Seattle native Sharon McMurtry, the first woman to be named U.S. Soccer Player of the Year and one of the finest midfielders of her era, has become something of a forgotten idol. But her generation’s influence can be felt three decades later as the players seek pay equity.
Sharon McMurtry stood over a penalty kick, 12 yards from history.
On an August day in 1985, the United States’ women’s national soccer team was competing in its first-ever international match, against Italy in the Adriatic coastal town of Jesolo. McMurtry, with a well-placed spot kick, would become the USWNT’s inaugural goal-scorer.
Penalties had given McMurtry the willies going back to her youth soccer days in Kenmore. If she converted, McMurtry’s name would’ve been etched into the record books. She missed, low and past the left post.
Sharon McMurtry file
National team career: 1985-86
Career caps: Six
College: Seattle U
Notable: Was part of the Washington Youth Soccer’s 50th anniversary team announced last month.
“I missed it by a foot,” McMurtry recalled with painful clarity 30-plus years later.
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Three days later against Denmark, fellow Seattle product Michelle Akers netted the inaugural goal, going on to become one of the most lauded USWNT players ever.
McMurtry, meanwhile — the first woman to be named U.S. Soccer Player of the Year and one of the finest midfielders of her era — has become something of a forgotten idol.
“I feel like everyone thinks women’s soccer started with the 1999 World Cup,” said her contemporary, Jan Smisek. “That initial trip was very undocumented. It’s basically oral history. The rest is a mystery.”
McMurtry’s journey through the soccer wilderness was emblematic of her generation — a group of pioneers whose influence can be felt three decades later in the current national team’s fight to put the program on level footing with the men.
In late March, a group of five USWNT stars, including Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe of the Seattle Reign, filed a complaint against U.S. Soccer demanding equal pay.
Even as the issue remained unresolved following the Olympics and the NWSL’s return to action, this generation of players is reaping the benefits gained by sacrifices of former greats like McMurtry.
• • •
In the archives of the out-of-print Bellevue Journal-American, you’ll stumble across a story from 1977 on McMurtry’s junior season with the Inglemoor boys’ soccer team.
Signs of her dry humor jumped off the page even then.
“I played volleyball in the fall and basketball in the winter,” McMurtry said in explaining her decision to join the soccer team, “and I hate going home, where there’s nothing better to do than eat. I like to be active. I don’t want to sit around and get fat.”
A few paragraphs later, her long-term goal: If the day comes that the Seattle Sounders accept women, she’ll be the first in line.
“I mean, there wasn’t anything else,” said McMurtry, now 55. “I wanted to be the best. And you couldn’t do that until you got up there with them.”
The passing of Title IX legislation in 1972 heralded unprecedented interest and participation in girls’ sports. Yet soccer scholarships were still so rare that McMurtry played basketball at Seattle University for one year instead, dropping out to pursue a short-lived semipro hoops career in Holland.
“There wasn’t a carrot being dangled out in front of us,” Smisek said. “At every level, we were the first ones through that door, never knowing if another door was going to open.”
The pinnacle of women’s soccer in America in the early 1980s was the national club championship. And under the leadership of Seattle coaching legend Mike Ryan, McMurtry’s team was the sport’s first powerhouse.
Under a series of names that rotated with whichever sponsor was willing to front travel expenses, the same core group of Seattleites won the first three National Women’s Open Cup titles between 1980-82.
“Sharon was the Grand Am of soccer,” said current Washington women’s soccer coach Lesle Gallimore, who compared McMurtry’s game with that of current USWNT star Tobin Heath. “It’s too bad kids today couldn’t see her play, because Sharon was as good as any player you’ll see.”
For UW assistant and Federal Way product Amy Griffin, who represented the U.S. at the 1991 World Cup, McMurtry’s significance for local girls’ soccer hopefuls was more straightforward: “What it’s supposed to look like.”
“Otherwise, you had to watch guys,” Griffin said. “There’s no excuse for me now. ‘Oh, I can’t do a rainbow,’ or, ‘I can’t beat somebody one-v-one.’ Shoot, I don’t have an excuse anymore, because it can be done.”
• • •
Though McMurtry was a central part of that inaugural USWNT squad under Ryan, by the late-’80s she’d been edged out.
Anson Dorrance, architect of the North Carolina’s collegiate dynasty, took over and he built his roster with one eye toward the World Cups of the following decade.
In 1987, Dorrance called in a group of teenagers who would make up not only a chunk of his 1991 World Cup squad but also the transcendent ’99 team: Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Julie Foudy, Joy Faucett and Carla Overbeck.
Some of the pioneering generation — Akers, Amy Allman, April Heinrichs — stayed to bridge the gap. McMurtry, who would have been 30 at the time of the ’91 World Cup, did not.
Foudy never played with McMurtry, but her reputation preceded her even after McMurtry stopped earning USWNT call-ups.
“I would characterize her, from what I’ve heard and what I remember, as that older generation that just got things done. Hard isn’t the right word. But there was no (expletive) to them,” Foudy said. “Just badass women. … That was the foundation of that team — salt-of-the-earth, working-class-type, blue-collar teammates who just got it done. I loved that.”
Foudy describes the history of the USWNT as a “continuum” connecting that older generation with the current group.
“The issues are different, as they should be, for different generations,” Foudy said. “The first group was fighting just for the right to play, right? Ours was fighting for a right to play and sustain ourselves while we played. This next group is pushing for even more.”
The roster of the 1999 World Cup champions was stocked with veterans who had directly played alongside those earliest pioneers. Even last year’s title winners included the likes of Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone and Shannon Boxx, another sturdy branch on the USWNT’s family tree.
The link is getting more tenuous by the year. But there is something, Foudy says, about the current group’s willingness to take a stand that carries echoes of that earliest group.
“That generation that fought when no one was watching and no one cared, there was a persistence and strength to them, a courageousness that I’m still in awe of,” Foudy said. “I remember thinking as a college kid, that one day I hope I grow up to be as strong as these women, as courageous as they are in what they’re fighting for.”
• • •
McMurtry didn’t watch a single minute of the 1991 World Cup, spending the latter part of the year as a semipro player and coach in Australia. She didn’t catch any of the famous ’99 triumph, either, nor any of the subsequent editions until the World Cup last year in Canada.
She describes her break from the game as more an unwillingness to pay for cable than any kind of lingering melancholy, though she does occasionally poke fun at the quality of play compared to back in the day.
McMurtry’s tone is still not that far removed from that ponytailed girl in the Bellevue Journal-American.
“Soccer isn’t everything to me,” McMurtry said. “I was never going to make a career out of it. If the professional option was there, I would have tried. But there are other things in life.”
She’s still got that sense of defiance about her.
McMurtry was diagnosed with breast cancer in February of last year, weathering five months of chemotherapy and seven weeks of radiation before being declared cancer-free.
“They caught me just in time,” McMurtry said. “And I didn’t puke once.”
She might not pay all that close attention to the USWNT’s on-field exploits, but she offered her vocal support to the push for equal pay.
“I’m glad that those girls are doing what they’re doing,” McMurtry said. “I’m sure they’ve got plenty of opposition.”
Asked about her legacy, she recalled a long-ago conversation with Bobby Howe, the former Sounders player-coach who’d she once dreamed of playing for: “You were born 10 years too early,” Howe told her.
Coming from anybody else, the anecdote would have sounded wistful. Coming from McMurtry, it sounded like pride.
She’s long since made peace with her role as a forerunner — the one who sets up the penalty kick, if not the one who buries it.
“I don’t regret it,” McMurtry said. “It was the most awesome thing to sing the national anthem. I was so proud to represent my country. That was probably the best moment.
“We did it. We got there. I’m glad I did that.”