VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Mia Hamm drove to BC Place Stadium on Sunday morning and nearly everyone she saw was wearing a USA soccer jersey.
The scene was startlingly similar to the one she remembers from 16 years ago: the red, white and blue dominating the host city on the day of the World Cup final, the cascading patriotism on the streets near the stadium.
That was way back in 1999, in Pasadena, California, against China. This was on Sunday, in Vancouver, against Japan.
Sixteen years, but also just the blink of an eye.
Maybe the more things change, the more they stay the same? Just remove the smart phones from everyone's hands and Sunday's snapshot becomes identical to the one in '99: a sold-out stadium, people wrapping themselves in the American flag, female athletes making the most of their shining moment.
Some would suggest this is just the life cycle of women's team sports -- singular moments, existing in a vacuum, once a generation.
Then, poof, they're gone.
Actually, maybe not.
Those jerseys Hamm noticed on Sunday, there's an important distinction to note about them. And not just with the colors and design, but something much more important: the names on the back. As in, as Hamm rode into the stadium on Sunday, she noticed the jerseys of many players -- nearly the entire starting lineup, and most of the reserves. In 1999, people wore jerseys, too, but those were either generic, or they were mostly No. 9 Hamm jerseys.
"There's definitely a different connection with the players now," Hamm said. "With people being able to interact with and identify not just a few players, but every player. Maybe that's one of the differences. Also, it's not just young girls wearing the jersey. It's moms and dads and brothers, too -- it's everyone."
Translation: More people, of all genders and age, know more about this team than ever before. Some of that is because of social media, some of that is because the mainstream media has covered this team in a more comprehensive way, and some is because this team now has a legitimate history, a heritage, a way to compare the right now to the back then.
And that's why people will want to equate these two World Cup victories -- '99 and '15. It's human nature. They'll want to look for similarities, for common threads, so they can link past to present in a permanent way. After all, connecting one generation to the next -- that kind of continuity -- is reassuring. And there are plenty of ways to do that. In fact, look no farther than to the field, in the final moments of the game, where 40-year-old defender Christie Rampone provided a living, breathing link to the Rose Bowl: She was on the roster in '99.
But we shouldn't just be looking for similarities between these two moments; we should also be looking for differences. Because here's the thing. We shouldn't want this World Cup to be exactly like the last. That was a beautiful moment, when a women's team sport was on the biggest stage for the first time in history.
That team bottled magic.
Now here we are in 2015. On Sunday night, 53,000 people (capacity here for a soccer match) poured into BC Place to watch women such as Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd capture the World Cup title that had long eluded them. Nearly an hour after the final whistle, the stadium remained full, as if every last person worried that once they stepped outside the gates, the spell would be broken.
And it will, to some degree. In just a few short weeks, these female athletes will return to their clubs teams in the National Women's Soccer League, most of which average only a few thousand fans a game. (The exception is the Portland Thorns, which averaged 13,320 at home in 2013.) "We don't want that lull," U.S. midfielder Lauren Holiday said. "We want to keep going, keep going and getting better. And we have to capitalize on this. We need fans to get behind us when we get back, have a victory tour and invest in our club teams. Our stories are so powerful. We're a special team. It isn't just one superstar anymore. I could name five superstars. We need to continue to push the top. I think the game has grown since '99. I think it's gotten bigger."
It seems as if it has. And if we try to name some of the differences between then and now, perhaps we can also pinpoint exactly what the growth might mean.
Added Hamm: "With an event that comes around every four years, I don't know if the popularity is about wanting to be a part of an event, or if you just know that we're not going to see this team, or certain players, again. But to get those fans to understand and help us grow the game by continued investment, whether it be that local league -- I have no doubt they'll support the team in the games that will be played after the event -- but finding a way to tap into that excitement to keep them there for the leagues. That's the key."
Maybe we're looking at this wrong. Maybe sustaining the energy, or the momentum, from such a powerful event is impossible. We want it to be like a race: just run through the line and keep going. But international soccer and club soccer actually run on different tracks, and fans are going to have to be truly motivated to follow from one to the other.
We seem closer to making that jump, but the truth is we don't have a model yet for how this might happen in women's sports. All we have is a fan base in women's soccer that's growing, and knowledgeable and can't seem to get enough of this team and its players -- all of its players, every single last one of them.
No one wanted to leave BC Place Stadium; it was almost as if they believed they would never see these female athletes again. Of course, they could -- in cities all across the country.
Yes, the Women's World Cup is magic, pure and simple.
Now the trick is figuring out how to keep it from getting bottled just once every four years.