Success of U.S. women's soccer program years in the making
It was an hour or so after the game, on the ride back to the team hotel, that Alex Morgan found a moment to reminisce.

Her second-half goal had helped the United States defeat France, earning a spot in the Women's World Cup final Sunday, but Morgan was thinking of a less-pleasant time.

Eight months earlier, the Americans had lost a qualifying match to Mexico and were in danger of missing out on soccer's big party in Germany. Veteran forward Kristine Lilly noticed some sulking and delivered a message the younger Morgan will never forget.

"Lil' isn't very outspoken," Morgan recalled. "She looked us in the eye, one by one, and told us we were going to get through this."

It wasn't just bold talk.

Since then, the team has scrambled to win a string of do-or-die games, including three straight to qualify and a frantic comeback against Brazil in a quarterfinal.

"The biggest thing for us," Morgan said, "we all believe we deserve to be at the top."

The American women have reason to be confident, winning a handful of World Cup and Olympic titles over the past two decades. They have found a way to reach heights that still elude the men's national program, to dominate opponents from countries where soccer is religion.

Toughness accounts for some of their success. But this is also a story of good timing and federal legislation, of larger cultural forces at play.

Girl power

Comparing the American men and women isn't fair.

Soccer did not appear on the national radar — save for a brief spurt in the 1920s — until the launch of the North American Soccer League in the late 1960s. By that time, the rest of the world was light years ahead.

"If the U.S. men wanted to get in on the ground floor, they were decades and decades late," said Roger Allaway, author of 'The Encyclopedia of American Soccer History.' "That ship had already sailed."

But in soccer hotbeds such as England and France, the Latin American countries, women had never been encouraged to play the game seriously.

"It just wasn't something little girls did," Allaway said.

America was different. By the late 1960s, female athletes in this country were pushing against traditional gender boundaries, venturing beyond tennis and golf. A couple of San Fernando Valley (Calif.) residents started the first AYSO program for girls in 1971 and soccer moms began shuttling more than just boys to practice.

Today, girls account for 40 percent of the organization's 600,000 players.

"If you just looked at the countries where women had a lot of freedoms, you could almost rank the women's teams in that order," said Anson Dorrance, a long-time coach at North Carolina. "The Scandinavian countries were strong and our women had a lot of freedom, certainly to pursue athletics at an aggressive level."

Social dynamics started the ball rolling. Title IX provided another crucial ingredient: Funding.