They were pioneers, and they were rock stars. A dozen years later, they remain the most famous women's team in U.S. sports, not likely to be surpassed any time soon.
Some of them became identifiable by one name, hardly unusual in soccer, but very rare for Americans, particularly American women. Mia. Brandi.
A few days before the 1999 Women's World Cup final, their bus was surrounded by squealing young girls in U.S. soccer jerseys bearing the names Hamm and Foudy, Akers and Lilly. Some of the kids wore face paint, all of them shouted the names of their favorite players as the women departed the bus and strode onto a practice field surrounded by a few thousand people: parents and their daughters — and, yes, their sons, too.
When they so memorably won the championship at a sold-out Rose Bowl in a shootout victory over China — who doesn't remember Brandi Chastain's winning penalty kick, or her post-goal celebration? —they drew acclaim comparable to that of the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad.
Every member of this year's U.S. team, which begins play in the World Cup in Germany on June 28, has fond, even inspirational memories of the '99 champions.
They also want to create their own legacy.
"I can speak for everybody except Christie (Rampone)," star forward Abby Wambach says, referring to the team captain who will be playing in her fourth World Cup. "None of us have a world championship under our belt, and that's something that I take personally. In order to put yourself in the history books on this team, you've got to do that.
"The women who paved the way for us to get us to this position now — making money, having a professional league to play in — we owe it to not just ourselves and our family that we have created, we owe it to the people who have done the work, who now might be coaching college soccer, who are watching on television hoping that we do well.
"There's no failure that's allowed here."
Failure may be too harsh a word for a second- or third-place finish. The World Cup is soccer's ultimate prize and fiercest test, and the Americans couldn't get past the semifinals at either of the last two tournaments — both won by Germany. But the United States did win the gold medal at both the Athens and Beijing Olympics, scoring dramatic, extra-time victories over Brazil each time.
That, says Julie Foudy, one of the leaders of the 1991 and '99 world championship teams and the '96 Olympics winners, should serve as the current squad's calling card.
"I think they already have their legacy from '08, and now is a chance to build on it," says Foudy, part of ESPN's announcing team for this tournament. "You can't replicate the confluence of events that happened for our team, or for this team. But 2011 is their event, too.
"I think this team can stand on its own in 2011. I think they already do stand on their own because of '08."
The U.S. women generally have remained healthy and on-course approaching major events. Not so in '08, a transitional period when Pia Sundhage was in her first year as head coach.
Just before the trip to Beijing, Wambach broke her left leg in a brutal collision. The team had been torn apart the previous year by drama surrounding the benching of Hope Solo for a semifinal loss to Brazil at the World Cup, also in China. And Solo was back for the Olympics.
Then the Americans were beaten 2-0 by Norway in their Olympic opener.
"You know how easy it could have been to just shut it down with all that working against them?" Foudy says. "They lose to Norway and they could have packed it in. But they are fighters, just like all our teams have been. They said to each other they could do it and they came together as a team and won it."
Foudy believes that fight has been ingrained in all U.S. women's teams. She calls it the "blue-collar attitude and work ethic," and she saw it again when the Americans failed to win the CONCACAF qualifying tournament and needed a home-and-home playoff against Italy to get into the World Cup. They won both matches.
The current players agree that such a scrappy approach is natural, and that they sensed it even when they were little and were watching the '99 tournament on television.
"I had no idea how much it would change the sport, how that team was able to use it as a platform to help our sport," says Solo, who was sensational in the '08 Olympics and now is coming back from shoulder surgery. "What they did is incredibly special and we all owe something to them.
"What this team wants to do is incredibly different from the '99 team. We want to have our own World Cup with different battles and different struggles, and come out on top. I know this team wants it to be about us."
How to make it so?
For one, build on what Sundhage has brought to American soccer: greater concentration on fundamentals, getting more versatility out of all the players and more variety on set pieces.
Also, don't try to compare anything these women do with 1999. The core of that team had been together for nearly a decade, with many of the players schooled in the same playing style at lower levels before reaching the top of U.S. soccer.
"The '99 team grew up with the game, and together," Rampone says. "They saw everything the same way, had the same or similar coaches. They could have closed their eyes and played together, and you felt that on the field.
"This next generation, they have learned to play so many different systems from so many different coaches, and we're trying to bring it all together. It's a slower process for us than it was for other (U.S. national) teams.
"I think we are picking up all of this and building on things, but we have had our hiccups through it all. We're really experimenting a lot, or have been experimenting, and now we're bringing it all together."
It couldn't happen at a better time.