TUKWILA, Washington – For the past dozen years, Brandi Chastain's image - the jersey-swinging, sports-bra-exposing celebration that followed her World Cup-winning penalty kick - has defined women's soccer. The moment brought a media swarm that showed the potential women's soccer could have in the United States.
Chastain, Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and the rest of the US's Golden Generation enjoyed unprecedented attention following that 1999 Women's World Cup final. They graced the cover of nearly every major magazine, they had their own Wheaties box and thrilled nearly 18 million viewers on American television.
It was a moment in soccer that will never be forgotten. The way it captured a nation - young and old, male and female, player and spectator - was astonishing.
For 12 years that moment has resonated as seemingly the only reference point for US women's soccer. Every comparison, every piece of analysis, every reference to that history plots the current US team against its world title-winning predecessors.
And with a World Cup now within the reach of this year's team, the comparisons have become an all-out onslaught. With every mention that the world's No. 1 team has not brought home this title since that day at the Rose Bowl, the US is reminded how incredibly high the bar was set by the '99ers.
Every ensuing US team has been held to that standard, but the broken record of questions has surely gotten old for today's players. The same question can only be asked so many times before it becomes overkill, exhausting, annoying - you name it.
This US team has done a remarkable job of dealing with the comparisons, which have peaked in the past month. There is a great deal of respect for the generation that paved the way for the 21 players currently in Germany. As star forward Abby Wambach said on Thursday, if she ever got sick of the 1999 comparisons, "I would be indirectly slapping the women who came before me in the face, and I would never do that."
But that doesn't mean that comparing the `99 squad to this 2011 team is fair. These are two different teams that have taken unique paths through their respective World Cups.
That 1999 team had massive expectations on it to win on home soil. It cruised through the group stage without any hiccups or challenges in a women's soccer landscape that featured very few contenders. There was China, Norway, Brazil and the United States.
This 2011 team, competing amongst a slew of greatly improved teams like France, is one that paradoxically is ranked No. 1 while not expected to win the World Cup. Now only Japan stands in the way of doing just that.
Oddly, that `99 team is most similar to the 2011 Germany squad that flamed out of the tournament in the quarterfinals, losing 1-0 to Japan in extra time. Germany also faced the pressure of winning on home soil as the favorite.
Meanwhile, the Americans continue to preach that after a rocky qualifying campaign and suffering a first-ever group stage loss to Sweden, they have indeed taken 'a different road.'
"It is hard to be compared to the `99 team when we are so incredibly different and the game has come so far," US. goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "But with that said, we know what they have done for the game and we know they paid the cost. It's just something that we've really accepted."
Read between the lines and it's clear that the US players could do without the flurry of questions about a team that won a World Cup when about one-third of these players still weren't old enough to drive.
But they do accept the comparisons. Until they win a title and reach their destination on that still-to-be-determined road, the juxtaposition of the two teams is inevitable. And rightfully so, Wambach said.
"Here's the thing: Any comparison to good teams, in my opinion, is an honor," she said. "If you can't see the things that the `99 World Cup team did for us and if you can't appreciate them, then I think there is something wrong with you."
This US team would never speak badly of that 1999 group that ultimately provided the attention and development that the women's game needed, but the current crop of players is keen on forging its own identity, one that is respectfully independent of any other. Then, while the `99 comparisons will not disappear, there would be a new, unique reference point; a landmark in a growing history of adversity and success.
A loss to Japan on Sunday would lead to another four years of Americans reverting to the same regurgitated stories about living up to the `99 legacy. Whether they will come out and say it or not, those will be the last stories these US players want to hear.