U.S. wins a classic against Brazil
Once again, American courage and self-belief triumphed over Brazilian skill, and now the U.S. is moving on to the semifinals of the FIFA Women's World Cup.
In one of the most epic games in the tournament's history, the U.S. came back from the dead to defeat the Samba Queens 5-3 on penalties, after extra time had finished 2-2. And it took as gutsy a performance as you will ever see. The Americans had been reduced to 10 players in the 66th minute due to Rachel Buehler's controversial red card. And when Marta scored her second goal of the match in the second minute of extra time, the Americans' prospects looked bleak indeed.
But Abby Wambach's thumping header in the 122nd minute -- the latest goal in Women's World Cup history -- brought the U.S. back on level terms, and that kind of adrenalin surge carried the Americans into the penalty shootout. Hope Solo delivered a superb one-handed save from Daiane in the third round, and Ali Krieger slotted home the game winner.
The stirring comeback was made even more impressive given the number of bad breaks the Americans endured. They were leading 1-0 midway through the second half, and while Brazil was dominating possession, the U.S. was defending resolutely. But that all changed in the 66th minute courtesy of a string of contentious decisions by referee Jacqui Melksham. First, Buehler was judged to have fouled Marta in the penalty box on a play where the contact looked to be shoulder-to-shoulder. Not only was Brazil given a penalty, but Buehler was shown a straight red card, forcing the U.S. to play the remainder of the match with 10 players.
Incredibly, even worse was to follow. Solo saved Cristiane's ensuing penalty kick, only for Melksham to indicate the kick should be retaken. Television replays showed Solo hadn't strayed off her line, but there was an American player who ventured into the box before the kick was taken, and you can only surmise that was the basis for the referee's rather harsh decision. Marta took the retaken penalty herself and sent Solo the wrong way to knot the score at 1-1.
Up to that point, the U.S. had executed its game plan -- at least on the defensive end -- to perfection. While manager Pia Sundhage risked the wrath of U.S. fans by continuing to start defender Amy LePeilbet and forward Amy Rodriguez, she did institute some subtle changes that provided more stability to the U.S. defense. First, central defenders Buehler and Christie Rampone swapped sides, putting Rampone in a position to use her speed to help out LePeilbet when necessary. The U.S. was also quicker to drop deep into its own half in a bid to nullify Brazil's speed advantage. The result was that the Americans looked much more comfortable in defense, even as Brazil seized control of the midfield as the first half progressed.
Of course, nothing gives a team confidence like an early goal, and the U.S. got off to a dream start with the match not even two minutes old. A short corner was reset back to Rampone, whose telling cross-field ball found Shannon Boxx on the left wing. Boxx's cross was challenged by Wambach and that was enough to unsettle Brazilian defender Daiane, who could only slice her clearance into her own net.
But the U.S. was unable to translate its advantage into more possession, and Brazil gradually came back into to the match. Aline should have done better with a header that she put wide after Solo misjudged Marta's corner kick. A counterattack a minute later saw Marta embark on a long solo run, but Rampone's pace allowed her to keep with the Brazilian, and Marta could only put her shot high.
In the second half, Brazil increased its grip on possession, as the U.S. struggled to string more than three passes together. That said, the U.S. seemed more than capable of containing the Brazilian attack, although a shot from Cristiane in the 61st minute forced a fine save from Solo.
The Americans nearly doubled their advantage two minutes later when Carli Lloyd nodded substitute Megan Rapinoe's free kick onto the bar.
Then came Marta's controversial equalizer. Yet it was the U.S. that seemed galvanized. Boxx alternated between midfield and the back line, while Rapinoe tucked inside as well to provide support to Lloyd.
The U.S. managed to take the game to extra time, but Brazil finally edged in front on what can only be described as a superb goal by Marta. Erika shook loose on the left wing and fed Maurine, whose cross was volleyed in off the post by Marta, as Boxx failed to closely mark her.
The U.S. nearly equalized through a Wambach effort in the 98th minute, but Andreia delivered a fantastic save. Yet Wambach was not to be denied. Rapinoe's pinpoint cross was challenged by Andreia, but Wambach was able to head the ball into the goal, and the U.S. was off life support. Penalty shootouts are called lotteries for a reason, but the U.S. was brimming with confidence and it wasn't a surprise to see the Americans prevail. That said, hearts sank when Boxx's initial effort was saved. But Andreia had clearly moved early, and it was poetic justice that Boxx was allowed to retake -- and make -- her second attempt. After that, Solo's and Krieger's heroics seemed preordained.
Had the game ended two minutes earlier, the U.S. would have suffered its earliest ever World Cup exit, and the recriminations would have been set to begin. Now the tournament is there for the taking, with Brazil and Germany both out. After what took place in Dresden, you have to like the Americans' chances.
Player ratings (1-10, 10=best)
G Hope Solo, 8: Flapped at one cross that Aline probably should have finished, but otherwise commanded her box well. Her handling was also mistake-free. Received no luck whatsoever when her penalty save from Cristiane was called off, but the fact she prevailed was pure justice.
D Amy LePeilbet, 6.5: A much better performance. Not only did she eliminate the glaring defensive mistakes that had plagued her, but she was top-notch overall with her defending. Her distribution wasn't always sharp, but at least her mistakes occurred farther upfield, away from danger.
D Christie Rampone, 8: Used her speed to good effect to help contain Marta on a counterattack. Marshaled the backline well by dropping her fellow defenders deeper, and was absolutely heroic overall.
D Rachel Buehler, 5: Seemed much more comfortable alongside Krieger and Rampone, and was overall enjoying a solid game until being shown her red card that seemed very harsh.
D Ali Krieger, 5: Couldn't stop giving the ball away in the first half, and had a shaky moment when she made a mess of an attempted clearance. But she picked up her game after the U.S. went down to 10 players, providing some vital clearances.
M Lauren Cheney, 5: A foul machine, although some of these were of the tactical variety. Wasn't all that impactful on the attacking end and made way for Rapinoe after 54 minutes.
M Shannon Boxx, 6: It was her cross that helped create the own goal, and she provided a massive physical presence. Was tidy in possession for the most part, and delivered by far her best performance of the tournament. But she failed to tightly mark Marta in the box, looking instead for an offside call, which allowed the Brazilian to get just enough space to shoot and score a brilliant goal.
M Carli Lloyd, 4: Never was able to establish much of an attacking rhythm, as Brazil gradually took control. Sitting on a yellow card, she was lucky to avoid a second booking from a handball in the second half. Could have put the game away if she hadn't hit the bar with a header.
M Heather O'Reilly, 5: Shook loose a couple of times on the wing, but was for the most part held in check. Put in plenty of work on the defensive end, but it was on the attacking side of things that the U.S. needed her to have an impact.
F Abby Wambach, 7: Took her usual amount of abuse and created the necessary havoc in the box on the first goal. Overall she struggled with her hold-up play a bit more than normal, but scored the 2-2 equalizer with seconds remaining in extra time.
F Amy Rodriguez, 4: She was barely heard from in the first half, even after moving back into more of a wide midfield role. A careless giveaway ended with Fabiana's effort hitting the bar. On the rare occasion when she did break loose, Rodriguez's touch let her down.
M Megan Rapinoe, 7: Provided a badly needed threat with her deliveries from set pieces, and did what she could to help the U.S. garner more possession. Her cross to Wambach for the equalizer will be long remembered.
F Alex Morgan, 5: Didn't provide the needed energy off the bench. Granted, the U.S. was a player down during her time on the field, but the Americans needed more from her.
M Tobin Heath: NR
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.