By nancy armour
FRANKFURT, GERMANY — Lauren Cheney was just 11 during the 1999 World Cup, watching from the stands and imagining what it would be like to be on that field with Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain.
Fast-forward a dozen years, and it's Cheney's turn in the spotlight.
And somewhere, there's another young girl watching.
"She's inspiring some 12- or 13-year-old girl just like she was inspired," Chastain said Thursday. "That's what I love about this team, they're continuing the legacy."
That 1999 World Cup was a watershed moment for the U.S. team. All of women's sports, really. The players were part of the first generation to reap the full benefits of Title IX, and they took it one step further by making it cool for girls to play sports. They were adored by little girls and boys alike, so famous the players could go by just one name. Mia. Brandi. Foudy.
They packed stadiums from coast to coast — and not small ones, either. Soldier Field. The Meadowlands. Foxborough. And the granddaddy of them all, 90,000-plus in the Rose Bowl for the final. They won, too, beating China in a penalty kick shootout to give the United States a second World Cup trophy.
"We showed where women's athletics, women's team sports, women's soccer and soccer in general in America could go, and it was a tremendous event," said Tony DiCicco, the coach of the '99 team. "We didn't realize totally what was happening outside the event. But it was life-changing. I think it was life-changing for a lot of people, including some of the athletes on the current team."
As magnificent as the team's success was, though, it's cast a long shadow on everyone who's come after. Every U.S. team is compared to the '99 squad, and nobody's come close to measuring up. Sure, the Americans have won the past two Olympic gold medals. But the World Cup is soccer's biggest prize, and the U.S. hasn't even made the final in the 21st century.
Until now, that is.
The U.S. plays Japan in Sunday's final with a chance to become the first country to win three World Cup titles.
"I'd be tired of [the comparisons], too, if I was them. That's all they've heard for 12 years," said Foudy, who is now ESPN's lead analyst for the tournament. "What you hear from all of them is, 'We just want to forge our own identity,' which you can understand. Here's a moment that the country can embrace this team and wrap their arms around this team and they have defined it. Nobody did it for them.
"They've given this country such a reason to love them," Foudy added. "You couldn't have scripted this better for them."
This U.S. team isn't a polished, precise group that dismantles opponents, the way the '99 team was. The Americans arrived in Germany with three losses in a five-month span, what qualifies as an alarming "bad streak" for a U.S. team, and then lost a World Cup group-stage game for the first time.
But they grabbed their country's attention with one thunderous header by Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute against Brazil, and have continued to charm the folks back home with grit, determination and colorful personalities. Their bandwagon is packed with Hollywood celebs and fellow athletes — not so packed there isn't room for more, though — and one fan is so besotted with Megan Rapinoe he wrote a song for her. (Go ahead, check it out on YouTube.)
All these Americans are missing is the World Cup title, and they could take care of that on Sunday.
"It's cool we've completely written our own story," Cheney said. "Maybe we're not the favorites. Maybe people doubted us. But we have pure hearts and determination, and we believe in each other so much."
And no one is prouder than the members of that '99 team.
"How could you not be proud of way they fought and found a way against Brazil?" DiCicco asked. "We have a chance here to be the first country to win three World Cups. We think the team is in good hands."
The core of the 1999 team was together for more than a decade, and those bonds have remained tight over the last 12 years. With Foudy, DiCicco, Chastain, Hamm and Briana Scurry all here working for ESPN, and Kristine Lilly turning up at games as a fan, the World Cup has turned into something of a reunion tour.
As they marvel at what the Americans are doing, they can't help but cherish their own accomplishments all over again.
"Sitting down together and reliving stories and laughing, this is what I feel is so special about the experience we had," Chastain said. "This is what these players will be able to do 10 years, 20 years down the line. It'll be a very special time in their lives. I love the fact that they're going to say, 'We did that.' That's very, very precious."
Though the '99 players will always have a presence with any U.S. team, captain Christie Rampone is the last one still on the field. She was still known as Christie Pearce back in 1999, just three years into her career with the national team. Now 36 and at the end of her career, she knows it won't be long before some youngster comes along eager to escape her shadow.
That's simply how life goes, on and off the field.
"It's been an honor to play for both teams. To start my career winning a World Cup and to end it winning one would be absolutely amazing," Rampone said. "It's been special to be part of both. I was inspired by the old girls, the veterans in '99, and now these young kids are inspiring me to get through this and win this one."
Women's World Cup
United States vs. Japan