- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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LONDON -- Where were you when Alex Morgan became a household name?
You will remember. Trust me. This is one of those seminal moments when the athletic competition is so compelling, so riveting, so electric that it becomes immediately cemented in our sports annals, permanently imbedded in our otherwise cluttered, distracted brains.
Think Kerri Strug in the 1996 Olympic Games, where she stuck her vault on a mangled ankle and clinched gold for the United States in the gymnastics team all-around event.
Think Brandi Chastain in 1999, drilling home the winning penalty shootout kick in the Women's World Cup against China, then adeptly revealing to one and all exactly what a sports bra looks like.
On Monday evening, a historic day for U.S. female Olympians, Morgan joined Strug and Chastain among that rarefied company of athletes who deliver on the biggest stage at the biggest moment.
Morgan's header in the final minute of extra time over the outstretched fingers of Canada keeper Erin McLeod capped off one of the most dramatic and exciting soccer matches in history. Her astonishing goal on a textbook cross from teammate Heather O'Reilly enabled the Americans to eke out a 4-3 win against Canada and advance to the gold-medal game. It sets up a rematch against Japan, which upset the U.S. in last year's Women's World Cup final; it's a match the world has been thirsting for since these Games commenced.
The women's soccer team joined a host of female competitors who made headlines for the U.S. on Monday. Pole vaulter Jenn Suhr became the first U.S. woman to win gold in the event since Stacy Dragila in 2000. Flyweight Marlen Esparza and middleweight Claressa Shields both won their bouts, guaranteeing them at worst a bronze medal and assuring the United States will medal in the first Olympic women's boxing competition.
"I definitely don't feel like I fight like a girl," the 17-year-old Shields declared after her win over Anna Laurell of Sweden. "I'm boxing out there."
What Shields was doing was competing, just like so many other U.S. women who have shined here so far. The cornucopia of champions includes veterans who have dominated for years (Serena Williams), newcomers who hoped to use London as their springboard to greatness (Missy Franklin), and teenagers (Gabby Douglas and Katie Ledecky) who wowed us with their poise and tenacity in pressure-packed situations.
The women's basketball team has also been dominant and remains unbeaten as it approaches the medal rounds. Coach Geno Auriemma has already made it clear that gold is the only acceptable outcome.
The U.S. women's soccer team feels the same way. It was not expecting a slugfest with Canada that would hang in the balance from the outset. After all, the Americans' neighbors north of the border were a woeful 0-22-4 against them since 2001. Canadian coach John Herdman took a pre-emptive swipe at the U.S. team in the days before, claiming he would be watching for "illegal tactics" during the match.
Canadian star Christine Sinclair was brilliant in defeat, scoring all three of her team's goals and forcing the U.S. into the unfamiliar position of playing on its heels. Yet each time the Americans fell behind, they ultimately answered.
In the 79th minute, there was the redoubtable Abby Wambach scoring on a penalty kick to tie the score at 3. Canada protested vehemently, first over a somewhat dubious delay-of-game call on McLeod, then on the subsequent handball call that set up Wambach.
Brace yourself for the onslaught of conspiracy theories to abound. Much of the world believes the Canadians were robbed, and the heavily favored Americans will have few allies in the stands for their gold-medal bid on Aug. 9. That, of course, will be nothing new for coach Pia Sundhage and her team.
Everyone has their favorite Olympic highlight, but Morgan's magic will undoubtedly tally its share of votes in the years ahead. Alex (when you make a play of this magnitude, you immediately discover you are on a first-name basis with the rest of the world) will now join Strug and Tiffeny Milbrett, who scored the game winner against China in the first Olympic competition in 1996, and Joan Benoit Samuelson, who underwent arthroscopic surgery, won the Olympic marathon trials 17 days later and then forged on to win gold in Los Angeles in 1984, as decorated Olympic heroines.
While Wambach and U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo are perhaps the most well-known soccer stars, Morgan, the youngest member of the 2011 World Cup team, has long since established herself as one of the most talented players in the world.
Unlike Chastain, Morgan kept her shirt on after her skillful game winner. She knows there is more to be done. The semifinal may have been electric, but the U.S., and its new household-name star, has already moved on.
Alex Morgan joined that rarefied company of athletes who deliver on the biggest stage at the biggest moment, and it was fitting she did it on a historic day for U.S. female Olympians.