Beating Italy in a playoff to get the last spot at the World Cup following an upset in regional qualifying. Abby Wambach scoring in the 122nd against Brazil to tie the game. Wambach scoring again to break a tense tie against France in the semifinals.
When they needed it most, however, the resilience that had carried them so far and captivated their country disappeared.
"It's a small difference between success and not success," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said.
In this case, mere minutes.
Homare Sawa scored in the 117th minute to tie it at 2, and Japan beat the Americans 3-1 in a penalty shootout at the Women's World Cup final Sunday night. Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath all failed to convert penalty kicks, a week after the Americans beat Brazil in similar, nerve-wracking fashion.
When Saki Kumagai buried Japan's last shot to seal their historic win - Japan is the first Asian team to win the World Cup - the Americans stood frozen, as if in shock.
They never imagined they would lose. Never imagined they could lose.
"There are really no words," Wambach said. "We were so close."
Though the U.S. is the two-time defending Olympic champion, it has been 12 years since that watershed team in 1999 won the World Cup. The U.S. hadn't even made it to the final this century until Sunday night.
But this squad was certain it could turn it around, driven by unshakable faith in each other and a refusal to quit until the final whistle blew.
"It's devastating," Megan Rapinoe said. "Just to get to the final and not win it is devastating."
Even when they went to penalty kicks, the Americans still never doubted themselves.
But the Americans lost this game as much as Japan won it. Their struggles to finish, a problem all year, cost them big.
The Americans finished with a 27-14 shot advantage, but Japan had a 5-4 advantage in shots on goal. In the first 35 minutes alone, Lauren Cheney came up short three times, Wambach shook the crossbar and Rapinoe banged one off the near post.
The Americans finally broke through in the second half, with Morgan scoring her second goal of the tournament in the 69th. But with just 10 minutes to go before they could claim the title, the Americans gifted Japan a goal.
Rachel Buehler tied to clear the ball right in front of the goal and knocked it to Ali Krieger, who botched her clearance, too. The ball fell to Aya Miyama, who poked it in from five yards to tie it. Wambach scored in the 104th but, once again, the Americans couldn't hold the lead.
The goal was Wambach's 13th at the World Cup, giving her sole possession of third place on the career scoring list. She also holds the U.S. record, one in front of Michelle Akers.
"This is sports. This is the way it goes," Wambach said. "Unfortunately, it didn't go our way tonight. All of us are devastated."
And not just the players.
Americans had rallied around this team like no other since '99, impressed by its grit and charmed by its spunk. Hollywood celebrities, fellow pro athletes and people who don't care about any sport, let alone soccer, adopted the players. Even President Barack Obama was a fan, taking to Twitter himself on Sunday morning to wish the team well.
"Sorry I can't be there to see you play, but I'll be cheering you on from here. Let's go. - BO."
The Brazil match drew the third-highest ratings ever for a Women's World Cup game, and Wednesday's semifinal victory over France did almost as well - despite being played in the middle of the workday back home. The Empire State Building was bathed in red, white and blue this weekend, along with Japan's colors - red and white.
On Monday, those colors will shine again - without the blue.
Blue, meanwhile, was how U.S. fans felt after the loss.
"Deep down inside, I really thought it was our destiny to win it," Lloyd said. "But maybe it was Japan's