Just months after the Columbine High School massacre took 15 lives and one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in history took 48 lives as an F5 tornado touched down in Oklahoma, the United States women’s national soccer team had a chance to pull the nation together.
With the World Cup title on the line against China, the USA fought down to the wire against their Asian counterpart, finishing in a scoreless 0-0 draw through regulation and two overtimes.
The Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., was packed with 90,815 fans waiting to see if the USA could pull through to win its second World Cup.
Tied 2-2 in a penalty shootout, China’s Liu Ying stepped to the penalty spot.
She stepped back and fired a shot to the right side of the goal, but USA keeper Brianna Scurry exploded off her line to her left, punching the shot away to put the USA in front with a chance to drive the dagger into China’s World Cup chances.
Two shots later, tied 4-4, Brandi Chastain stepped to the spot with the game on the line and millions of Americans holding their breath.
She paused at the top of the 18-yard box and eyed the goal.
Racing forward, she planted and fired a left-footed shot toward the net.
The shot screamed into the side-netting and Chastain flew to her knees, ripping her jersey off and clenching her fists in an iconic sports moment forever seared into the minds of millions of young viewers watching the World Cup champs.
The USA had won.
Once again, the USA lifted the twisting gold trophy coveted by billions of soccer aficionados across the globe.
The 1999 World Cup win set the stage for the USA to become a world power in women’s soccer, as the heroes of the 1999 triumph became forever intertwined with those three simple letters across the front of their jerseys.
The names Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain and Brianna Scurry became synonymous with the success of the American team.
Twelve years later, a new group of women is looking to rekindle the euphoric memories of 1999 and establish their own legacy as they line the 2011 World Cup title up in their sights.
Like the 1999 World Cup champs, this USA side has had a penchant for raising the collective heart rate of the nation.
And just like 1999, a new set of players are emerging as the face of American soccer, looking to forever cement their names in the hearts and minds of the millions following their historic run.
One of them is former Florida star Abby Wambach, who has already wrenched the Americans from the jaws of defeat in this World Cup not once, but twice.
Trailing Brazil 2-1 in the quarterfinals one week ago, the USA was down to its last gasp, with elimination a near certainty as the final seconds ticked away in a second overtime.
Playing one woman down, Megan Rapinoe took a ball up the left side and struck a cross to the right side of the box.
Beating her defender, Wambach launched forward and drilled a header just over the keeper and inside the right post, tying the game at 2-2 more than 122 minutes into the match.
Her goal forced a penalty shootout, and this time it was Hope Solo blocking the third shot of the shootout and Ali Krieger driving home the winner.
In the semifinal against France, Wambach once again found the back of the net to send the USA through to the final.
Playing on their heels after France equalized 1-1 early in the second half, the USA won a corner kick, and Wambach lined up near the top of the 18-yard box as the kick flew into the box.
Locking onto it, Wambach cut to the back post and buried the header for the go-ahead goal in the 79th minute, sealing an eventual 3-1 win for the USA and earning the Americans their first trip back to the World Cup final since 1999.
Now, Wambach, perhaps the most clinical finisher in the game, is looking to bury the final goal of her career in the back of the net.
She wants to win a World Cup.
In 2004, she scored a thrilling overtime winner on a header against Brazil in the gold medal match of the Olympics.
But Florida’s most prominent soccer star has yet to win a World Cup title, falling short in the semifinal round in 2003 and 2007.
“I would give up every goal I’ve scored to win this World Cup,” Wambach told the New York Times. “You have to be willing to give up everything.”
This time, though, the USA will face a team with the world on its side in the final.
After one of the deadliest tsunamis in history swept through Japan, killing more than 15,000 people, this Japanese side has banded together and become the face of the nation with their remarkable run.
They’ve far exceeded expectations, knocking off heavy favorite Germany, the two-time defending World Cup champion, in the quarterfinals.
Japan plays a creative brand of football in the attacking half, with precision passing and brilliant finishing.
It’s an attack that could give the USA defense a world of problems in today’s final, which is set to kick off at 2:45 p.m. ET.
Feel good story or not, Wambach and her teammates (including former Florida star Heather Mitts) want to make sure the USA comes away with the World Cup title.
For Wambach, who has scored in each of the past three games, Sunday’s final represents the chance to put the finishing touches on a career that may rank as the best in USA history when all is said and done.
With her country watching, Wambach will try to put the team on her back one more time in this World Cup.
“This is the pinnacle, this is the dream, this is the goal that we’ve all set,” she told the St. Petersburg Times. “Getting to the final is only halfway part of our dream coming true, and we want to make sure that we’re on that top podium.”