Their quest for glory starts Monday in northeastern Brazil, in the coastal city of Natal, home to 1 million people obsessed with the "Beautiful Game."

But for numerous members of the U.S. national team, the World Cup dream began 20 years ago, when the planet's biggest sporting event played out -- for the first and only time -- on American soil, captivating a nation that preferred its football pigskin-style.

From the brightest stars to the deepest reserves, U.S. players point to the 1994 World Cup, which was played in stadiums across the country, including Stanford's, as their first exposure to international soccer. Exposure quickly led to obsession.

Two decades later, the circle has come full: The children of '94 are the core of what many consider the most talented United States team ever assembled, the heart of a thriving professional soccer league and the idols of the next generation of kids with World Cup fever.

Forward Chris Wondolowski was an 11-year-old from Danville when he peered through a fence to watch Brazil practice at Santa Clara University. Midfielder Graham Zusi participated in the opening ceremonies of the World Cup matches in Chicago. Defender Matt Besler recalled being awestruck by penalty kicks -- "I thought that was the coolest thing" -- and blown away by the wondrous blond Afro of Colombian star Carlos Valderrama.

"We are the first generation that has really grown up with the game," Besler said.

The '94 World Cup not only sparked a generation of soccer lovers, it launched a professional league.

FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, irked countries across the globe by awarding the cherished event to a disinterested nation. The North American Soccer League had gone out of business in 1984, leaving the U.S. with nothing but a pro indoor league.

But the '94 Cup proved wildly successful on the field and in the stands. Brazil won in thrilling fashion, beating Italy in a penalty shootout. The unheralded U.S. team shocked Colombia to reach the knockout stage, and the average attendance of 68,991 in the nine stadiums set a World Cup record that still stands.

Zusi, who was 7 at the time, remembers the rowdy opening ceremony at Chicago's Soldier Field, where he celebrated with thousands of other kids.

"I think I had a blowup soccer ball and was just running around the field throwing it," he said.

Half a continent away, World Cup fever struck one young fan as he watched Argentina defeat Romania in the Rose Bowl. The 12-year-old would go on to become the greatest player in American history.

"Going to that game was such a big deal for me, because I'd never seen a live soccer game," Landon Donovan told MLSsoccer.com. "I didn't know what it was about. It sort of opened my eyes to the bigger world of soccer besides just playing club soccer or playing in my backyard."

Defender Omar Gonzalez, who was just 6 in 1994, told reporters last month at Stanford that he has vague recollections of volunteering at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas with his mom.

"That was when I first made my dream to one day play in a World Cup," he said.

The transformative effect of the World Cup wasn't lost on the American players, who posted a 1-1-1 record in group play and were eliminated in the round of 16 by Brazil at Stanford Stadium.

"It provided many people with the first opportunity to watch high-level soccer played and the passion that surrounds it," defender Alexi Lalas, now an ESPN analyst, told USA Today. "It gave us a huge platform ... but most of all it just gave us a more educated soccer public in the United States."

FIFA had that education in mind when it selected the U.S. to host the '94 event over Morocco and Brazil. In exchange for the rights to the Cup, American soccer officials pledged to start a professional league.

Two years later, Major League Soccer was born. The 10-team league included the San Jose Clash and possessed a more stable financial model than the North American Soccer League, which had served as home to high-priced but past-their-prime stars such as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer.

The U.S. national team and Major League Soccer grew up together. Both experienced setbacks -- the MLS lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the early years, while internal strife derailed the 1998 World Cup team in France -- but they are now mature, thriving entities.

The MLS has 19 teams, packed stadiums and just signed a television deal reportedly worth $90 million a year. It has also become the primary pipeline to the national team, placing 10 players on the 23-man roster bound for Brazil, including captain Clint Dempsey and star midfielder Michael Bradley.

Four years ago, the MLS placed just four players on the national team.

"We're all excited about what's happened in MLS," said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was Germany's star at the '94 World Cup. "Every year, another step forward. Their base is getting better, their base is getting stronger. It is exciting times in the United States that we have a league that is really catching up."

The national team is thriving, as well. It dominated World Cup qualifying in the North and Central America and Caribbean region and has overtaken rival Mexico as CONCACAF's premier team.

At No. 13, its world ranking is higher than traditional powers France and the Netherlands.

Even the national team's all-time leading scorer was considered expendable -- Donovan was cut during training camp at Stanford.

Had the United States been slotted into another Group in Brazil, it might be a favorite to advance to the knockout round. Instead, the so-called "Group of Death" awaits, with Germany, Portugal and African power Ghana. Success depends, to a large extent, on the children of '94.

Bradley, who watched Italy's training sessions near his home in Pennington, N.J., is the hub, distributing the ball from his midfield position. Besler, who watched Valderrama's giant hair on a tiny television, is the defensive stopper. Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who wore a Valderrama wig while watching Colombia play the U.S. -- his parents, Adriano and Julieta, are Colombian immigrants -- provides essential versatility on the wing.

In all, 13 players were in their formative years when the Cup arrived on American soil.

"We were aware of what was happening -- we could see the fan base growing, and all the attention," said Cobi Jones, one of the top players on the '94 U.S. team. "We knew it was something special, and what it could mean for soccer in the country.

"You hear Wondolowski talk about sneaking (looks through the fence) at his soccer heroes, and now those guys are the heroes. You hope kids sneak to see them. Soccer has to be a generational sport."

Staff writer Elliott Almond contributed to this story.