MANCHESTER, England -- They were ready for this moment.
Less than an hour after playing in one of the greatest games in women's soccer history, that, above all else, is what U.S. co-captain Abby Wambach wanted the world to know. Extra time. Penalty kicks. Come-from-behind attacks. They trained for all of it. And in each of those moments, they envisioned themselves being great.
"It takes just one chance, one moment of brilliance for someone to do something special," Wambach said.
That moment came in the 123rd minute of a game packed with more drama than a high school hallway, when Team USA's young star, forward Alex Morgan, out-jumped, out-willed and outlasted the Canada defense and headed in the second goal of her budding Olympic career to give the Americans a 4-3 win. It is a moment that will forever be remembered for propelling the U.S. women's national team into its fifth Olympic final. As the moment the United States, after clawing from behind three times in 80 minutes, secured a rematch with 2011 Women's World Cup champion Japan, who relegated them to a silver medal that still haunts them.
And it was a moment that was unexpected.
"Heading is something (U.S. coach) Pia (Sundhage) has always said is one of my weakest points," said Morgan, who worked harder on that part of her game than anything else. "That's probably a true statement."
The expected, of course, would have been for Wambach, the woman who has built a career on lassoing big moments and who'd already scored her fifth goal in as many games, to steal another at Old Trafford on Monday night. Expected would have been for a game-winning header to come from the woman whose noggin has three Twitter accounts -- @wambachhead, @wambachshead and @AbbyWambachHead -- and a Facebook fan page dedicated to it.
But in a game that was already defined by the unexpected -- a rare six-second penalty, the first hat trick scored against the United States since 2001, an "Olympic" goal (a goal scored directly from a corner kick) at the Olympics -- it seemed fitting the ending would be just as unexpected.
In the moment, it is difficult to look back and put a game like this into perspective. It is even harder to look ahead. But now, that is what this team must do.
"Now we have this one chance," Wambach said. "All of us have dreamt about it, had nightmares about it. This is not redemption; it's a chance to prove ourselves and to let what happened last summer go. I told Alex, 'You just sent us into the gold-medal match. I am in love with you in this moment.'"
Moments. That's what we remember about sports, bright flashes in our memories that stir up emotion and remind us why we watch.
Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt after scoring the game-winning penalty kick in the 1999 World Cup final against China.
Wambach heading in the game-tying goal in the 122nd minute of the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil.
And Alex Morgan's game-winning header in the 123rd minute of the 2012 Olympic semifinal against Canada, the latest goal ever scored by a member of the U.S. women's national team. In the end, the player they call Baby Horse, the woman who has been the workhorse of this Olympic tournament, came up big in the biggest of moments.
"I can't remember ever feeling this way," Morgan said, still shaking nearly two hours after the game. "I've never wanted to cry on a field after scoring a goal."
But that's exactly what she did. As she felt the weight of her teammates piling on top of her, the gravity of what she had just accomplished began to sink in, and at the bottom of that pile, "I shed a tear," she said. "We believed from the first minute until the last. Each player individually is better than each player on Canada. But when you come together as a team, you can't break us."
From the first minute, this game was physical, and when it went into extra minutes, it was clear it would be the players who had run that one extra wind sprint, spent one extra hour in the weight room, that would decide the match. "In this game, it was who's fitter, who's stronger, and we showed that in the last couple minutes," Morgan said.
"It was a rugby match out there," said goalkeeper Hope Solo. "You never knew what was going to happen."
The game featured two of the three greatest goal scorers of all time, in Wambach and Canada's Christine Sinclair, who proved an all but unstoppable force in scoring the first hat trick against the United States since Norway's Ragnhild Gulbrandsen in 2001. Sinclair scored more goals against the Americans than France, Colombia, North Korea and Great Britain combined. "She was incredible tonight," said Megan Rapinoe, who scored the first two goals of the game for the United States. "I'm sure she is heartbroken."
It's a feeling Rapinoe and her teammates know well, and one they've drawn on when they needed to dig deep in these games. "That loss last year hurt," Rapinoe said. "We don't want to feel that way again. This is turning out to be a nice story. Hopefully we'll have the happy ending this time."
The U.S. women believe Thursday's gold-medal moment at Wembley Stadium will belong to them.