The Chinese had a nickname for them: "the Triple-Edged Sword."
The first edge was Michelle Akers-Stahl, the striker whose 10 tournament goals propelled the United States to victory in the first FIFA Women's World Championship in China in 1991.
The second edge was Carin Jennings, the Palos Verdes winger whose speed and dazzling moves earned her MVP honors in the tournament and whose flying blonde ponytail earned her cartoon tributes in the Chinese press.
The third edge was April Heinrichs, the team captain and catalyst of the first world soccer championship won by an American team.
On Monday, four years after the triumph at Guangzhou, the U.S. team left for Sweden, where it will defend its title next Monday through June 18.
Among those heading for Helsingborg and parts north were Michelle Akers, who dropped half a name when she was divorced but who hasn't stopped scoring goals, and Carin Gabarra, who added a husband but kept her ponytail and her extraordinary skills.
Two of the three edges are in place. Still, Coach Tony DiCicco, the goalkeeper coach on the 1991 team, realized immediately after taking over as head coach from Anson Dorrance last July that the third edge also was vital. Without it, the team would not be the same.
DiCicco remembered Dorrance's description of Heinrichs, a former NCAA player of the year at North Carolina.
"She's an incredible leader," Dorrance said before the China trip. "Even when she was looking very, very average because of her bad knee, we knew we had to start her, even if she was 60%, because her leadership impact is unbelievable.
"She is one of the most powerful players psychologically I've ever seen. She wants to win worse than any player I've ever coached."
Her injuries eventually forced Heinrichs into retirement after the world championships and she became coach at the University of Maryland, moving easily into her new role. Earlier this year, DiCicco named her as one of his assistants on the national team, along with Lauren Gregg, coach at the University of Virginia, who also was in China.
For the next few weeks, Heinrichs has the difficult task of coaching her friends and former teammates in a tournament where everyone will be gunning for the defending world champions. She would much rather be on field alongside them.
Making that task even more challenging, some of the U.S. players are Heinrichs' fellow NCAA coaches. Gabarra, for example, coaches Navy, and defender Joy Fawcett is the UCLA coach.
But if Heinrichs, 31, is to live up to her potential--she is increasingly mentioned as a possible future U.S. national team coach--learning how to deal with world-class players is essential.
She spoke recently about the transition from player to coach, the interaction between the U.S. coaching staff and her own ambition.
"Giving up the playing was really hard," Heinrichs said. "It took me two full years to be able to say, 'I'm retired. That's it. It's over.'
"So I shed that skin, and now it's really hard to even see myself as a player anymore. I'm more and more relating stories from my coaching experience rather than saying, 'Well, when I was a player this is how. . . .' I don't do that very often. I just hate that phrase, 'When I was.' "
Heinrichs, in fact, is sounding more like a coach:
--On being named assistant national team coach: "It's flattering. It's responsibility. But being the assistant national team coach has got to be one of the best jobs in the country because there's no stress involved. Every decision doesn't lie on your shoulders. In a lot of ways, it's an observatorial role, which is great for a young coach like myself."
--On DiCicco and how he changed when he moved from assistant to head coach: "As an assistant coach, you have a specific role and if you fight that, you create conflict. I think Tony was a fantastic assistant coach. He played the role perfectly. The role fit him.
"All of a sudden, his responsibilities have changed incredibly, multiplied tenfold, twentyfold. He's got a lot on his shoulders. But the essence of Tony DiCicco is still the same as it was. He's compassionate, hard-working. He's organized and thoughtful and inclined to overwork to make sure that he's prepared. These are all great qualities in a national team coach. These are not bad."
--On how DiCicco, Gregg and herself interact: "Tony doesn't want assistants who just say yes to whatever he says. Of course, we have different philosophies in some areas. We've had wonderful all-night discussions about the players that we need to select. We argue and we discuss and we defend and we battle. That's just part of the fun of being on a coaching staff."