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.

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