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Monday, July 25, 2011
U.S. women one win from history

By Michelle Smith

MONCHENGLADBACH, Germany -- In the quest to create its own moment in the legacy of the sport, the U.S. women's soccer team took one big step closer Wednesday evening in this soggy suburban city in northwest Germany.

It didn't matter that a 45,000-seat stadium was about 20,000 shy of being full.

It didn't matter that the Americans had one fewer day of rest or that for a long while, they looked like it.

It turned out it didn't matter that the U.S. played far from a perfect game in the midfield and in the back line.

It didn't matter because moments of opportunity presented themselves, and the U.S. took advantage. Abby Wambach pushed the U.S. ahead with another magnificent header in the 79th minute, and newcomer Alex Morgan came off the bench to score on a breakway three minutes later to propel the U.S. to a 3-1 victory over France and into the Women's World Cup final for the first time since 1999.

There it is again -- 1999. It is what has defined the U.S. women's soccer team for the past 12 years. This team is simply trying to redefine itself.

The 1999 team and its accomplishments have been a blessing and a curse to the U.S. women's national team program. That seminal team and title have been a point of national identification, a beautiful frame of reference. And an impossibly high bar to clear.

Could any other American team ever be Mia and Julie and Joy and Brandi? Could another tournament ever be as magical and memorable as the one that ended in the Rose Bowl in 1999 with more than 90,000 in the stands?

The 2011 team has been looking to break away, to separate itself from the "'99ers," while simultaneously being surrounded by them. It is almost there. Almost.

As joyful and glorious as this run to the title game has been, it is not finished.

The U.S. was the last team to gain entry into this tournament. Then there was the troubling loss in the group round to Sweden, the brilliant scramble to salvage the Brazil game. Then came this semifinal match, which took place on a slick field and looked like a terrifying tightrope walk at times.

It appeared the French were destined to break through and take the lead not long after the U.S. went up early 1-0 on a Lauren Cheney goal, then hung on for dear life. France outshot the American team 25-11 for the game.

The French peppered the U.S. goal with promising opportunities, sliding too easily through the U.S. midfield and into the back line, where it looked as though the extra day of rest for the French might turn out to be the difference in the game. But the U.S. was bailed out time and again by the brilliant play of goalkeeper Hope Solo.

France finally broke through in the 56th minute on an impressive long-distance boot from the left flank from Sonia Bompastor. As Gaetane Thiney dived in front of Solo, the goalkeeper anticipated the deflection and Bompastor's ball slid into the net.

But after the French scored, the U.S. brought in fresh legs in Morgan and then spark plug Megan Rapinoe, who helped the U.S. offensive get some push.

"The whole time we've been on this journey, we've written a different story," said Cheney, who served the corner kick that led to Wambach's game-winner. "We haven't done anything the easy way, and we've had some serious ups and downs. I think we just continue to follow our own path. You always want it to be 5-0 and you always want to have a great game and prove to everybody how great you are, but that's not for us. That's not the way we do things."

Wambach and Solo have been nothing short of inspired in the past few days. They are veteran players setting a tone for a team that will face Japan, a 3-1 winner over Sweden, in the final Sunday.

These players didn't come here to wow the world with a quarterfinal win or scrape out a semifinal victory. They didn't come here to leave everyone with a lasting memory of guts and attitude.

They came here to win a championship.

"You're seeing a changeover from that '99 generation," Wambach said after the game. "Nothing to take away from them. What they did was special. What they did gave us the opportunity that all of us have here. ... And this generation, this team, we believe in ourselves like the '99 World Cup team did. That is a historical thing that happens with this team, to never quit no matter what goes on.

"This generation is cool because we want to make a name for ourselves. We want the next generation to be ours."

One more game, and they are there.