Team of destiny turns out to be Japan
FRANKFURT, Germany -- They had to do it to us again.
The U.S. Women's World Cup team had to leave everyone with frazzled nerves and hearts fluttering from excitement and tears in our eyes from the results.
But this time, Sunday, they were tears of anguish.
You live by penalty shots, you die by penalty shots. The cruelty is swift, and there are no do-overs for mistakes.
Japan won its first World Cup, defeating the U.S. in penalty kicks 3-1. The game was dead-locked at 2-all after 120 minutes of soccer, sending it into penalty kicks for only the second time in history.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage spoke somberly after the game, trying to find something positive about losing the World Cup.
"I think we gave the crowd a good game: It took 90 minutes, extra time and penalty kicks," Sundhage said. "It's a game to remember. ... I'm disappointed we didn't win. We won a silver medal, and I hope I can feel that after a couple of weeks. It was a game at the highest level.
"Penalty kicks ... there is a small difference between success and not [having] success."
This American ride through the World Cup felt like an out-of-control roller coaster that was either going to give you the rush of your life -- or send you flying off the tracks.
And the players felt it too, looking drained, exhausted and nearly unable to fathom their fate after the game.
A reporter yelled out to American goalie Hope Solo, "What happened?"
She looked back, with a mix of anger and hurt in her eyes, answering, "We lost."
The Americans had happily survived the Russian roulette of penalty kicks before: first to win the 1999 final and then to outlast Brazil in the 2011 quarterfinals. So there was hope to expect another miracle.
But the U.S. magic in penalty kicks evaporated quickly, as Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath failed on the first three kicks. Lloyd's effort betrayed her nerves, sailing high over the net.
Aya Miyama, Mizuho Sakaguchi and Saki Kumagai connected on their shots, and the World Cup belonged to Japan. Goalie Ayumi Kaihori stood strong in net, stopping Boxx and Heath.
Kaihori, who was named player of the match, giggled with giddiness as she recounted her impression of the penalty kicks.
"I did get support in the penalty shootout ... the Americans missed," Kaihori said, smiling as her words went through a translator. "In the penalty shootout, I believed in myself. ... I just wanted to save all those shots coming at me."
There always will be regrets when a dream is ended so close to success, but there is no reason for any lasting sadness for the American women. This was as epic a soccer game as you will ever see, and Japan and the U.S. wrote a tale of many twists and turns.
The Americans led the game twice, once in regulation and once in extra time. Alex Morgan came off the bench to score a left-footed rocket in the 69th minute. Abby Wambach drilled in one of her headers, off a cross from Morgan, in the 104th minute.
The Japanese once again showed their perseverance, coming from behind twice. They weathered run after U.S. run and stayed steady.
It was the ultimate chess match, played by two teams with deep mental and emotional reserves.
Japanese midfielders Mimaya (81st minute) and Homare Sawa (117th) answered the Americans. When the smallest crack in the U.S. defense appeared, the Japanese pounced.
The Japanese are now reveling in the American canon we've all been taught, but don't get to see come true often enough today: Faith and hard work can be rewarded.
The words "team of destiny" had been thrown around in the days leading up to the final, as if the stars had been aligning in the cloudy German heavens for the Americans to win this title.
But maybe destiny was aligning to bring the World Cup, for the first time, to Asia. Maybe this is the just reward for Sawa, who wins her first World Cup in her fifth trip to the tournament.
Maybe this is a just reward for a team that dedicated its performance to its country, recovering from a series of horrific natural disasters in March.
And maybe the Americans just weren't lucky, with a catalog of missed opportunities and balls striking crossbars in regulation.
Japanese coach Norio Sasaki had joked before the tournament that he hoped the soccer gods were on his side. He was asked after the game if his gods had shown Japan some favor.
"Yes, the players were patient, they wanted to win this game and I think it is because of that the Americans only scored two goals," Sasaki said. "Yes, we were lucky during the penalty shootout, but my soccer god made it possible for us to win versus the U.S."
This is a fitting ending to a pattern the Japanese built slowly, but carefully. First, down went two-time defending World Cup champion Germany, on home soil, in the quarterfinals. Then, favored Sweden was dispatched in the semifinals.
And now, for the fait accompli, the Japanese have defeated the world's No. 1 team, the United States.
In the end, the American women had to stand and watch the Japanese dance and jump up and down as confetti rained down and disco balls glittered on the field.
But not one U.S. head was down, even as tears streamed from their eyes.
A lot has been accomplished by the U.S., but yes, the trophy will not be coming home with them.
But the amazing memories will always live on for them, Team Japan, and people who appreciate amazing athletes who gave it their all on one chilly night in Frankfurt.