U.S. women's soccer team searching for their own legacy
In 1999, U.S. women had iconic moment, winning World Cup at Rose Bowl
Dynamic of the team has changed dramatically and group needs a leader
Though U.S. in No. 1, two-time defending champ and host Germany is favorite
It has been 12 years since the U.S. women's soccer team had its iconic moment:
Penalty kick converted. Sports bra revealed. World championship claimed.
That was a different era, a moment in time perched on the edge of the last millennium. Anything seemed possible for the American team. The future was unlimited.
This month, the top-ranked U.S. team will try to win its first World Cup since that moment at the Rose Bowl in 1999.
Twelve years later, the U.S. team is still operating in the shadows of its past legacy and trying to find a way to forge its own identity.
"I've said the U.S. will win, but it won't be easy," said Brandi Chastain, who took that historic penalty kick to win the World Cup and will be working as a broadcaster in Germany.
The Americans like to point out that the rest of the world has been catching up. But, at times, it seems their own team has been running in place, challenged to move past the golden age that was dominated by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Chastain and others. Since the core group retired, the team has dealt with a leadership void. The squad is on its third head coach since 1999. And the team appears vulnerable in a way it never did in the late 1990s.
The biggest hurdles in front of the top-ranked U.S. team as it enters the World Cup are Germany, Brazil. And itself.
Can Germany three-peat?
The host country has all the momentum. The Germans have won two consecutive World Cups and have been playing good soccer in the lead up to the World Cup. In 2007, in China, the Germans didn't concede a single goal.
Captain Birgit Prinz, the alltime World Cup scoring leader, headlines a loaded roster. Prinz is expected to lead her team despite suffering an ankle injury earlier this month.
The host country is enthusiastic about the event and ticket sales are reportedly going well.
"The psychology of being at home is interesting," Chastain said. "Will that be too much pressure?"
It wasn't for the U.S. team in 1999. The Germans aren't showing any signs of trepidation.
Can Marta become a champion?
The greatest player in the world, a five-time winner of the Player of the Year award, Marta has said, "Now the time has come to win a title."
Brazil has been the runner-up in the past three major championships: the 2004 Olympics, the 2007 World Cup and the 2008 Olympics. Marta and her offensive partner Cristiane are the most lethal duo in the world, but haven't broken through for a title.
Marta, often compared to Lionel Messi, is a game-changer.
"She's the player that makes people gasp when she gets the ball," Chastain said.
Just 25, Marta is still in her prime. But other players are aiming for her. Seventeen-year old Yoreli Rincon of Colombia -- a team in its first World Cup -- is the self-proclaimed "next Marta."
Can the U.S. team work together?
The Americans have the world's top ranking but haven't inspired confidence in the run-up to the World Cup. The U.S. was the last team to qualify for Germany. The team that once was so dominating has lost three times in the past eight months: to Mexico, Sweden and England.
And the memories of their last World Cup appearance are bitter. The 2007 World Cup ended in disastrous fashion when then-coach Greg Ryan benched starting goalkeeper Hope Solo for the semifinal against Brazil. He replaced her with former star Brianna Scurry, who hadn't been playing much. Brazil destroyed the U.S. 4-0 and when Solo blasted Ryan for his decision, he kicked her off the team and her teammates shunned her. The incident revealed not only fissures within the team but its ongoing struggles to deal with their past legacy.
The Americans overcame that episode to win the 2008 gold medal in Beijing, under new coach Pia Sundhage, defeating Brazil in the final. But questions about leadership and team unity linger and could surface again with a setback in Germany.
"It's the teamwork," said Chastain. "Can you stick together when everything starts hitting the fan? Can you trust one another and put aside differences? That's what great teams do."
Scoring has been an issue for the team that once relied on the elegant efficiency of Hamm.
"Where are the goals going to come from?" Chastain asked.
Abby Wambach, 31, will play in her third World Cup, after missing the 2008 Olympics with a broken leg. Alex Morgan, the youngest member of the team at 21, has been a spark off the bench, scoring a goal in extra time against Italy to put the U.S. through to Germany.
Chastain thinks Solo is the most important player on the U.S. team because "she's the only player who can win the tournament for her team." Solo missed the qualifying round with a shoulder injury.
In the coming month, the U.S. team needs a new star to emerge, to step up as a leader. Because 12 years is a long time to carry around someone else's legacy.