World Cup, in 1991.
Along with Akers and Higgins, Henry led the U.S. to the gold medal in the tournament, in which she appeared in two games and started one. Five years later, without Henry, the U.S. would win the first-ever Olympic gold medal in women’s soccer. Three years after that, before a packed Rose Bowl and a TV audience of millions, the team would capture its second World Cup title, and — finally — the attention of the American sports world.
Brandi Chastain’s penalty-kick goal against China may be the moment that ignited the fiery passion for women’s soccer in America. But it was Henry, and Akers, and the other players on that first Women’s National Team in 1985, that lit the first sparks.
“It’s been absolutely amazing to watch,” Henry says of the growth in the women’s game over the last 20 years. “I was at the [1999 World Cup] Final and there was so much pride in where our team had come from. It was amazing to sit around my peers in the stands, who were all there at the beginning, and to look around the stadium at 90,000 fans. It was beyond emotional. It was the most pride you could have, and I was so glad the rest of the country could share in that.”
Henry acknowledges that the state of Washington’s early embrace of soccer, and the passion and dedication of local coaches like Mike Ryan and her Shorewood High School coach, Steve Kelly, played no small role in her development as a player — or in the National Team’s development as a global soccer powerhouse.
"The thing I am most grateful is growing up in an area where girls had an opportunity at a young age to play sports," she says. "I had so many great experiences and I would never trade those away. I relive those moments at certain times and I cherish that."