San Francisco – So that's it. The most entertaining Women's World Cup to date has come to a close after Japan dramatically defeated the United States on Sunday. They completed their dream story while the written-for-Hollywood run the United States was on came to a crashing halt.
By every sense of the phrase, the tournament was a resounding success. It brought upsets, breakout players and beautiful soccer. Yet as marvelous as the World Cup was, it is gone until 2015, when 24 teams will converge upon Canada for the next edition.
For now, the United States turns its attention to building on this interest. Questions will be asked regarding what this tournament's buzz can do for the future of soccer in this country, the women's game, and - more pointedly - Women's Professional Soccer.
Just as this year's team was relentlessly compared to the 1999 squad, the impact of 2011 will be compared to the boom we saw after the US's last world title. Most of the current US players were just teenagers then, when they watched a group of players become icons. Of the 21 US players that embarked on this journey to Germany, 10 are 26 years old or younger.
Twelve years after that group was inspired by the `99ers, they're the ones proving the inspiration. They're the group of icons that girls around the country can look up to.
Before the Women's World Cup began - at a time when the US media was predicting doomsday for the American women - US Soccer President Sunil Gulati was asked if he thought that the 2011 tournament could somehow reignite interest in the women's game.
"The magic moment of `99, the answer is no because we are not playing at home," he said. "You are not going to have that sort of iconic event."
At the time that seemed like a completely justifiable statement. How could a tournament on German soil - a tournament in which the US was expected to flop - reignite any interest in the women's game?
In hindsight, the statement seems ironically pessimistic, but there's no way any of us, Gulati included, could have predicted the US would have found so many stunningly dramatic ways to captivate an audience that, over the last 12 years, did not exist.
Back in 1999, Brandi Chastain's penalty kick set in motion an incredible four years for women's soccer. In addition to a huge upturn in coverage of the US team (and its stars), the tournament served as a springboard for the WUSA, WPS's predecessor which, for three years, brought the world's best talent to the United States.
Although this year's tournament didn't produce a Chastain-like moment, it was still an iconic event, one which has the potential to have a greater effect than 1999. Across the globe, people have taken notice of just how good women's soccer can be. That may not be the same as a jersey twirling celebration, but it's still enough to inspire another generation of young girls. With 1999 having already provided a foundation, and with WPS having two seasons under its belt, the possible beneficiaries of this surge are already in place.
No, the United States did not win the 2011 Women's World Cup, so in that one sense, the iconic nature of 1999 was not fully replicated. "This summer it's about winning," Gulati said from Red Bull Arena during the US send-off game against Mexico. Let's hope it's not only about winning.
The amount of exposure that's be given to this team's undying, courageous, down to the wire efforts gives the next generation of girls a list of memories to make their own - moments to serve as motivation as they try to become the next Wambach, Solo, or Rampone. More interestingly, even young boys have been absorbed by Abby-mania, breaking down a very high wall that protects the notion that boys should idolize men and not women. So in that sense, this Women's World Cup has already been extremely (and surprisingly) successful.
Young girls in the US who were previously unaware of stars like Alex Morgan (who is still only 22-years-old) now have heroes they actually know something about. Abby Wambach may have previously been recognizable, but three weeks and four goals later, she has etched her name into US soccer history, as well as the thousands of journals, blogs, Facebook pages being written by the stars of tomorrow.
And unlike 1999, these players will immediately return home to professional teams, where kids who watched the US from a world away can see their new heroes in their own backyards.
So can this team - this squad of 21 American dreamers who fell just short - inspire a new crop of girls (and boys) to play the beautiful game at a higher level? There is no reason why they cannot.
The idea that this tournament being on European soil would prevent something iconic was clearly proved to be rubbish. This was easily the most entertaining and competitive Women's World Cup ever, and folks stateside certainly took notice. Whether that creates enough sustainable interest in women's soccer to see a pro league thrive will come down to dollars and cents, but in the case of people actually playing the game itself, the US women have already served as inspiration for all.
Does that mean Women's Professional Soccer will see a boost? Maybe. Will media coverage increase? Minimally. And exactly what the intrigue of this Women's World Cup will do to the sport is a question that is years from being answered.
If the intrigue generated by 1999 provides any clues, the long-term effect will be more young, influential girls playing the game. On the professional and national team levels, the impact of that increased participation could be another 12 years down the road, but when it's felt, we will see more players of increased quality playing for the US.
And if that happens, Germany 2011 will be looked at as the reason why the game took another step forward.