Brandi Chastain and Kate Markgraf know each other well.
That’s to be expected of two of the most-capped players in United States Women’s National Team history, and of two women who played alongside one another in one of the most memorable games in American soccer history. Chastain and Markgraf played every minute of the 1999 World Cup Final at the Rose Bowl, and Chastain’s goal in the penalty shootout clinched the USWNT’s second World Cup win.
Twenty years later, Markgraf is leading the USWNT into its future. U.S. Soccer hired her as the team’s general manager last week, and Chastain thinks her former teammate is the right woman for the job.
“I'm very optimistic about her position and the changes and the influences that she'll have,” Chastain told NBC Sports Bay Area last week on behalf of Clover Sonoma’s “Strong Inside” campaign.
Markgraf, 42, will be tasked with leading the search for and hiring the next USWNT manager after Jill Ellis announced last month she would step down from the position. Ellis faced criticism for her tactical decisions, but became just the second coach to win consecutive World Cups when the USWNT lifted the trophy a month ago in France.
Chastain said that the talent pool has never been deeper, and pointed to breakout USWNT star Rose Lavelle as “a player that we can build a team around.” But what kind of team Lavelle leads is anyone’s guess, as many aspects of the next Olympic and World Cup cycle are true unknowns until a new manager is in place.
“[It’s] a big question with a lot of variables and without having leadership there, it will be hard to say what the next young players are because we don't know what style we're playing,” Chastain said. “We don't know what our philosophy is going to be. We don't know what our focus will be.”
The USWNT will in due time, but it was clear that Chastain and Markgraf were on the same page about some of U.S. Soccer’s broader goals. Although she had not yet spoken to her former teammate at the time of our interview, Chastain echoed Markgraf in identifying U.S. Soccer’s need to prioritize and streamline development.
Last week, Markgraf told reporters it would be her “whole focus” to do so. That covers a range of initiatives, including continuing to support NWSL -- which is managed by U.S. Soccer -- and also overseeing the youth national team setup.
Along those lines, Chastain thinks Markgraf is well-equipped to improve the sport’s accessibility in underserved and underprivileged communities. Five of the 23 USWNT players to make the trip to France were women of color, and the costs of entering soccer’s pipeline to colleges -- and, eventually, the pro ranks -- often are prohibitive for families outside of wealthy suburbs.
“I think she's been watching other countries around the world and their coming-of-age in women's soccer, and how much they have been influenced by opportunity,” Chastain said. “... I feel that she's seen the growth of women's soccer on a global scale that could potentially influence how we look for players here in this country, and who do we value and how do we value [them].”
[RELATED: How Chastain still inspires 20 years after iconic goal]
Markgraf, who has not served as a general manager before, will have to make these decisions in the shadow of the USWNT’s gender discrimination lawsuit. Mediation between the players and U.S. Soccer broke down late last week, just days after Markgraf’s hiring. The legal fight might not affect on-field performance -- the USWNT won the World Cup four months after suing U.S. Soccer, after all -- but the two sides appear headed to federal court.
Two decades ago, Markgraf’s relative inexperience didn’t show en route to a World Cup crown. And if you ask Chastain, her former teammate won’t show any in her new position, either.