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. They won, too, beating China in a penalty kick shootout to give the United States a second World Cup trophy.
As magnificent as the team's success was, though, it has cast a long shadow on everyone who has come after. Every U.S. team is compared with the '99 squad, and nobody has 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 United States hasn't even made the final in the 21st century.
Until now, that is.
The United States plays Japan on Sunday 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, 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."
This U.S. team grabbed its country's attention with one thunderous header by former Gator Abby Wambach in the 122nd minute of the quarterfinal against Brazil and has continued to charm the folks back home.
All these Americans are missing is the World Cup title.
"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?" said Tony DiCicco, coach of the '99 team. "We have a chance here to be the first country to win three World Cups. We think the team is in good hands."