Abby Wambach brought it up on her own, no reminders necessary. If you're on the U.S. women's soccer team, if you're preparing to win your first major tournament since that unprecedented and unforgettable World Cup five summers ago, you understand precisely what these Olympics are about, because the reminders are all around you, running beside you, yelling encouragement.
"In order for us to feel good, in order for us younger players to feel good about letting these veterans leave on the right note," Wambach said, "we owe it to them to win." This from Wambach, who herself was named the U.S. Soccer Federation's female athlete of the year in 2003, who just might be the best goal scorer in the world right now. Yet Wednesday, when the U.S. women's team opens Olympic play -- taking on the host country, Greece, in Heraklio on the isle of Crete -- it won't matter who plays what role, who scores the goals, who starts along the back line.
This trip to Greece, even before it begins, is about paying homage to the five players -- Brandi Chastain, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly -- who not only played for the World Cup last fall, but were there in 1999, enthralling the nation by winning the Cup, giving berth to the Women's United Soccer Association, a professional league. They were there in 1996, winning gold in Atlanta, the seminal year for women's athletics in America. And they were there in 1991, winning the first women's World Cup in China, even as few noticed back home.
They are, at the very least, the foundation of American women's soccer, and likely the foundation of popular women's team sports in the U.S. And this will be their last tournament together, because Fawcett, Foudy and Hamm are retiring from major international competition, and, well, things just won't be the same without them.
"They're who we dreamed about being when we grew up," Wambach said.
As Wambach said this -- at the side of a field in East Hartford, Conn., where the Americans last week finished up Olympic preparations with a thorough 3-1 dismantling of China -- hundreds of little girls pressed up against the rails along the stands, screaming "Mia! Meeeeaaaaa!!" and "Juuuuuuulieeeee!" Many of the girls wore jerseys from their youth league teams. And if current U.S. players, such as 19-year-old Heather O'Reilly, had posters of Hamm and others on their wall growing up, you can bet the squealing masses do, too.
"You can't even imagine what that's like," Hamm said. "It's very humbling." The objective, then, would be to avoid being humbled on the way out. For all the notoriety the women's national team has received over the last decade -- highlighted by Chastain's Cup-clinching, shirt-removing penalty kick against China in a sold-out Rose Bowl five years ago -- it hasn't been on such shaky ground since . . . well, perhaps ever.
In 2000, at the Sydney Olympics, the United States fell to Norway, 3-2 in overtime, in the gold medal match. Last year, on home soil, it lost 3-0 to Germany in the semifinals of the World Cup and had to rebound and beat Canada to take bronze. And the WUSA -- the forum for these players to earn both notoriety and a living -- dissolved last fall. Efforts to revive it haven't yet come to fruition.
So now, amidst the celebration of their careers and all the reflections on the good feeling they have engendered, there is some scrutiny. Foudy said her husband became annoyed a few weeks back after reading a newspaper article on the team that was less than flattering.
"I said, 'Well, that's a great sign,' " Foudy said. "People are paying attention. There was a time when it didn't really matter. People were like, 'Oh, it's a great team,' and were supportive no matter what. Now, they feel comfortable with criticizing and evaluating the team the way they do with men's teams."
Fitting in with that type of evaluation is the sense that the future of the team's coach, April Heinrichs, rests on the team's performance at these Olympics. Heinrichs, who played alongside the five mainstays on that '91 World Cup team, took over from Tony DiCicco in January 2000, and the team hasn't won either of the two major tournaments since.
When the team gathered for residency training in Carson, Calif., some five months ago, they did so under something of a cloud, what with the World Cup loss and the stinging words of veteran forward Tiffeny Milbrett, who left the team in January because she had philosophical differences with Heinrichs's coaching style.
Then, Heinrichs began camp by putting the team through rigorous physical training. Some of the veterans reacted against it. They went to Heinrichs and asked her to back off. This wasn't the smooth send-off for which folks were hoping.
"I think it created a new relationship with our coach, in terms of talking to her about how we felt," Hamm said. "And she was very positive in terms of that feedback.
"Our coaching staff didn't go in there blindly just deciding how to practice. They had a plan, and they had people involved to develop that plan. As players, you can't always see that. It was hard. I don't think there's anybody on this team that wouldn't say that."
Yet the result, the players say, was a productive training camp. Recent Olympic warmups, wins over Australia and China, went well, too. Still, Germany, China and newcomer Sweden -- which handed the United States its only loss this year -- all figure to provide legitimate tests. The questions about whether this group can reach back for that old magic one more time have been out there since camp began.
"The most common one I've had is, 'So are you guys more intense now that you lost in the World Cup?' " Heinrichs said. "And the answer is: It's not possible for us to be more focused or more intense or more committed or willing to do more work or willing to work for each other than it was in 2003. So I think that the veterans that have declared that they'll retire, I'm sure that they're feeling that, 'It's [three] weeks now. Let's do the best that we can for ourselves, for each other, these [three] weeks.' "
The final three weeks of, for some, 17 years together. Chastain, Foudy, Hamm and Lilly decided they could best savor the last ride together by spending it together. They rented a house in Manhattan Beach, Calif., during residency camp, cooking, complaining, chilling out -- all together.
There have been talks about moments from the past, but they have centered more on traveling with each other, with events in their lives, than on soccer, which has become something of a blur.
"The Olympics are emotional enough as they are," Foudy said, "so to reflect would kind of put me over the top. . . . I've been just trying to say, 'Let's enjoy the last month together.' The same with us in Manhattan Beach and rooming together. We've tried to stay away from, 'Oh, this is our last practice together. This is our last breakfast together.' . . . When we're having fun, we're doing well."
The fun, too, will be provided by the next generation. Wambach, who effectively teamed with Hamm on the WUSA's Washington Freedom, will be a focal point of the attack. Defender Cat Reddick, who athletically and maturely cleared a ball from the goal line in the win over China, will be a stalwart defender. O'Reilly, who Heinrichs has called the most developed player of her age the United States has ever had, might provide a spark off the bench.
In a way, they will all be doing it for those five who were there from the start, before women's soccer players had posters or were on cereal boxes or had a professional league -- or even were included in the Olympics.
"Having been on this team for so long, we got to watch it evolve over the last two decades," Foudy said, laughing a bit at the realization of how long it has been. "Just convincing people that women's soccer could be a viable sport and could be popular, and that soccer in general could be well-watched, this has been a battle we have been fighting for a decade.
"I feel good that we have reached out to a lot of people, and not just during World Cups and Olympics, but have impacted a lot of young kids' lives -- especially young girls. For us, as young girls years ago, we never had those role models."
The role models are now running alongside the future. The future is all too happy to let the role models show them how it's done.
"The more the ball goes to the feet of the veterans," Wambach said, "the better this team's going to be. Right now, the veterans are confident, and they're willing and ready to give up anything and everything to win this Olympics."