For the third consecutive Summer Olympic games, the United States has sent a team composed primarily of women. And with 338 total women competing, it’s also the most women ever to represent the US on the world’s biggest stage.

The growth of women competing for the United States began a quarter-century ago, coincidentally with the debut of the US Women’s National Team at the Olympics. Those games helped spark massive growth in women’s sports in this country, which in turn, led to the historic numbers at Tokyo.

Twenty-five years ago, the USWNT made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Summer Olympics, held in Atlanta. It featured 16 women and went undefeated en route to the first-ever women’s soccer gold medal in the Summer Games. The 1996 championship match was, at the time, the highest attended women’s sporting event in history worldwide.

That Olympic gold medal was the first of four at the Olympics for the USWNT. Incredibly, 13 of the 16 athletes went on to compete for the USWNT at the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, winning the title in front of the largest crowd for a women’s sporting event ever in the most iconic soccer moment in US history. 

Those 1996 Olympics (and in turn, the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup) set an important precedent, that the United States would continually send an impressive number of women’s athletes to the games. Before the 1996 games, the most the US had ever sent was in 1992, when they sent 190 athletes to the Olympics. That number ballooned to 273 at the Atlanta games. Since then, the United States has surpassed that number three more times, including the record-breaking number of women athletes at the Tokyo Games. 

It shouldn’t be a surprise, either, that the United States is seeing an influx of women athletes competing at the highest levels on the world’s biggest stage. 

Currently in the United States, there are more than 4.5 million children, aged 6-18, playing youth soccer, and of that number, more than 2.16 million are female. The country is the leader in youth soccer participation. The United States alone has more girls registered players than all other countries combined. Before the first USWNT international competition in 1991, there were 319 women’s college soccer teams. By 2009, that number had exploded to more than 950 and currently, there are more than 1,150 collegiate women’s soccer programs. 

2009 was also the year the ECNL was founded as the top youth female soccer league in the country, with the aim to challenge the status quo; to start a league completely centered around and dedicated to female soccer players, when so much of youth soccer was focused on the boys’ side of the game. 

That year, the ECNL welcomed 40 member clubs and more than 2,000 players across three age groups, playing a nine-game regular season with an additional postseason. 

Over the course of the next 12 years, soccer continued to grow across the United States and as such,  the ECNL responded to that growth by expanding into a league that houses more than 170 clubs and more than 17,000 players. In order to support the development of elite athletes as the talent pool grew and to continue to grow the game of soccer, ECNL Girls founded the ECNL Girls Regional League in 2019, resulting in an additional 24,000 players joining the ECNL platform. 

Throughout the years, the ECNL has always had the same mission – to raise the game. The league respects and celebrates the unique individuality of every athlete, supporting and enabling them to unleash their unfettered passion and fierce tenacity in striving to achieve their potential. 

You can see that mission in action throughout the ranks of soccer in the United States. Within the ECNL, 90 percent of all alumni go on to play collegiate soccer. But it doesn’t just stop there. More than 175 ECNL alumni have played for the NWSL. And currently, two ECNL alums – Catarina Macario and Tierna Davidson – are competing for the US Women’s National Team at the Tokyo Olympics, who will be playing in the semifinals against Canada Monday morning as the team chases down its fifth gold medal at the Summer Games. 

The ECNL was born out of the belief in a better way and dedicated to the continued and ever-evolving pursuit of excellence. With eyes set on new horizons and to pursue them relentlessly.

It harkens back to 1996, when 16 women first took the field at the Olympics. They ushered in a new era of women’s soccer and women’s sports in the United States. It was a catalyst for what Americans are watching at the Olympics today. 

They achieved their dreams. They carved their path to the Olympics, winning multiple titles along the way. They inspired the next generation to follow in their footsteps and to dream even bigger and brighter than they could have imagined. 

The torch has been passed. More elite women athletes are competing in the Olympics than ever before. And looking ahead to Paris and beyond, fueled by their passion and confidence from their idols, the next generation will be there in larger numbers than ever, ready to push forward and be the inspiration for those yet to come.