Twelve years later, still the best

The moment the World Cup was won 12 years ago … it might never be duplicated in women's sports. Elsa/Getty Images

The U.S. team in the Women's World Cup that begins in Germany on Sunday faces uncertain prospects and a tough draw, which helps make it easy to root for the Americans but very hard not to compare them. That's their fate, and they know they're stuck with it. That's what happens when you play the same sport that produced the best U.S. women's team that ever was. Everywhere you go, you're followed by a couple of steamer trunks full of history.

Your name can be Abby Wambach, a very fine and decorated player in your own right with a résumé that includes the gold-medal-winning goal in the 2004 Olympics; and yet for the balance of this tournament and your career, you'll be playing in the long shadow of your predecessors -- players who by now have moved into the TV broadcast booth, who are running soccer camps, who are having children and giving motivational speeches to corporate types seeking to infuse a little magic into their own lives.

Or say you're Hope Solo, today the best female goalkeeper in the world. You can try leaning on that old sports cliché that you aren't Briana Scurry, and you want to carve your own path. And yet, the memory of Scurry yanking at her padded gloves in the 1999 World Cup final and staring at China's Liu Ying just a second before Liu belted a penalty kick … that memory will follow you everywhere. After all, what happened next can hardly be improved upon -- especially the part where a glowering Scurry can be seen talking to herself out loud, telling herself, "This is the one I'm going to get," before she lunged to her left and made a diving, World Cup-winning save before 90,185 screaming fans in Pasadena, the largest crowd ever to see a women's sports event. Back then, everything about that original U.S. team still felt new and full of possibility and in flux. They were chiseling out history, plowing new ground as they went.

"Initially, we were worried because we didn't want to play that World Cup before empty stands in big stadiums," Kristine Lilly, a forward on that team, said Wednesday. "But as we got closer, we had a pretty good idea it was going to work."

Work? They lit a fuse. Their march to the 1999 title, like their tear to the 1996 gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics before that, was followed as closely as Michael Phelps' attempt to tie Mark Spitz at the 2008 Summer Games or the 1980 U.S. hockey team's Miracle on Ice run. Their cultural significance was compared to Billie Jean King, with this asterisk: America had other great individual female athletes before, but there had never been a women's team like this. And there might never be again.

"Some of us played together 17 years. I don' t think that happens much in sports; that's a rare and special thing," Lilly said.

For a lot of folks who started following the team during its gold-medal run at the Atlanta Olympics, and stayed with it through the watershed World Cup tournament before sellout crowds in the U.S. and on through two more Olympic Games and the '03 World Cup, the arc of that original core group -- Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers, Lilly and Julie Foudy, Brandi Chastain and Scurry, Carla Overbeck and Joy Fawcett -- ranks among the best things in sports we've ever seen. And for anyone who missed it, well, it's hard not to feel a pang for you. Maybe you'd like to take a little YouTube primer before we go on? Check out The Save. The Penalty Kicks. And, of course, the World's Most Famous Sports Bra celebration. You really ought to.

I'll wait.

Without Lilly's signature moment in the 1999 final, the U.S. would've never reached the penalty kick phase. In the 100th minute, she somehow materialized on the goal line to cover for a beaten Scurry near the left post and sent Fan Yunji's rocket of a header away from the net as fast as it came in with a perfectly struck header of her own.

Everyone on the outside called it a miracle bang-bang play. But Lilly, to this day, repeats what she said right after the game: "I was just doing my job for the team," she said Wednesday. "As a team, we always played for each other. And that's where I was supposed to be."

But the highlights of plays like that don't convey the rest of what went on. Those U.S. teams also had style. They had personality. They were hyped and yet still somehow found a way to over-deliver again and again and again.

They started together when some of them were high school sophomores and had no female national soccer team predecessors. They were true originals. Yet they established themselves as the first and greatest female dynasty in American sports, feuding with the U.S. Soccer Federation at times for pay equity and better treatment along the way. They traveled from Boston to Beijing, played gigs from Oslo to Adelaide, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when funding was low and took their baths in a hotel pool when electricity and running water wasn't available at one of the far-flung tournament stops they made.

They were also the first major women's sports team in this country that grew older together. Which meant they got to hone their game to a wondrous, often telepathic, level of brilliance that also felt unprecedented. Along the way, they lapped up pressure and still had so much fun that you envied them. People started calling them America's sweethearts.

When you watch the 1999 TV commercial that spoofed their celebrated closeness ("Then I will have two fillings"), it's still funny 12 years later. David Letterman kept inviting them on his show, declaring them "Babe City" and anointing himself "team owner." In the delirious victory celebration immediately after their '99 World Cup win, they were rubbing champagne in Bill Clinton's hair and laughing it up with Jack Nicholson.

"We asked Jack if he loved women's soccer," forward Kate Sobrero told People magazine, "and he said, 'No, but I love women.'"

Time and Newsweek put the U.S. team on their covers. Some pundits declared them the pop culture story of the year.

They were a rare combination -- jock sex symbols with a social conscience, best friends who turned into lethal competitors once the games began. They probed a long and often difficult 90-minute match for the pivot point when they could feel their opponent's resolve breaking, and their mentality became, "Jump right on them, finish them off, try to bury them," as Lilly once said.

Being the first women's sports team we ever watched grow old together gave a unique sprawl to their careers. It allowed us a chance to get to know them more intimately. It's easy to remember something about every one of them now: Lilly's tirelessness; the reckless, bone-crunching abandon with which a 33-year-old Michelle Akers played before she literally drove herself to exhaustion and a postgame date with a couple of IVs after the '99 World Cup final; Hamm, the Sandra Bullock look-alike with lemur eyes, so shy, so talented and driven to sports by her childhood idol, her older brother Garrett; Foudy, a midfield anchor and team spokeswoman, smart enough to be accepted to med school and later serve a vital role as the only active athlete on a Secretary of Education commission that prevented the Bush Administration from watering down Title IX, and irreverent enough to once volunteer to reporters that she'd recently learned an Internet porn site had been named after her.

"Best compliment I've ever had," Foudy cracked.

Some of these U.S. players started with the national team in 1987 and the last of them left in 2010. Akers called it a career in 2000. Hamm and Foudy and Fawcett retired after the 2004 Olympic Games. Chastain (now 42) and Lilly (39) retired just last year. Lilly is now pregnant with her second child.

The U.S. women's sports movement seems to have fizzled since they moved along, which feels bittersweet. The '99 World Cup and '96 Atlanta Olympics (the so-called Gender Equity Games) were supposed to be a liftoff point to a ceiling-less future -- more women's pro leagues, more exposure, more of everything for women across the sports spectrum. But instead, that time now feels like it was the best it might ever get, at least for a while. The LPGA golf tour is shrinking. The WNBA is limping along in its 15th year with yet another new commissioner. The women's tennis tour seems to obsess annually over two questions: "How are the Williams sisters doing?" and, if Venus and Serena are on one of their frequent hiatuses, "How long before they're back?"

The first stab at a U.S. women's pro soccer league tore through $100 million in three years and folded. The latest try, Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), is fighting to hang on.

What great stirring there is in women's soccer now often seems located elsewhere. Colombia and Equatorial New Guinea are first-time participants in the women's World Cup this year. Imagine that. England and Brazil, longtime men's powers, used to ignore or underfund their women's teams. But now both nations are sending contending women's sides to this year's World Cup.

Maybe a big showing by the American team over the next four weeks will reignite a spark in the U.S. and mint some new heroes.

Germany and Brazil are picked by many experts to win, even though the U.S., which looked wobbly in losses to Mexico and England in recent months, is still ranked No. 1 in the world. Maybe Wambach and Solo and their teammates will conjure up their own set of incandescent moments, exuding the sort of self-confidence the '99 squad did even after finding itself locked in a scoreless tie with China in the final after 120 minutes.

Before sending out each kicker to face Chinese goalkeeper Gao Hong in the five-round penalty kick phase, the U.S. players were actually smiling and high-fiving in their huddle as if this were merely some post-practice drill. After Scurry's save on Liu, Lilly, a national team member since age 16, calmly poked a shot past Gao into the right corner for a one-goal edge. Then Hamm, a national team member since 1987 when she was 15, buried her shot to maintain it. And with the cheers gathering now to a crescendo, Chastain stepped up and struck the clincher into the top right corner of the net -- then ripped off her shirt and fell to her knees for one of the great sports celebration photos of all time.

Just a year later at the Sydney Olympics, the U.S. players seemed to have one more miracle in them in the gold-medal final. They were trailing 2-1 to a Norway side that was every bit as determined and resilient as they were, and the stadium clock froze at 90:00. The game had moved into extra time when Hamm -- operating in that netherworld of not knowing how many seconds, if any, were still to play -- coolly raced down the field and served a long pass to a streaking Tiffeny Milbrett that Milbrett -- the shortest player on the team, at 5-foot-2 -- drove into the net with a leaping header, on a full gallop, from 15 yards out.

Did that really just happen?

I remember covering that game with a longtime friend, Sally Jenkins, after we ran into Gay Talese on the way to the game. (Yes, Gay Talese was a U.S. women's soccer fan, too.) Afterward, Sally wrote something for The Washington Post that perfectly articulated the feeling a lot of observers had about that U.S. team: "When you watch games for a living, you see a lot of stuff, and after a while you understand that the games aren't really games but lab experiments in human behavior, and that athletes' behavior can be comedic, brave, fraudulent, seeking, uplifting and downright parasitical. Some of what you see you like, and some of it you don't like very much, and it's all very interesting, and eventually it makes you cynical because it ain't war and it ain't childbirth, either.

"But this team vaults lightly over cynicism and creeps into your heart. They just don't know how to put a foot wrong."

In the bedlam after Milbrett scored that goal, everything seemed possible again. The roar was so loud it was white noise. The crowd was shrieking, throbbing, bouncing in place, and I remember Sally turning to me and screaming into my ear, "Do you know what this means? Do you know what this means?"

In hindsight, I guess I could've said it was yet another aced character test, a lovefest, one more unforgettable cliff-hanger hurtling toward a thunderclap conclusion, an exploration of that team's heart and another insight into who those U.S. players were -- all of that rolled into one.

But I was laughing too hard in disbelief to answer. And anyway, it was too loud. So I just laughed some more and shook my head no.

And I've never forgotten what Sally shouted next:

"What this means is we didn't make them up."

Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.