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Two stars. When the U.S. players pull on their uniforms at the Women's World Cup in Germany, that's what will be above the shield on their jerseys, twin symbols of soccer glory: the U.S.'s titles in 1991 and '99. Nike put those stars front and center for the first time on the team's newly designed uniforms—a none-too-subtle change—and while the pride that accompanies them is palpable, so too is the awareness that 12 long years have passed since Brandi Chastain's penalty kick against China clinched the Americans' last World Cup crown in a sold-out Rose Bowl.
The stars are "a constant reminder of something I haven't done yet," says forward Abby Wambach, who's set to play in her third Cup. "If you haven't won a World Cup [for the U.S.], there's a question mark next to your name. It doesn't mean you're a bad soccer player, but it means you didn't get it done when you needed to."
The U.S. has lost in the semifinals of the past two tournaments (by a combined 7--0 score), and while the Yanks won Olympic gold medals in 2004 and '08, there's a reason that World Cups, not Olympic golds, are commemorated with jersey stars. They just mean more. "Every time I put on that jersey I feel honored," says U.S. forward Alex Morgan, "but being able to put it on after the World Cup and see that extra star and feel like I contributed to it, that would feel like such an accomplishment."
The Americans won't be favored this year (page 53). Germany, the two-time defending champion, is the odds-on choice, playing on home soil in front of sold-out crowds, starting on Sunday when more than 72,000 will pack Berlin's Olympic Stadium to see the opener against Canada. The three-week tournament could become Germany's version of the seminal '99 U.S. event, a watershed moment for women's team sports in Europe.
But here's the thing: After the most difficult World Cup qualifying campaign in history, the U.S. women are poised to pull off the upset.
TWO STARS. If the Americans are going to raise the World Cup trophy for the first time this century, the decisive moments may come down to their two most lethal forwards. The proven threat is Wambach, the 31-year-old aerial warrior whose strike rate (118 goals in 157 international games) surpasses that of Mia Hamm. "I've been here three and a half years, and this is the best Abby Wambach I've ever seen," says U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. The emerging threat is Morgan, a coltish 21-year-old who scored the most important U.S. goal of the past three years, a stoppage-time strike in the first of two World Cup qualifying playoff matches against Italy last November. "In the next World Cup [in 2015], Alex could be one of the three best players" in the tournament, Sundhage says, a statement that sums up both Morgan's potential and the debate du jour among U.S. fans: Should Morgan be starting in this World Cup instead of coming off the bench?
No such questions attend to Wambach, who's made a full recovery from the broken left leg she suffered in the last warmup game before the '08 Olympics. That summer she watched on television as her teammates won the gold medal in Beijing. "It humbled me immensely," said Wambach, glistening with sweat after a late-May weightlifting session in New Jersey. "When your leg breaks, you literally can't stand on your own two feet. You feel weaker, vulnerable. I think that makes you a more well-rounded human being and more capable on the field."
After dealing with pain in her right Achilles over the past year, the 5'11" Wambach says she's peaking now and finally feeling the way she did five years ago, when she played with headlong abandon. "I'm only thinking, Put ball in goal," she says. "For me it's simple. I'm a goal scorer. I score with my head a lot, and I'm great in the air. In doing that, I've allowed myself to play even more physical." These days, Wambach says, she'll even throw herself into diving headers that she probably would have avoided as a younger player.
Wambach likes to compare her working relationship with Morgan with the one Hamm had with her eight years ago. When Morgan joined the U.S. team in '09, Sundhage told Wambach not to say too much to her. "But then you have Alex, who after every play will say, 'What do you think?' " says Wambach. "She's like a sponge right now, and I can remember feeling that way with Mia, wanting to know what she knows." Hamm was often hard on the young Wambach, unafraid to yell at her promising sidekick, and Wambach says she tries to do the same with Morgan. But tough love doesn't come naturally to Wambach.
"Abby motivates me so much on the field, but I think she's sometimes too nice to me," says the 5'7" Morgan, whose teammates call her Baby Horse because of her gangly gait. "She wants to get me a goal and help me whenever possible."