It happens once or twice a decade: An under-the-radar sports team explodes into the national consciousness in pursuit of a worldwide victory. That was the World Cup win of 1999, the year women's soccer gained American exuberance.
For a dozen years, the victors chased a repeat.
It might just happen Sunday.
The team, this time around, is a cast of characters with a flair for the dramatic and, last week, a miracle of their own — a down-to-the-last-minute, YouTube-repeat-worthy, championship-saving goal. Among them are these three stars:
Megan Rapinoe, 26, who amazed everyone when she laser-beamed that ball 30 yards with a left-foot cross.
Abby Wambach, 31, who pounded that cross with a header that kept the American team alive.
And the fiery, fearless Hope Solo, 29, who powered through pain from a major shoulder surgery to defend it all.
• • •
Rapinoe is a twin, and a competitive one. She and her sister grew up across the street from a soccer field, with a basketball hoop in the back yard. When they played one-on-one, they rarely finished a game. One would call a foul. The other would get mad. Someone would storm into the house.
Though injuries stalled her early career, Rapinoe made it onto this year's World Cup team. The midfielder with the tousled blonde hair is 5-foot-7 and neither the fastest nor strongest on the team. But she's crafty. She came in a July 2 game as a substitute and scored almost immediately.
Then, she raced to the corner of the field, grabbed a microphone and belted Bruce Springsteen: "Born in the U.S.A.!"
• • •
In her first youth soccer league, Wambach scored 27 goals in only three games. She got transferred from the girls' team to the boys' team.
She landed a scholarship to the University of Florida the year the Gators won a national championship. In college, she set records, collected honors. It was only the beginning.
Fast-forward to the 2004 Summer Olympics, in Athens. The U.S. team was tied with Brazil, 1-1 in extra time. Wambach hit a header into the net. America got the gold.
Before the 2008 Olympics, she broke her leg and couldn't play. That healed, but she later injured her Achilles tendon, and that still hasn't healed.
It hurts the most when she jumps for headers. That didn't stop her last week.
• • •
Solo started playing at 5. Her dad was her first coach. After her parents divorced, her father, a veteran, lived on the streets and in the woods.
Solo reconnected with him in college. He would call her from a pay phone, and she'd make macaroni and cheese, and they'd sit in a tent for hours and talk.
He never got to see her play on the U.S. women's team; he died as she geared up for the World Cup in 2007. She dedicated the tournament to him, taking his ashes with her to each game and scattering them in front of the goal.
But amid her grief, she faced one of the lowest moments of her career. She criticized a coach for benching her to let a veteran goalkeeper play. The team ostracized her. She even ate alone.
"I'd like to think that I would like to forgive her," Wambach said at the time.
• • •
Last Sunday, the Americans kept getting bad calls. In overtime, the Brazilians were winning by a goal. The game was down to minutes put on the clock in part because a Brazilian faked an injury. The U.S. team was desperate.
Any time Wambach caught a player's eye, she held up one finger. She kept saying, "All it takes is one chance."
Only seconds remained when Rapinoe got her left foot on the ball. "I don't think I've ever hit a cross like that with my left foot," she'd say. "The best header in the world went and got it. Then, I don't know. I think I blacked out."
Wambach's header tied the game. The rest came down to a penalty kick shoot-out. And Solo defended the goal. In celebration, she and Wambach leapt into an embrace.
The team did it again Wednesday, in a semifinal against France, securing a spot in Sunday's final in Frankfurt, Germany.
They will face a country with its own reason to win, one drawing inspiration from the ruins of disaster: Japan.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report, which used information from the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, USA Today, Soccer America and Times wires. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.