Heather O'Reilly speaks with all the maturity and self-assurance you would expect of one of women's football's foremost players. However, the USA star well remembers a time - long before she had won three Olympic gold medals and over 200 caps - when she was taking her first tentative steps in the international game.

Those memories will all come flooding back today because it was exactly 12 years ago, here in Canada, that O'Reilly - then just 17 - made her first appearance in a world finals. It also happened to the be the first-ever match in the history of a new competition which has become known as the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup. It is a tournament that, in the years since, has become a fixture in the women's football calendar, showcasing to a global audience extraordinary talents such as Christine Sinclair, Alex Morgan, Marta and, of course, O'Reilly herself.

Back in 2002, though, the competition - like USA's teenage midfielder - was just starting out, its future by no means certain. What It needed was for the players to step forward and prove that this was a worthwhile endeavour, and in that very first match - a 5-1 win over England - O'Reilly did just that. She starred, she scored and, over the course of a triumphant campaign, she would add three more goals as USA topped the podium.

"That was a fantastic tournament," she recalled. "Even 12 years later, I still enjoy thinking back on it - and I can remember so many little moments that took place. Most of the girls on that team were in university by then but I still had a year left in high school, so it was quite an experience for me to go straight into a World Cup. But you soon realise that you have to grow up quickly and make sure that you contribute.

"We had a very talented squad at that time, led by my good friend Lindsay Tarpley, who ended up scoring our winner in the final. We were also coached by Tracey Leone (former USA international), who became and has continued to be a mentor for me. So many of the players in that team have become some of my long-time best friends and we all have such great memories of being together for those few weeks. It was just a great experience and I'm sure that the players in Canada right now are finding the same thing. Regardless of the age bracket, World Cups are always special."

I definitely think that experience in Canada helped prepare me for the demands of playing international football and big tournaments.

Heather O'Reilly on the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup

They are, of course, extra special if you end up taking home the trophy, and that's just what O'Reilly and her cohorts managed in Canada. And the tournament yielded another enduring legacy, as she confided to FIFA.com. "My team-mates will probably kill me for telling you about this, but that tournament was the one that started a team slogan that we've kept ever since. It's 'Unity, Strength, Attitude' - standing for USA - and the likes of myself, Ashlyn Harris and Rachel Buhler, all of whom played in Canada, still say it in the locker room before games."

That slogan, and those attributes, will likely prove just as useful to the current crop of US U-20s, who exited Canada 2014 yesterday with a painful penalty shootout defeat to Korea DPR. And while Michelle French's side have fallen short of emulating the class of 2002, O'Reilly can empathise with youngsters for whom the shirt alone comes accompanied by expectation.

"Representing USA at any level, you always know that you're following on from players who've set the highest of standards," she said. "For us back in 2002, that was the likes of Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, who by then had already established a winning culture. That was something we wanted to maintain and have looked to maintain ever since, so it was fantastic to go to our first major tournament and come back as world champions. I definitely think that experience in Canada helped prepare me for the demands of playing international football and big tournaments."

They don't come much bigger than the Olympic Games, of course, and O'Reilly already has those three gold medals tucked away from that particular event. But the FIFA Women's World Cup has continually eluded her and her team-mates, and she would love nothing more than putting that right back where it all began for her on the world stage.

"I generally don't like looking ahead to Canada too much because first we have to qualify," she said. "But, yeah, of course it's a big goal of every one of us to be there and it would bring back some great memories from 2002 if I was to go back there for a senior World Cup. Plus, my husband is Canadian so I have a real connection to the country.

"And I'm hopeful we'll make it because we've been playing well since Jill Ellis took the coaching job, and she's someone I and the rest of the girls know very well. We've had some tough results this year, particularly at the Algarve Cup, but I think it's been an eye-opener for us all. And I know if there's any team that's ready to respond to fresh challenges, it's this one."