Tony DiCicco, who helped shepherd the U.S. women's national soccer team from the wilderness into the national icon status it enjoys today, died Monday evening, according to his son. He was 68, and died at home, surrounded by his family. The cause of his death has not been confirmed beyond his facing "health challenges."
To trace DiCicco's soccer career is to follow the growth of the game he devoted his life to, first as a player who earned a single cap with the men's national team in 1973, and especially later on as the head coach of the women's national team from 1994 to 1999.
"I got a lot of my motivation for women's athletics from my mother," DiCicco told the New York Times on the eve of the 1999 World Cup final. "She used to shoot baskets with me in the driveway. She was a great swimmer. I always knew girls could play, because I played with her."
DiCicco started coaching at the national level as the goalkeeper coach for the 1991 U.S. team that won the first-ever FIFA Women's World Cup. The tournament was held in China, and 65,000 attended the final, but the team had not yet entered the national zeitgeist back at home; only a handful of people, mostly reporters, were at JFK to greet the players and coaches as they arrived in the States following the win over Norway in the final.
That all changed after DiCicco succeeded Anson Dorrance as head coach of the national team. First, women's soccer was added to the Olympics in time for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where the U.S. won gold and filled arenas in the process, serving notice that a sustained, enormous audience was possible for the sport.
DiCicco's tenure wasn't perfect, but the contemplative coach showed an ability to acknowledge mistakes, such as when he publicly noted that he should have gone to a four-back lineup during the 1995 World Cup, in which the U.S. finished third.
His spot in soccer history was secured the following tournament, though, when he coached the '99ers, led by Michelle Akers and Mia Hamm, to a World Cup triumph that captured the imagination of the country. After that, his 2012 entrance into the National Soccer Hall of Fame was merely a formality.
"Great coach, amazing man! We were so fortunate to have him be our teacher/leader," Hamm tweeted on Tuesday.
But DiCicco didn't stop there—he resigned as head coach of the national team, only to take the reins as commissioner of the newly formed WUSA, an attempt to convert the popularity of the USWNT into a sustainable professional league.
"Women's soccer is enjoying a high level of popularity," DiCicco said in 2000. "There are a lot of very recognizable names right now. That's an opportunity and it won't be there forever."
Both WUSA and its successor, WPS, folded after three seasons apiece, but that didn't dissuade DiCicco from his belief that a league was not only possible but inevitable. He coached the Boston Breakers in the WPS before transitioning to his more recent role as a commentator for ESPN and Fox Sports broadcasts.
In this chapter of his career, DiCicco had been a voice for the third attempt at a league, the NWSL, as well as the 2015 World Cup, which broke numerous attendance and TV records as the U.S. women won their first trophy since DiCicco's 1999 squad. The 2015 team came home to rallies, a victory tour, and a ticker-tape parade in New York's Canyon of Heroes. It was just one more sign of how far the game has come, and DiCicco was an integral part of the journey—a journey that isn't over yet, but still one that's a universe away from stepping off that plane at JFK.