Just call her Air Wambach
Is it too early to declare the Head of Wambach the new Hand of God?
It might not be technically illegal, like Diego Maradona's infamous volleyball spike against England, but I doubt Brazil and France will let that deadly dome through customs anytime soon.
For the second match in a row, a flick of Abby Wambach's sinewy neck has helped catapult the U.S. women ahead of an opponent that had outplayed and outstyled them for most of the game. With time ebbing Wednesday in a 1-all contest that the cool, composed French had dictated since Lauren Cheney's early goal, on came Wambach's partner in last-second heroics, Megan Rapinoe, to lift a flagging, disjointed U.S. side while "that beast in the air" punched the Americans' ticket to the World Cup final against Japan.
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So is Pia Sundhage a tactical genius for waiting until the 65th minute to bring on Rapinoe, whose searing pace is often more telling late in the game, or is there some unwritten Women's World Cup law that allows only one bottle-blond Bruce Springsteen fan with a mean left foot to be on the field at any one time?
Oh, if only men's national coach Bob Bradley could command his substitutes as masterfully as Sundhage instead of making them seem like desperation moves when the game is already lost. To the canny Sundhage, who also brought on Alex Morgan (scorer of the third U.S. goal) midway through the second half, substitution is a proactive rather than a reactive process like the insertion of the sixth man into an NBA game--a vital spark who can tip the balance when the match is on a knife's edge.
Although Sundhage and Bradley are clearly not two Pias in the same pod, they do share an important trait: Both are fiercely loyal to their starters. Sundhage never wavered in her commitment to Wambach, Amy Rodriguez, Shannon Boxx and Amy LePeilbet, each of whom has endured shaky passages of play during the tournament. Coming into these WWC finals, Wambach's form had dipped dramatically, as she struggled through a Fernando Torres-esque slump that had seen her score just once in the previous 10 games. And in her first two matches in the tournament, against North Korea and Sweden, she looked like a shadow of her beastly self. But Sundhage subscribes to the soccer saw, "Form is temporary; class is permanent," and her faith in the 31-year-old striker was gloriously repaid with Wambach's last-gasp header heard 'round the world against Brazil.
Yet with the exception of Cheney's ninth-minute finish, Wambach and the rest of the Americans started slowly again Wednesday. Meanwhile, the French worked their neat little triangles, daring the U.S. to muscle them off the ball and then darting past the Americans on the flanks.
"If [the Americans] are not technically impressive," French midfielder Sonia Bompastor told the French newspaper L'Equipe on the eve of the match, "collectively it is a streamroller that chokes you."
And it is Wambach on whom the U.S. depends to flatten its opponents, but the big striker failed to bury a free header from a tight angle 2 yards out in the 38th minute that would have given the Americans a 2-0 lead.
Still, the award for profligacy has to go to Les Bleues. For all their Gallic panache and ability to possess the ball, this was a team that simply couldn't shoot straight, a problem that has plagued the French since Napoleon last dribbled through Prussia.
On Sunday, France launched an astonishing 33 shots against England with many of them coming closer to landing in the Rhine than in the net. On Wednesday, Les Bleues continued to display no conscience in letting 'em rip, but the fans in Row Z were considerably busier than a rarely bothered Hope Solo.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
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• Call it a comeback
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• The battle for third
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• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
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The U.S. keeper had brazenly declared this week that the Americans would be "bringing the Cup home," but this was not a performance that she'll want to hang on her wall next to her Brazil heroics. In the 55th minute, Bompastor was given enough time on the left flank to smoke a pack of Gitanes before sending in a swerving cross that skidded past a flat-footed Solo into the far corner. Then, 11 minutes later, she opted not to launch the ball downfield to alleviate the French pressure and instead played a tidy pass right to France's Louisa Necib, who was happily minding her own business around the penalty area. Fortunately for the U.S., the elegant French playmaker, who has been hailed in her country as the ponytailed Zinedine Zidane, did not apply a Zizou-like finish, snatching her shot wide.
That reprieve, along with Rapinoe's kinetic presence in midfield, seemed to energize the Americans. Almost on cue, the super sub sent a searching cross toward Wambach in the box that resulted in a corner, from which "Her Airness" met Cheney's wonderfully struck kick with a screaming header into the back of the net.
Now the only thing standing between this U.S. Redeem Team and a title for the post-1999 generation is Japan, whose flowing movement and passing were too much for both the mighty Germans and the impressive, undefeated Swedes.
The stats give the Americans a massive edge -- they've never lost to Japan in 25 games, winning 22, and outscoring the Japanese by 77 goals to 13 -- but you can't hide behind past performance in a World Cup final. If the U.S. midfield struggles again as it did against the technically superior French, no amount of Rapinoe-inspired second-half miracles will matter.
But for now, the United States and Abby Wambach are head and shoulders above the rest.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."
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2011 Women's World Cup
2011 champion: Japan
Topics: Women's World Cup