The first Women's World Cup in 1991 felt like a field trip to the group of college kids who led the United States to the championship. The 12-team tournament took place in China. The U.S. team prepared for a couple of weeks before hitting the road on its journey to the title. It cost the U.S. Soccer Federation less than $175,000.

That's about 5 percent of the $3.2 million the USSF has put into the team's five-month preparation for this year's Women's World Cup, which begins Saturday and will attract more than 500,000 fans, as well as national television cameras, to eight venues across the United States, including Jack Kent Cooke Stadium.

Back in 1991, the U.S. team's triumph "was the best kept secret," said American midfielder Julie Foudy, a member of the team then and now. "Nobody knew about it."

At the time, however, the world-beating U.S. players possessed something more significant than the nation's full attention; something female athletes in less progressive places did not have; something they appreciated more the older they got: The opportunity, since childhood, to play.

While the U.S. men's national team failed to excel at the highest level of international competition throughout the 1990s, most recently finishing 32nd and last in last summer's World Cup, the U.S. women took advantage of their relatively early mastery of the sport to build one of the most impressive -- and probably least appreciated -- dynasties of the past decade. They began international play in 1985 and, in the 1990s, have compiled a 144-22-8 record and won the gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games.

"Years ago, the United States was just seen as a monster because they were so strong," said Andrea Rodebaugh, who was born in Mexico and has been a member of the Mexican national team for many years, but attended college at California-Berkeley. "It was a program that other countries envied. I think it also had a really important role in setting a standard for women's soccer. They were the pioneers, not only for women's soccer in the U.S., but for women's soccer in all of the world."

Yet when the favored Americans open this quadrennial tournament with a match against Denmark at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., the overall talent of the 16-team field, and the competitive nature of many of the games, likely will demonstrate what the U.S. players say they have long realized: The rest of the world has been watching them, emulating them, and catching up to them. Fast.

Narrowing the Gap

China, Germany, Brazil, the largely unknown North Korean team and Norway -- which won the 1995 Women's World Cup after upsetting the United States in the semifinals -- are all thought to have a chance at the title. China, the 1996 Olympic silver medalist, has defeated the United States twice this year. And the U.S. team lost another match to an international all-star team.

The U.S. women haven't lost three matches in an entire year since 1993, when they lost three of their first four games. They had a 12-1 record in 1994; 19-2-2 in 1995; 21-1-2 in 1996; 16-2 in 1997; and 22-1-2 in 1998.

"We're the goal that everyone reaches for," Women's World Cup Organizing Committee Chair Donna de Varona said recently. "We've been the carrot for a lot of these teams to raise their standard of play. . . . It's not going to be a slam-dunk for the United States."

Though fans of the U.S. team have been awed over the years by the athleticism of Foudy, Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers and Kristine Lilly, it can be argued that the United States has achieved its success for social reasons as much as athletic ones. These national team players are among the first generation of female athletes directly affected by Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funds. Akers was 7 years old when Title IX was enacted; Hamm was 1. They took equality almost for granted.

"Just because of the country we lived in and the way we were brought up and socialized, we expect things to be equal with the men," said U.S. defender Joy Fawcett, who along with teammate Carla Overbeck convinced the USSF to pay the $50,000 salary of a nanny who traveled with them and their children during the months of training for the World Cup, much of which was conducted in Florida while their husbands remained at home.

There has been no law resembling Title IX anywhere else in the world. Other nations with historically strong women's soccer programs, such as Norway and China, either possess progressive views on equality (many Scandinavian countries fit into this category) or communist systems such as China's that funnel talented children into rigid athletic programs.

Soccer, in many countries, is considered the epitome of a brutish, masculine sport that is too rough and physical for women. Women's soccer was banned in England in 1921 by officials from the men's federation, who described it as an "unsuitable" activity. Argentina, Spain and France have produced world-class men's soccer teams and excellent female athletes in sports such as tennis and track and field, but they have demonstrated far slower growth in women's soccer. The Netherlands and England are other traditional men's soccer powers that possess weak women's programs. Neither qualified for this Women's World Cup.

"There still is a stigma in this country," said English Football Association press officer Catherine Knight. "It's not perceived as feminine. We're trying to change that perception. If it's the national sport, it's got to be the national sport for men and for women."

Growing Interest

Soccer's world governing body, Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), legitimized the sport by deciding to hold a quadrennial Women's World Cup beginning in 1991. The sport's Olympic debut in 1996 only furthered its growth. Major changes have been occurring in European and South American women's national team programs throughout the 1990s. In those countries, once girls and young women are introduced to the game, they benefit from living in soccer-obsessed environments, where long-standing player development systems quicken the pace of growth and learning.

"It happens all over the world," U.S. team coach Tony DiCicco said. "The Dutch say, `Hey, why are the American women doing better than the Dutch women?' Now they have a 12-team league. It's a [major] sport in those cultures, so there is a sophisticated level that they have immediately that we don't have available."

Australia, which finished last in the 1995 World Cup, has dedicated more resources to the development of its women's program, with the 2000 Olympics in Sydney around the corner. The Netherlands announced in January that it will implement a long-term plan to advance to the "international top" by qualifying for the 2003 Women's World Cup and the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Mexico recruited more than a half-dozen U.S. collegiate stars to bolster its roster and this past December qualified for its first World Cup.

England is embarking this week upon its first national "Women's Football Awareness Week." And the number of girls teams in the nation already has grown from 80 to more than 1,000 in the past four years, Knight, the FA press officer, said.

"They're realizing the potential of women's soccer in all of these traditional soccer countries where men have played," U.S. forward Hamm said. "You're finding in Brazil, in Europe and in Italy, they're investing in their women's soccer programs, and it's amazing the returns they're getting."

The U.S. men have been unsuccessful at least in part because they -- unlike the U.S. women -- always have been playing catch-up to the rest of the world in terms of player development, particularly among players older than about 14 or 15. The best American male athletes, even those who play soccer as children, often forgo the sport for more popular and financially rewarding sports such as basketball, football and baseball. Those who stick with soccer often fail to get the same caliber and intensity of training that the top male players in more soccer-advanced nations get -- a failure the USSF and the four-year-old outdoor professional league, Major League Soccer, have been trying to remedy in recent years.

The Brazilian women's national team provides the best example of what increased support can do for athletes in a soccer-obsessed nation. In the 1991 and 1995 World Cups, Brazil finished ninth out of 12 teams. But in the 1996 Olympics, Brazil came within minutes of beating China and advancing to the final (China scored two goals in the last seven minutes to win).

In 1997, Brazil defeated the United States for the first time, 1-0, and the first Brazilian women's national club championships took place. Brazil's women's team, like the men's, benefits from a contract with Nike.

This summer, led by an array of stars known, in the best Brazilian soccer tradition, by one name -- Sissi, Katia, Roseli and Pretinha -- Brazil is considered a contender for the Women's World Cup title.

"The U.S. has always been one of the elite teams, because every player on that team has tremendous talent," Mexican player Laurie Hill said. "But Brazil, over a span of three years, now they are competing almost on the same level."

The U.S. team continues to hold one incomparable, untouchable advantage: its experience. Eight players on the Women's World Cup team have participated in more than 100 international matches; six played on the 1991 Women's World Cup championship team. Even the experienced Norwegians, with three players with 100-plus matches, and the Chinese, with five, can't match that. In addition to the six American players who have participated in two World Cups, six others have played in one.

"The leadership on this team is the best I've ever been involved with," said DiCicco, who has coached the U.S. women since 1994. "There are some unwritten rules -- one of them is you don't whine -- and if you don't buy into it, you are weeded out. I don't have to weed you out, because you're not going to survive here. It's the culture, and it's set."

Revenge

Not only do the U.S. women have a tradition of success to uphold in this tournament, they say they remain motivated by their 1-0 semifinal loss to Norway in the 1995 World Cup in Sweden. Players say they allowed various distractions to knock them off course that summer -- a dispute with the USSF about what brand of footwear they could wear; an early injury to Akers; feelings of exhaustion from the rigorous training camp conducted by DiCicco, then in his first year as women's coach.

Advancing to the 92,542-seat Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., for the July 10 final, and winning it before an ABC Sports television audience, would provide a salve for that painful loss. It would do something else, too.

Twenty-seven years after the enactment of Title IX, the U.S. women are keenly aware -- perhaps more than ever before -- of this opportunity to continue widening their role as athletic trailblazers. "When we first started as a national team, it was very amateurish," Akers said. "We were a bunch of kids, not understanding what the national team is and what kind of role comes with being a player."

This time around, the goals of the U.S. team are more refined; their competition is more worrisome. And the stakes have changed.

While women's soccer now occupies a firm place in the American sports landscape, it still lacks the status and consistent exposure that a significant professional league could bring. Pro leagues already exist in several other countries, including Japan, and the U.S. women believe they will not be able to maintain their world-championship level without the opportunity to play year-round on U.S. soil. A wildly successful World Cup, they realize, could be the first step toward the creation of a full-time pro league.

But the success of this event won't be determined only by the U.S. team's performance (although a poor performance by the Americans is likely to mean a lot of empty seats and unwatched television broadcasts). It also will be determined by how effectively the American players sell themselves and their game, as U.S. team press officer Aaron Heifetz has made clear to them even as the tedium of sticking around for media interviews has grown. "Do you want to go to a movie," he asks them pointedly, "or do you want a pro league?"

"Knowing that we built all this, we take pride in that," Akers said. "This is our job. This is our career. We're paving the way."

Evidence of the U.S. team's dominance:

The United States . . .

Has a 144-22-8 record in the 1990s.

Won the 1991 Women's World Cup and the 1996 Olympic gold medal.

Is undefeated against 26 teams in the 1990s -- including England, Canada, Sweden, France, Japan and Australia.

Has a 98-0-1 record and has scored 464 goals and given up 36 in games against those 26 countries.

Has three starters, Kristine Lilly (179), Mia Hamm (173) and Julie Foudy (154), who lead the world in international appearances.

Has the world's best-known player, Hamm, who also has scored more goals (109) than any other woman.

Evidence that the rest of the world is catching up:

The United States . . .

Lost to Norway, the eventual champion, in the semifinals of the 1995 World Cup.

Lost for the first time in history to up-and-coming Brazil, 1-0, in December 1997.

Has failed to win the Algarve Cup in Portugal for two straight years, suffering losses to Norway and China.

Suffered first non-victory of the decade against Sweden with a 1-1 tie in March.

Lost three times -- two to China and one to an international all-star team -- already this year (with 14 victories and one tie) after having gone five straight years with two losses or fewer.

CAPTION: In 1990s, U.S. women have 144-22-8 record, including gold medal soccer triumph in 1996 Olympics.

CAPTION: The 1995 World Cup proved the U.S. was no longer invincible.

CAPTION: "In Brazil, in Europe and in Italy, they're investing in their women's soccer programs," said U.S.'s Mia Hamm, right.