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World Cup fever: Catch It!

Has it been four years already?

Actually, the 1999 Women's World Cup probably feels like a lifetime ago for the 12 veterans who return from that squad to defend the Cup starting in less than two weeks.

Off the field, they've seen each other through weddings, deaths, engagements, a divorce and a birth of little Madi Fawcett since that memorable day in July of '99 when Brandi Chastain's left-footed blast sealed the deal.

Add in the security they've gained due to the bonus checks from winning the Cup, increased funds paid out by U.S. Soccer on a game-by-game basis, endorsements deals and the salary earned from three years of playing in a full-scale professional league, and it's clear to see that lives have been changed.

What shall we expect this time around? It's hard to tell. But one thing is for sure: The magic of this team -- and this event -- will not sneak up on everyone as it did last time around. It's already apparent by looking at the coverage in USA Today, which has been running daily features on different players since the beginning of the month.

When the U.S. side was two weeks away from the start of the tournament in the summer of '99, they weren't practicing at a facility anything remotely resembling the Home Depot Center as they were late last week.

Instead, they were training in relative anonymity out a private school in New Jersey. Sure, a few die-hard fans came by to check out their daily sessions, but not any more that you'd see on a sideline at a Saturday morning youth game.

And as for the media? Please. There were a handful of us out there, at best, many of which toted a roster sheet at all times to be able to recognize anyone not named Mia.

It was so quiet on the sideline at these practices that I remember actually being able to hear conversations taking place during cool-down stretching. (The second Austin Powers movie had just come out, and the players were often quoting it whenever there was a break in play.)

Of course, just a few weeks later, the team needed security guards, police escorts and several PR aids to handle training sessions out in Carson, Calif.

By then, people who previously knew nothing about a player like Shannon MacMillan, suddenly knew that not only could she swing in one heck of a corner kick, but also that she listened to Ricky Martin's "Cup of Life" for inspiration before matches.

Fans that only knew holding midfielder Michelle Akers as striker extraordinaire Michelle "Akers-Stahl" learned that her nickname was "Mufasa" because of her long mane of brown hair and that she always ate a cheeseburger and fries before matches for good luck.

That's no exaggeration, either. Fans wanted to know everything about that exceptional group of athletes in the same fashion we've seen in two- or three-week spans over more recent cultural phenomenons such as "American Idol" and "Survivor".

For me, one of the enduring images from that magical summer was a photo that ran in several dailies from one of the aforementioned practices that showed the sunglasses-wearing players jogging together with smiles on their faces while basking in the limelight.

For a group that had given so much of their collective time to help promote the event and their sport as a whole, it was well-deserved. And for the story to end the way it did in a nailbiting penalty kick shootout in front of a packed house at a revered sports palace like the Rose Bowl, it was an event for the ages. One that may never be duplicated or lived-up to … which leads us to this fall's competition.

Sports fans who check out soccer the same way they check out gymnastics every four years in the Olympics will recognize the big guns for the U.S. In that sense, not a lot has changed. Mia Hamm is still the face of the team. And Julie Foudy and Chastain are still the spokeswomen. Kristine Lilly and Joy Fawcett are back, as well, competing in their fourth -- and last -- World Cup. There are recognizable names and faces all over the place, too, from Kate Sobrero to Cindy Parlow to Tiffeny Milbrett to Briana Scurry.

But, for those who know and understand the game at a high level, the similarities to the squad we watched four years ago are few and far between.

Gone is head coach Tony DiCicco, who masterfully helped create a type of team unity that is rarely seen in sports. His reliance on captains Foudy and Carla Overbeck, decision to bring in Dr. Colleen Hacker as a sports psychology consultant, and away-from-the-field team building activities were all as equally important as any tactical decisions made for the actual matches.

When April Heinrichs took over just six months after the U.S. beat China, it was clear that a new sheriff was in town.

The roster was overhauled, new youthful talent was infused into the lineup and veterans quickly felt less than comfortable with their standing on the team.

In her three-plus years at the helm of the women's National Team, Heinrichs has made training camp conditions as competitive as ever since the WUSA has widely deepened the player pool.

Much like Bruce Arena, she's rewarded in-form players with opportunities to wear the U.S. colors and has left no stone unturned in the process.

Under Heinrichs, it's a much different team than the one we saw under DiCicco.

For starters, the 4-3-3 system that he employed is gone, and has been replaced by a 4-4-2 with a reliance on flank midfielders getting behind defenders to cross in balls to finishing strikers up top.

She's also moved Chastain and Fawcett to central defense, and shifted Sobrero from the center to an outside back position.

The style of play has been transformed over time, as well, from that of a more restrictive system that relied on speed, first and foremost, and superior positioning to one that's more creative and free-flowing that is accented by the inventive playmaking of attacking midfielder Aly Wagner.

There's also an element of hardness on the team this time around, highlighted by Heinrichs' selections of Shannon Boxx and Kyle Bivens to round out the squad.

The run-through-you style that these two players, in particular, bring to the team is something that Heinrichs brought as a player to the Anson Dorrance-coached National Team squads over a decade ago.

While this year's squad is once again the favorite to take the Cup, it also carries an extra burden of living up to the team from four years ago. Since the games are being played right in the middle of the pennant race in baseball and the beginning of the NFL season, it's virtually impossible for that to happen.

And much will be made of the surrounding sidelights such as television ratings, air time on David Letterman and the overall "buzz" that was in the air for a good three weeks in '99.

But what everyone should be focusing on is the opportunity that exists for the U.S. team, the sport of soccer and for sports fans everywhere. This tournament would have taken place in China had the SARS epidemic not hit. That would have meant less television coverage and odd-hour viewings like we saw in the men's World Cup last summer.

Since the tournament was moved to the U.S. in the spring, those problems are gone. Viewing the games will not be a problem. And media coverage is expected to be strong, partly because so many outlets got blindsided the last time around and don't want to miss the boat from the get-go two straight World Cups.

On home soil, new stars will emerge much more easily and the true stories will unfold right in front of our eyes in our own stadiums -- including the soccer-specific Home Depot Center in Los Angeles and Crew Stadium in Columbus -- for the second straight World Cup.

The fun that starts in our nation's capital on Sept. 20 represents an unbelievable opportunity for the returning players, but even a bigger one for the fans who didn't get a chance to witness the Girls of Summer four years ago.

In other words: Be sure not to miss it this time around.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for He'll be covering the Women's World Cup from start to finish as he did in 1999. He can be reached at: