By Kevin Koczwara
Abby Wambach never gave up. Neither did her teammates, the rest of the United States Women’s National Team. It seemed like fate was teasing and tormenting the USWNT and handing its skilled opponent, Brazil, all the breaks. But that didn’t stop Wambach or her teammates. Even when things looked dire, when Rachel Buehler was sent off with a straight red card and the Brazilians got two cracks at the ensuing penalty kick, the Yanks never gave in to fate.
The American spirit that the U.S. prides itself on, never left the side, and coach Pia Sundhage — a Swede — got a three course meal of American spirit, and it overwhelmed her. It ultimately helped the U.S. prevail despite being down 2-1 in in extra time with the whistle pursed between the refs lips, ready to blow.
“Getting the red card and going down in extra time is tough. It’s a tough hill to climb,” said Wambach afterwards. “But this team is willing to put their hearts on the line. This team is willing to do whatever it takes to win, and I think it showed tonight.”
That spirit and willingness to do whatever it takes is what held the team together. It’s what helped the women tie the game and then seal the deal in penalty kicks.
“There’s something to be said about this team. This American attitude of pulling everything together and bringing out the best performance in each other is contagious,” said Sundhage after the game.
Sundhage’s team performed miraculously despite playing with 10-men for 55 minutes. The U.S. came together when Buehler was sent off. When the teams were at even strength, the game looked like it was Brazil’s to win for much of the game — except for the early own goal that gave the U.S. the lead.
Brazil boasts the best player in the world, Marta. At age 25, She has already been named the women’s game’s best player five times. She was the offensive catalyst for the Brazilian charge. She created chances to put the game out of reach, but Hope Solo was there to stop them. Brazil looked like a force destined to score while the two-sides played at even strength.
The U.S. struggled to find a rhythm. The USWNT tried to play the ball over the top of the Brazil defense, skipping over its midfield players. It got sucked in Brazil’s high-pressure and man-marking game. The Yanks left their respected space, bunched and refused to play through the midfield. The game was going Brazil’s way for much of the first 90 minutes.
Then Buehler got sent off, and Brazil got two tries at the ensuing penalty. The game was tied, and the U.S. was down a defender. Sundhage didn’t give in though. She made a few adjustments — Wambach dropped into the midfield more and midfielder Shannon Boxx dropped back into the center of the defense. The changes worked and the U.S. began to find more space. Boxx started spraying passes. Megan Rapinoe came on for Lauren Cheney and provided a true-wing presence opposite Heather O’Reilly.
Sundhage could have gone with another defender with the substitution, but she didn’t. She decided to go for it rather than pack in her defense. A bold move, that eventually paid off as Brazil refused to press the game and the U.S. actually took it to them.
“When Rachel Buehler was sent off, I think we started to play. It’s funny, in the first half we probably got the goal too early because we played too safe and didn’t run as much as we could have. We played too direct,” said Sundhage. “When Buehler was sent off, you could see something happened to the team and it was more than a running game and we explored the width.”
Rapinoe’s ability to whip in crosses and natural wing play made her the vital substitution the United States needed to breaking down Brazil and mounting pressure. She explored the width on the left. She worked hard. She never gave up on any ball. And she kept crossing the ball into the box, even when time was running out, and there were just mere seconds remaining. Her efforts paid off.
Rapinoe’s final cross, taken with her weaker left-foot, found Wambach at the back post in the 122nd minute. Wambach headed the chance into the back of the net, tying the game and making history — scoring the latest goal in Women’s World Cup History.
“It was a perfect ball. (Megan Rapinoe) got an opportunity down the left flank and sent the ball in. It just popped over that defenders head. I was sitting on that back post. I’m so happy it went in,” said Wambach,
The goal sent the game to penalty kicks. It came when the game looked out of reach, like it was already over and Brazil was going eliminate the U.S. But Wambach scored, surprising everyone who was watching and questioning her place in the team. But Wambach’s teammates were not surprised she scored the goal and came up big.
It was no surprise that Wambach never gave up. It was no surprise it was Wambach who kept chirping in the referee’s ear as Brazil tried to waste time anyway it could — faking an injury and having to be stretchered off the field, switching free kick takers, or the goalkeeper holding the ball just that extra second longer before punting it the distance. It was no surprise it was Wambach who kept her team motivated and inspired. It cam as no surprise that she was there to head home the chance and tie the game.
“I didn’t know if we were going to pull it out at the end. It started to look grim, but you felt the energy. It’s not like we held our heads. But you see the clock winding down and you wonder if this is going to be our time, our tournament. And we fought,” said USWNT goalkeeper Hope Solo after the game. “I knew Abby would come up big. I don’t care if she has two goals or 10 goals. When it counts she comes up big and that’s what she did today.”
Wambach’s goal was similar to Landon Donovan’s goal in the dying embers of the USMNT’s game with Algeria that helped the U.S. advance out of the group stage in the World Cup in South Africa. Both sent goals helped their respected teams advance. Both goals sent the U.S. soccer world into bedlam. Both goals showed the U.S. soccer doubtful that there is hope in the game.
But Wambach’s goal did something else. It provided hope to the women’s game in the States. It shocked the world because the U.S. was down to 10 men, and Brazil — arguably the most skilled team in the tournament — looked like a team destined for the finals. And there is a big difference between the quarter-finals and group stages. Wambach’s goal was on another level. It is a goal that will forever be etched into the minds of those who were watching. It will forever ring out in the American soccer landscape as another miracle moment and another reminder to just how amazing this game is. It is another reminder for those who may have forgotten about soccer — women’s soccer especially — that this game is one of highs and lows — mostly lows — but it’s a game that rewards in grandest fashion. Soccer is a game of torture and torment, but in the end that torture is relieved and the highest high, an ecstasy, is released when something like Wambach’s goal happens.
And the game still wasn’t over. There were penalties to play for, but was there a doubt in anyone’s mind that Hope Solo, the best goalkeeper in the women’s game, wasn’t going to come up big and make the saves necessary to see the U.S. through? Nope.
“You never know what is going to happen, but I was confident. We’ve been practicing [penalties], we’ve been looking good in practice. Everybody was pretty much stone cold. We were ice. I felt like we put them [the penalties] away well,” said Solo.
The U.S. put them away alright. The U.S. didn’t miss a single penalty. Solo only had to stop one. She did that and she did it easily.
Defender Ali Krieger finished the deal on the U.S.’s fifth penalty. She stepped up and placed her shot in the side-netting. The shot barely left the grass, just the way you want it. Just the way you practice. She knew it was in. She had to put it in. It was destiny.
“I don’t think I was really thinking. I just stepped up to the plate. We had practiced in training and I felt confident in making it,”said Krieger. “I blocked everything out and stepped up. Everybody shot the ball in so perfectly I told myself I had to do it as well. I was confident, knew my place and it worked out.”
It all worked out. Down a player? Easy. Time running out? No problem. The U.S. knew it’s place. It never gave up. It won when all the odds were stacked against it. Vegas was holding the bet. It had the game in its pocket. But, no one told Wambach and company.
Now France awaits on Wednesday in the semi-final. Sunhage’s crew is one win away from the final, but if the team doesn’t make it or win, it will be remembered as the hardest working team the U.S. has ever put out. It will be remembered for one of the greatest moments in sports history. There is no doubt this team will be remembered for its heart.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.