Origins in the 1980s
The passing of Title IX in 1972, which outlawed gender-based discrimination for federally-funded education programs, spurred the creation of college soccer teams across the United States at a time when women's soccer was rising in popularity internationally. The U.S. Soccer Federation tasked coach Mike Ryan to select a roster of college players to participate in the 1985 Mundialito tournament in Italy, its first foray into women's international soccer. The team played its first match on August 18, 1985, losing 1–0 to , and finished the tournament in fourth place after failing to win its remaining matches against and England.
University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance was hired as the team's first full-time manager in 1986 with the goal of fielding a competitive women's team at the next Mundialito and at future tournaments. In their first Mundialito under Dorrance, the United States defeated , , and before finishing as runners-up to Italy. Dorrance gave national team appearances to teenage players, including future stars Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Kristine Lilly, instead of the college players preferred by the federation. The United States played in the 1988 FIFA Women's Invitation Tournament in China, a FIFA-sanctioned competition to test the feasibility of a regular women's championship, and lost in the quarterfinals to eventual champions .
Following the 1988 tournament, FIFA announced plans for a new women's tournament, named the 1st FIFA World Championship for Women's Football for the M&M's Cup until it was retroactively given the "World Cup" name. The United States qualified for the tournament by winning the inaugural CONCACAF Women's Championship, hosted by Haiti in April 1991, outscoring their opponents 49–0 for the sole CONCACAF berth in the tournament. The team played several exhibition matches abroad against European opponents to prepare for the world championship, while its players quit their regular jobs to train full-time with meager compensation. Dorrance utilized a 4–3–3 formation that was spearheaded by the "Triple-Edged Sword" of forward Michelle Akers-Stahl and wingers Carin Jennings and April Heinrichs.
At the Women's World Cup, the United States won all three of its group stage matches and outscored its opponents 11–2. In the opening match against , the U.S. took a 3–0 lead early in the second half, but conceded two goals to end the match with a narrower 3–2 victory. The U.S. proceeded to win 5–0 in its second match against Brazil and 3–0 in its third match against Japan in the following days, clinching first place in the group and a quarterfinal berth. The United States proceeded with a 7–0 victory in the quarterfinals over , fueled by a five-goal performance by Akers-Stahl in the first fifty minutes of the match.
In the semifinals against , Carin Jennings scored a in the first half as the team clinched a place in the final with a 5–2 victory. The team's lopsided victories in the earlier rounds had brought attention from American media outlets, but the final match was not televised live in the U.S. The United States won the inaugural Women's World Cup title by defeating 2–1 in the final, played in front of 65,000 spectators at Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou, as Akers-Stahl scored twice to create and restore a lead for the Americans. Akers-Stahl finished as the top goalscorer at the tournament, with ten goals, and Carin Jennings was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament's best player.
Despite their Women's World Cup victory, the U.S. team remained in relative obscurity and received a small welcome from several U.S. Soccer Federation officials upon arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. The team were given fewer resources and little attention from the federation as they focused on improving the men's national team in preparation for the 1994 men's World Cup that would be hosted in the United States. The women's team was placed on hiatus after the tournament, only playing twice in 1992, but returned the following year to play in several tournaments hosted in Cyprus, Canada, and the United States, including a second CONCACAF Championship title. The program was still supported better than those of the former Soviet Union, where football was considered a "men's game".
The United States played in several friendly tournaments to prepare for the 1995 FIFA Women's World Cup and its qualification campaign. The first was the inaugural staging of the Algarve Cup in Portugal, which saw the team win its two group stage matches but lose 1–0 to Norway in the final. It followed by a victory in the
Chiquita Cup, an exhibition tournament hosted in August on the U.S. East Coast against Germany, China, and Norway. Dorrance resigned from his position as head coach in early August and was replaced by his assistant, Tony DiCicco, a former professional goalkeeper who played in the American Soccer League. DiCicco led the United States to a berth in the Women's World Cup by winning the 1994 CONCACAF Championship, where the team scored 36 goals and conceded only one.
In February 1995, the U.S. women's program opened a permanent training and treatment facility in Sanford, Florida, and began a series of warm-up friendlies that were paid for by American company Nike. The team topped their group in the Women's World Cup, despite a 3–3 tie with China in the opening match and losing goalkeeper Brianna Scurry to a red card in their second match. The United States proceeded to beat Japan 4–0 in the quarterfinals, but lost 1–0 to eventual champions Norway in the semifinals. The team finished in third place, winning 2–0 in its consolation match against China.
The team won the gold medal in the inaugural Olympics women's soccer tournament in the 1996 Summer Olympics, hosted in Atlanta before large crowds. Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, and the rest of the 1999 team started a revolution towards women's team sports in America. An influential victory came in the 1999 World Cup when they defeated 5–4 in a following a 0–0 draw after . With this win they emerged onto the world stage and brought significant media attention to women's soccer and athletics. On July 10, 1999, over 90,000 people (the largest ever for a women's sporting event and one of the largest attendances in the world for a tournament game final) filled the Rose Bowl to watch the United States play China in the Final. After a back and forth game, the score was tied 0–0 at full-time, and remained so after extra time, leading to a penalty kick shootout. With Briana Scurry's save of China's third kick, the score was 4–4 with only Brandi Chastain left to shoot. She scored and won the game for the United States. Chastain dropped to her knees and whipped off her shirt, celebrating in her sports bra, which later made the cover of Sports Illustrated and the front pages of newspapers around the country and world. This win influenced many girls to want to play on a soccer team.
In the 2003 FIFA Women's World Cup, the U.S. defeated Norway 1–0 in the quarterfinals, but lost 0–3 to Germany in the semifinals. The team then defeated Canada 3–1 to claim third place. Abby Wambach was the team's top scorer with three goals; Joy Fawcett and Shannon Boxx made the tournament's all-star team.
At the 2007 FIFA Women's World Cup, the U.S. defeated England 3–0 in the quarterfinals but then suffered its most lopsided loss in team history when it lost to Brazil 0–4 in the semifinals. The U.S. recovered to defeat Norway to take third place. Abby Wambach was the team's leading scorer with 6 goals, and Kristine Lilly was the only American named to the tournament's all-star team.
The team earned gold medals in both the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but interest in the Women's National Team had diminished since their performance in the '99 World Cup. However, the second women's professional league was created in March of 2009, Women's Professional Soccer.
In the quarterfinal of the 2011 Women's World Cup in Germany, the U.S. defeated Brazil 5–3 on penalty kicks. Abby Wambach's goal in the 122nd minute to tie the game 2–2 has been voted the greatest goal in U.S. soccer history and the greatest goal in Women's World Cup history. The U.S. then beat France 3–1 in the semifinal, but lost to Japan 3–1 on penalty kicks in the Final after drawing 1–1 in regulation and 2–2 in overtime. Hope Solo was named the tournament's best goalkeeper and Abby Wambach won the silver ball as the tournament's second best player.
In the 2012 Summer Olympics, the U.S. won the gold medal for the fourth time in five Olympics by defeating Japan 2–1 in front of 80,203 fans at Wembley Stadium, a record for a women's soccer game at the Olympics. The United States advanced to face Japan for the gold medal by winning the semifinal against Canada, a 4–3 victory at the end of extra time. The 2012 London Olympics marked the first time the USWNT won every game en route to the gold medal and set an Olympic women's team record of 16 goals scored.
The National Women's Soccer League started in 2013, and provided competitive games as well as opportunities to players on the fringes of the squad. The U.S. had a 43-game unbeaten streak that spanned two years – the streak began with a 4–0 win over Sweden in the 2012 Algarve Cup, and came to an end after a 1–0 loss against Sweden in the 2014 Algarve Cup.
The USA defeated Japan 5–2 in the final of the 2015 World Cup, becoming the first team in history to win three Women's World Cup titles. In the 16th minute, Carli Lloyd achieved the fastest hat-trick from kick-off in World Cup history, and Abby Wambach was greeted with a standing ovation for her last World Cup match. Following their 2015 World Cup win, the team was honored with a ticker tape parade in New York City, the first for a women's sports team, and honored by President Barack Obama at the White House. On December 16, 2015, however, a 0–1 loss to China in Wambach's last game meant the team's first home loss since 2004, ending their 104-game home unbeaten streak.
In the 2016 Summer Olympics, the U.S. drew against in the quarterfinal; in the following penalty kick phase, Sweden won the game 4–3. The loss marked the first time that the USWNT did not advance to the gold medal game of the Olympics, and the first time that the USWNT failed to advance to the semifinal round of a major tournament.
After the defeat in the 2016 Olympics, the USWNT underwent a year of experimentation which saw them losing 3 home games. If not for a comeback win against Brazil, the USWNT was on the brink of losing 4 home games in one year, a low never before seen by the USWNT. 2017 saw the USWNT play 12 games against teams ranked in the top-15 in the world.
Throughout 2018, the U.S. would pick up two major tournament wins, winning both the SheBelieves Cup and the Tournament of Nations. The team would enter qualifying for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup on a 21-game unbeaten streak and dominated the competition, winning all five of its games and the tournament whilst qualifying for the World Cup as well as scoring 18 goals and conceding none. On November 8, 2018, the U.S. earned their 500th victory in team history after a 1–0 victory over . The start of 2019 saw the U.S. lose an away game to , 3–1, marking the end of a 28-game unbeaten streak and their first loss since a 1–0 defeat to Australia in July 2017.
The USWNT started off their 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup campaign with a 13–0 victory against Thailand, setting a new Women's World Cup record. Alex Morgan equaled Michelle Akers' record of scoring five goals in a single World Cup match, while four of her teammates scored their first World Cup goals in their debut at the tournament. The U.S. would win its next match against 3–0 before concluding the group stage with a win of 2–0 over Sweden. The team emerged as the winners of Group F and would go on to face in the Round of 16, whom they would defeat 2–1 thanks to a pair of Megan Rapinoe . The team would achieve identical results in their next two games. With 2–1 victories over  and then England seeing them advance to a record third straight World Cup final, they played against the Netherlands for the title. They beat the Netherlands 2-0 in the final on July 7, 2019, becoming the first team in history to win four Women's World Cup titles.