2011 Women's World Cup: U.S. Victory Honors 1999 World Cup Champions

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2011 Women's World Cup: U.S. Victory Honors 1999 World Cup Champions
Martin Rose/Getty Images

The United States Women's National team's dramatic defeat of Brazil in the 2011 Women's World Cup Quarterfinal gave Americans a reason to celebrate. 

The game was also a nod to the 1999 U.S. Women's team who was celebrating the 12-year anniversary of the ground-breaking World Cup win.

Sunday's game was anything but an ordinary soccer game as messy goals, bad calls and comebacks filled the 122-minute game that ended with penalty kicks.

Despite the mishaps throughout the game, the U.S. players dug deep into their souls and found a way to pull out the win when a win seemed just beyond their fingertips.

Former U.S. Women's head coach Tony DiCicco noted in the postgame analysis, "This game was a celebration of human spirit. We saw the heart of a champion."

Although this game only guaranteed that the U.S. women have the chance to play for third place, the team acted and played like champions, from Abby Wambach's undying fight to the end of extra time to Hope Solo's extraordinary performance in net.

Two games remain before the U.S. can officially claim the title as champion, but that didn't stop the comparisons to the 1999 U.S. Women's team, which defeated China in the World Cup final. Both teams had to fight through dramatic moments to earn the W, dragging the competition to penalty kicks before the score was settled. Even within the penalty kicks, both U.S. keepers Solo and Brianna Scurry made their saves against the third kickers.

The comparisons between both teams can be drawn in dark ink, but each team is rooted in its own story, and ultimately that is what separates them.

Leading up to the 1999 World Cup, sports were dominated by men, not only because of the traditions of the market, but because female athletes weren't great enough to take over the headlines.

Soccer was a growing commodity in the U.S., and a great amount of young talent brewed in the women's team, only no one noticed, even when the Americans won the first ever "World Cup" (though not totally sanctioned by FIFA) in 1991.

They battled a stubborn market that saw the U.S Men's National team gain unfair advantages in sponsorships and overall treatment. Their cries that they were good enough to hold the spotlight fell on deaf ears. It was the men's team, after all, who would ignite soccer in America. As a result, the women received little compensation for their time and even less to travel to distant countries for tournaments.

However, slowly but surely, the women's team found their voice and began capturing the attention of the American people, especially the young female soccer players.

Finally on the map and as the host nation of the 1999 Women's World Cup, the U.S. team had the opportunity to make the statement they have been wanting to make for years: that women deserve a chance. They cruised into the finals where they would play in front of a sold-out Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

A women's team selling out the Rose Bowl?

Even more amazing than that concept was the level of skill displayed on the field that day, despite the final 0-0 tie at the end of extra time that required penalty kicks.

I remember watching the game in awe as a 10-year-old soccer player. I was so used to the men's teams, men's sports leagues, as the ones which dominated sports. Women didn't get this kind of attention. Yet the men in my family couldn't be pulled away from the TV that day and neither could the 40 million viewers who watched the game.

And, in fairytale fashion, the U.S. women successfully completed all five penalty kicks.

Scurry made an unbelievable save to give them the upper hand. The moment Brandi Chastain's shot swooshed around the side netting, I knew something big had just happened.

The U.S. women's team became superstars, and soccer was finally on the map in a country dominated by football, baseball and basketball.

It is still the greatest game I have ever watched. My life was never the same after that game.

I went from playing in a casual rec league to joining a travel team that fall where I could truly hone my skills and chase the dream that the 1999 team did for so many years.

Martin Rose/Getty Images

And even though professional soccer never became a route I would follow, because of the sacrifices of the 1999 team, I was given some of the most amazing years of my life where I learned lasting lessons about teamwork, courage, discipline and sportsmanship.

The U.S. women's persistence to be the best despite everyone telling them it wasn't possible opened the door not only for female soccer players in America, but for women's athletics overall.

It is because of that persistence that any of the girls on the current U.S. women's roster have the opportunity to do what they do today. They, too, were once those loud teenage  girls, cheering on Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett against China.

They are the proof that the 1999 U.S. women's team succeeded in what they set out to do and they now carry the responsibility to do the same for future generations.

Following the 1999 win, soccer boomed in the U.S. and the women finally received their own professional soccer league known as WUSA (which later folded because of poor ticket sales). The high of 1999, as magnificent as it was, was disappearing and soccer began to lose its magic, especially with the lack of success on the men's team.

Then, last summer, during the Men's 2010 World Cup, the U.S. men had a memorable moment of their own: Veteran Landon Donovan scored a late goal to put the team up by one in the final minutes of stoppage time against Algeria. The moment was easily one of the greatest sports moments of the summer, with images of the U.S. team piling on top of Donovan's body as they were given another chance at glory forever burned in our minds.

They may not have won the World Cup that year, but that moment provided the spark that soccer so desperately needed in the U.S.

How fitting that the U.S. women have a similar moment a year later? Social networks exploded when Wambach finished off the beautiful cross from Megan Rampinoe, when Solo saved her second penalty shot of the match and when Ali Krieger sealed the deal for the U.S.

Just like in 1999, ESPN was all over the U.S. team, and now they have to carry everything into the semifinal match against France Wednesday.

But even as I write this, comparing a quarterfinal victory to one of the greatest feats in women's sports, I doubt that anything, no matter what happens to the U.S. women in the rest of the tournament, will touch the meaning of that 1999 win.

There will never be a team with the charm of Hamm, the ferocity of Akers or leadership of Julie Foudy.

Despite the real possibility that Brazilian superstar Marta might become the greatest female soccer player of all time, those players and that team will stand alone.

They already fought the necessary fight. It's now time for the team's next generation to pick up the torch and finish what the 1999 team started.

 

Laura Falcon is a Featured Columnist for the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Follow her on Twitter or email her at lfalcon@mail.umw.edu with any comments or questions.

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