U.S. captured lightning in a bottle
DRESDEN, Germany -- Facing five-time world player of the year Marta and her splendid supporting cast, the last thing the U.S. needed against Brazil in the quarterfinals of the Women's World Cup was a bad call.
The Americans didn't get just one. They probably felt it was four.
Yet despite all that, the U.S. persevered 5-3 on penalties in a pulsating contest from start to finish, engineering one of the most dramatic wins in any World Cup, men's or women's. "I think that that was a perfect example of what our country is about," striker Abby Wambach said. "The history of this team has always been we never give up."
Call the U.S. "Team Destiny."
How else to describe Wambach netting in the 122nd minute to make it 2-2 and Hope Solo saving Daiane's penalty in the shootout? All coming, of course, exactly 12 years after the U.S. won the 1999 World Cup via a penalty shootout. If you wrote the script, people would criticize it for being too unbelievable, too canned.
Aussie referee Jacqui Melksham and her assistants seemingly contrived to conspire against the U.S. on a sunny, warm evening at the sold-out Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion in Dresden. For almost an hour, the U.S. played a player down.
"It's hard to put together all the thoughts I have," said head coach Pia Sundhage. "I'd rather talk about how emotional it became. I come from Sweden, and this American attitude, pulling everything together and bringing the best out performance of each other, that's contagious. I'm very proud and very happy to be the coach of the U.S. team."
"The soccer gods were with us tonight," Wambach said. "You could say they weren't with us for a while."
Before Wambach's tying goal on virtually the last sequence of extra time, Melksham threatened to be the main talking point. Midway in the second half, seemingly ages after an own goal in the second minute gave the U.S. just the start it wanted, Melksham awarded a dubious penalty when Rachel Buehler tangled with Marta. Buehler hasn't been all that assured this tournament, yet it appeared to be a 50-50 challenge in the penalty box. Melksham pointed to the spot before dismissing Buehler.
That was just the beginning. Solo, Brazil's kryptonite, thwarted the Samba Queens again, diving to her left to push away Cristiane's effort. If there were any demons from the 2007 semifinal against Brazil, when she was furious for being left out, they were exorcised in this moment of brilliance.
Solo, like her teammates, was understandably jubilant. But seconds later, Melksham ordered the kick to be struck again. Was it because Solo moved off her line before the kick was taken? Or was it for encroachment into the box by other U.S. players?
Shortly following the post-match news conferences, soccer's often bumbling governing body, FIFA, said it was because Solo went forward before the ball was struck. Replays didn't really support the argument. And, of course, Marta took advantage of the second opportunity.
Far from sinking, the U.S. played its best stuff thereafter, going forward and using more of the field. "In the first half, we got the goal too early probably," Sundhage said. "We played too safe and direct."
But by this point, the soccer gods appeared to be on Brazil's side, as Wambach hinted. Marta's winner in extra time, according to replays, should have been ruled out for offside. Oh, and did we mention that Aline was spared a second yellow before the brouhaha for a deliberate handball?
"You really have to manage your emotions in a game like this," Solo said. "I'll be the first to admit I get emotional. But you have to be able to contain that. You see Abby out there screaming, but she has a good head on her shoulders and can outsmart her opponent. And I think even though you can get caught up in the moment and get emotional, I think this team can outsmart other teams. We stayed together the entire time 'til the final minute."
Sundhage was as calm as ever in the days leading up to the game against Brazil, drawing on the positives, not negatives, from a 2-1 defeat to Sweden to end the group stage. While some would hope for a little more passion on the sidelines from the U.S.'s head coach, her demeanor seemingly had the desired effect.
If there was any trepidation heading into the encounter against Marta & Co., an early goal is the perfect tonic. Only Saturday, central midfielder Carli Lloyd was discussing the need to get off to a good start. So when pressure from Wambach contributed to the own goal, the No. 1 ranked team in the world could breathe a little easier.
The last time Brazil met the U.S. at the World Cup, Marta was the catalyst, the central figure in a resounding 4-0 win four years ago. However, the U.S. had since won four straight.
That, coupled with Daiane's deflection into her own net, visibly shook the Samba Queens. Rosana remonstrated with her teammates, and Marta took out her frustration on Melksham. When Marta began venting again to end the opening half, out came a yellow.
Up until that point, the defense, while certainly not rock solid, did the essentials. Veteran Christie Rampone and her 36-year-old legs harried Marta when the latter went on a breathtaking run from the middle of the field, causing her to shoot wide, and made a timely interception in the box in the second half.
Even Amy LePeilbet, a surprise inclusion in the starting lineup due to her lapses at left back, was chipping in, although at times she was caught upfield.
Marta did, however, sparkle on occasions. Few will remember that she brilliantly turned a defender leading up to the penalty decision and finished wonderfully on the retaken penalty kick. Her goal two minutes into extra time was even better, finding the far post, about the only place where the assured Solo couldn't stop it.
The U.S. got the break it needed in the shootout when Shannon Boxx, stopped by Brazil's keeper, Andreia, was given a second chance. And this time the call looked right. Andreia appeared to be at least a yard off her line prior to the ball being struck.
Solo did the rest.
"I mean, how many legitimate penalties did Hope save today?" Wambach asked.
Spare a thought for Marta. While fellow greats Mia Hamm and Birgit Prinz won the sport's biggest team prize, her drought continues. When the next World Cup is staged in Canada in four years, Marta won't be over the hill, but nearing 30, probably won't be in her prime.
To make things worse for the No. 10, she was booed more than once, mirroring what's happened at other venues this World Cup. The Women's World Cup finally had its villain, even if it was her teammates that deserved more of the boos for playacting and such. "I don't know why there were so many whistles because she's the best player in the world," Brazil manager Kleiton Lima said. "It started the first day here. There were whistles all over the place."
It's hard to fathom that Brazil, with its glorious soccer history, is still seeking a maiden World Cup title and Olympic gold. After Sunday's theater, it's hard to see the U.S. not going all the way.
London-based Ravi Ubha covers soccer and tennis for ESPN.com. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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2011 Women's World Cup
2011 champion: Japan
Topics: Women's World Cup