Michelle Akers: The “warrior” who changed the face of U.S. soccer

Michelle Akers: Game Changer

A two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold medallist, Akers became the first global superstar of U.S. women’s soccer. From battling injustice, injuries, and even illness, she revolutionised the sport, going on to inspire every generation since.

Unless you were an avid fan of Crewe Alexandra or Seattle Sounders throughout the 1970s, the name Dave Gillett will likely be an unfamiliar one to you.

The Scottish defender spent a relatively unremarkable career plying his trade in England’s lower leagues before moving to the U.S. in ‘75. Unbeknown to Gillett, though, he was the inspiration behind a young Washington school girl, one who dreamed of playing professional women’s football at a time when it didn’t even exist.

“My favourite soccer player was a Scottish guy, Dave Gillett, on the Seattle Sounders,” Akers recalled when speaking to Sports History Weekly. “I loved his air game, toughness, and work ethic. I practiced for hours, trying to tackle, head the ball, and play like he did.”

Akers, born in Santa Clara, California, was first introduced to soccer aged eight. As there were no girls teams in the local area, she instead turned out for her older brother’s club.

The conditions were mediocre at best: uneven pitches, wildly ranging abilities, and roughhouse tactics. Being the only girl on the team, Akers was afforded no special treatment, nor did she ask for any.

The youngster gave as good as she got, challenging for 50/50s and throwing herself at every cross that went into the box. When a girls’ team finally materialised, Akers was asked to play in goal, largely on account of her fearless approach to the game.

She was tall for her age, with broad shoulders and a flowing, untamed mane of curly hair. Sporting a worn out jersey and duct-taped boots, Akers quickly learned that if she wanted a yard in this game, she’d have to scrap for every inch of it.

The Evolution of a Superstar

Michelle Akers U.S.A. training camp

The Akers family relocated to Seattle shortly after, where Michelle would regularly attend Sounders games. Given her physicality, it came as little surprise to learn that the star she idolised most was a no-nonsense defender.

Akers swiftly rose through the footballing ranks at her school, Shorecrest High, before moving to Orlando, Florida, to attend college and continue her education. She made a name for herself as a potent striker, staying behind after practise every night to train with the men’s university team.

“Throughout my entire college career I would go to the women’s practise and then stay after and train with the guys.” Akers recounted to Mundial Magazine in 2019. “At first I sucked, but before long I could beat them all. I had to teach myself the skills and the tactics.”

The extra hours of work undoubtedly paid off, and in 1988, Akers was named Central Florida’s Athlete of the Year, collecting the Hermann Trophy. By this point, she’d also made history at international level, scoring the U.S. Women’s National Team’s first ever goal in a 2-1 win over Norway.

The combination of Akers’ imperious five-foot-ten frame, unrivalled technique, and tenacious playing style saw her set the world alight. This was a player at the peak of her powers, proving a mere decade after the F.A. had revoked its ban on women’s football that there was nothing ‘fragile’ or ‘delicate’ about her. She was a born winner, playing at her unstoppable best.

“Akers was this iconic warrior,” then-USWNT head coach Anson Dorrance told ESPN. “You can look at all the different players that have been named the best player in the world, and you could still pick out flaws in their game. Michelle Akers, at her best, was a player without weakness.”

I would still say, to this day, she is the most complete player of all time.

Global Fame and the Fight for Equality

Michelle Akers tackle

At the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, Akers formed one third of the U.S.’s ‘Triple-Edged Sword’, spearing her country’s frontline with Carin Jennings and April Heinrichs flanking her on either side.

“We were different kinds of players,” Akers told Sports History Weekly. “Carin was an unorthodox and very successful one-v-one player, with an uncanny ability to score as well as pass and combine in small spaces. April was fast and direct in taking players on and a solid finisher. And I was very good in the air, a good target player and finisher.”

Between the three of us, it was an impossible mix to mark up or defend against.

The trio were devastating. Akers netted 10 times en route to winning the tournament, including five in the quarter finals against Taiwan, ultimately lifting the trophy on Chinese soil after a 2-1 victory over Norway in the final.

However, despite the success and subsequent fanfare, something still didn’t sit right with Akers and her teammates. They were world champions, a feat the men’s U.S. side could only dream of. It begged the question: why were the playing conditions still so poor?

Before the World Cup Final, the squad were made to train on concrete, with no pitches made available to them for practice. Damaging their studs while wearing the men’s second-hand jerseys, Akers was constantly reminded of her childhood all those years ago, playing in her brother’s old hand-me-downs.

It wasn’t until the 1996 Olympic Games that the team finally went on strike. Akers had already overcome several career-threatening injuries, endured countless knee operations, and even had to switch positions — dropping deeper and anchoring the midfield to great effect — but, finally, she snapped.

She’d given her all for her country, but the love received in return from the U.S. Soccer Federation felt far from reciprocal. “It wasn’t like we were even on strike for a million dollars,” Akers ranted to Mundial. “It was just like ‘Can we have money for childcare? Can you pay our rent?’, you know?”

We just wanted the basics so we could train. To do that, we had to take a huge risk at the time.

What ensued was an embittered and passionate battle, one which still rages on to this very day, with superstars like Megan Rapinoe picking up the torch Akers and co. lit. The squad managed to settle some of their disputes with the Federation, and duly agreed to compete at the Atlanta Games. They delivered the gold medal.

Unrelenting Resilience and Eternal Legacy

Michelle Akers at the WCLA

Without a recognised professional league in the U.S., Akers travelled to Sweden in search of an environment capable of facilitating her otherworldly potential. That led her to Tyresö FF, where the now-midfielder spent four years helping the second division outfit try and secure promotion.

To compound the growing list of injuries Akers had suffered, she was later diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a debilitating illness that limited her playing time as well as her everyday life.

“It sucks, especially for me because I like to be in the game for the long haul, for 90 minutes,” she explained to FIFA. “To relinquish my role at times because I’m sick is very frustrating.”

Some days all I can do is just get through the day, let alone be an elite athlete.

While such a disease would force most athletes into early retirement, Akers’ warrior-like spirit carried her through another five years at the pinnacle of women’s soccer.

In 1999, as one of her final acts of greatness, the reborn midfielder captained her country to a second World Cup, in turn cementing her place in the pantheon of football’s divine.

After sustaining yet another serious injury in 2000, Akers finally hung up her boots. She now lives on eight acres of land in Powder Springs, Georgia, and owns a private horse sanctuary, tackling animal abuse with the same insatiable enthusiasm she used to tackle her opponents with.

As is the case with many of the world’s pioneers, Akers’ achievements have only truly been recognised since her retirement. In 2002, she was named FIFA’s Women’s co-Footballer of the Century and, two years later, was one of only two females included on Pelé’s list of the 125 greatest living soccer players.

A master of two positions, a bastion for equality, and an impassioned trailblazer, Michelle Akers revolutionised football at a time when female athletes were considered second class. With the fight for equal pay continuing into the modern day, Akers remains a giant, whose shoulders now act as the platform upon which Rapinoe and so many others stand.

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