We’ll watch the game in earnest, maybe a record 18 million of us, most wanting a reason to believe that America still rules the world in something. China flaunts the No. 1 economy. Vladimir Putin wields the most power. The cat in North Korea could go on a bender and wipe everyone out. What are we doing in the U.S. these days?

Making bad movies. Putting cellphones in the hands of 5-year-olds. Producing oil and gas, some of it actual energy and not odious human exhaust. OK, we’re the global leaders in basketball, and Serena Williams and Jordan Spieth are chasing Grand Slams in tennis and golf, but if soccer is the universal sporting religion, our men’s initiative isn’t good enough yet to enter the church, much less kneel on the pews and watch the sacred proceedings. That’s why it would be very cool, in the bigger view, if the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup in Vancouver early this evening.

We’re also a country of legacy, sustainability and the continuation of excellence. And the real burden for this group is not in making us feel patriotic on Fourth of July weekend, but to carry on a standard established in 1999 by one of the most important sports teams in American history. They’re known to this very day as “The 99ers,” the legendary breakthrough artists who exploded from the womb of Title IX to encourage girls everywhere about following their dreams. You surely remember Brandi Chastain whipping off her jersey to reveal a black sports bra, her natural instinct after scoring the final shootout goal that beat China and clinched the championship on home soil. I was in the Rose Bowl that day and grasped it as a powerful social moment.

But did anyone really know how it would profoundly influence a sea change for women in society, in the workplace, in American life? That soccer victory was about empowerment, how Mia Hamm and Briana Scurry and Julie Foudy and all the rest conquered the summer and had millions gasping over their every kick, goal and hug. Who’d ever watched women’s soccer before 1999? Yet there I was, sent around the nation by a newspaper that seized a chance to serve a larger audience — women and kids! — than the usual man-cave crowd. I continued to follow them in the future at the Olympic Games, once taking a death-dare prop plane from Athens to Crete and then having no phone from which to file my column to the States. Such was the magnitude and widespread appeal of The 99ers.

Sixteen years after the seminal moment, the only unfinished business involves following in their cleat steps. No U.S. team has won the World Cup since. The 2011 edition came close, losing on penalty kicks to Japan in the final, which will make the celebration sweeter if the Americans beat the Japanese in today’s 4 p.m. rematch — 1,449 days since blowing two late leads. They would like to bury those demons and create their own nickname and brand.

Here’s betting they do.

“It’s been so long since the last World Cup we brought home,” said Alex Morgan, the star U.S. forward. “And we know that.”

“After winning the World Cup, getting close is not good enough,” said U.S. captain Christie Rampone, who, at 40, is the only current player who played for The 99ers.

If the weight is a bit unfair, it’s part of being American. A U.S. team can’t bust down walls, then wait 20 years for another team to walk through the wreckage and into new daylight. That’s what the timeframe will be with another loss to Japan. Foudy, front and center as a constant 99er reminder in her ESPN analyst’s role, is stunned that the last three American teams have fallen short in the Cup. But she also points out that the rest of the world
has improved dramatically in 16 years.

The pain of the 2011 loss serves to fuel the current team. “It hurts to think about it and talk about it,” said U.S. semifinal hero Carli Lloyd. “But it’s what makes you stronger. It’s tough, but it builds character. Now, there is nothing I want more than the chance to put it right.”

“We haven’t done anything yet. We still haven’t won the World Cup,” said star and emotional leader Abby Wambach, who suffered through the three Cup losses. “We can’t stop believing and never doubt that it’s going to happen. We’ve been prepping for this for four years.”

They’re motivated even more by the lingering presence of the greats, who are visible at appearances and in TV commercials if they aren’t commenting on the Cup games. “If we win this, everybody can stop comparing us,” U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “We’re not them. But we’re here because of them.”
Precisely. Every player who goes for the championship today was influenced by the role models of that team. While the older players already has launched soccer careers in 1999 — Wambach was 19, embattled but brilliant goaltender Hope Solo was 17 and Lloyd was 16 — younger players like Morgan were inspired to take up soccer after experiencing that joyful summer in America.

“This group has a chance to now carve out their legacy,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. “They recognize that. They understand what they’re shooting for. It would be phenomenal for them.”

Phenomenal for us, too — or at least those who care about America striving to be the best and finishing what we started. Not many people watched Aaron Sorkin’s long-gone show on HBO, “The Newsroom,” but the opening night featured a memorable clip where a news anchor rants about a diminishing homeland. “It’s not the greatest country in the world,” he raged. “We’re seventh in literacy, 27th in math, 22nd in science, 49th in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, No. 4 in labor force, and No. 4 in exports. So when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don’t know what the (bleep) you’re talking about.”

Being No. 1 again in women’s soccer would be nice. Being No. 1 again at something, anything, would be even nicer. Then we could anoint the newest legends of American sports as…

The 15ers.

Jay Mariotti

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