The landmark 1972 legislation began funneling more money to women's sports as high schools created teams and colleges offered athletic scholarships.

Teenage girls — and their parents — sensed the change. They could see a future in soccer well beyond the youth leagues.

That made a difference to Morgan. She played almost every sport while growing up, but settled on soccer at the University of California, Berkeley.

"I thought I could make it pretty far," she said.

Numbers game

As the years passed, as Dorrance built a college powerhouse in Chapel Hill, he saw more and more young talent on fields across the country.

"We have an advantage when you compare our girls' participation to anyone else in the world," he said. "You can't really say that on the men's side."

When FIFA, the game's international ruling body, staged the first Women's World Cup in 1991, U.S. officials asked Dorrance to coach the team. By that time, a generation of female athletes had grown up under Title IX, progressing through the ranks, hungry for a bigger stage.

That inaugural World Cup roster featured the likes of April Heinrichs and Michelle Akers, players who were hyper-competitive.

Former national team star Julie Foudy believes that Akers' "warrior-like mentality" helped establish a culture: "She'd leave bone chunks on the field, teeth on the field."

The U.S. won the World Cup that year and again in 1999, when Brandi Chastain made the final shot in penalty kicks against China at the Rose Bowl and celebrated by ripping off her jersey, just like the men.

Again, youngsters such as Morgan were watching.

"I saw the heart and the will," she said.

Each coach that succeeded Dorrance brought something to the program. Tony DiCicco emphasized possession and Pia Sundhage, a Swede, now focuses on technical elements of the game but sees a core value enduring.

"There is something about the American attitude to find a way to win," she said after the win over Brazil. "Unbelievable."

Former players such as Chastain, Foudy and Mia Hamm passed it along. Abby Wambach, the current star, has talked about it all week.

"I know we're going to pull through," she said after the win over France. "I just have a belief in this team and everybody feels it."

Gold standard

Whereas the U.S. men constantly seem to be chasing the rest of the world, the women have set a standard for others to follow.

Brazil began pouring resources into the women's game in the late 1990s. England has benefited from more support and the French team showed youthful skill — if not great finishing ability — these past two weeks.

"I thought maybe the U.S. might be overtaken," Allaway said. "The last few days have proven me wrong."

Now comes the final against a Japanese team skilled in short, crisp passing and the possession game.

The U.S. will have to remain composed without the ball and make use of its scoring chances. The team doesn't have Lilly anymore — she retired at the start of the year — but Wambach can provide a veteran's calm hand.

And youngsters such as Morgan, playing in her first World Cup, seem ready.

"We believe," she said. "We can see it in each other's eyes."

If nothing else, they have a lot of history going for them.

dwharton@tribune.com