Tuesday, July 12, 2011

US Women Define "Determination" & Capture Hearts

Soaring through the air, reaching it's apex and starting to come back down towards the pitch, a soccer ball is headed for it's destiny. With time literally about to run out any second, this ball will be the final nail in the coffin if it is stopped. But then, a face of pure determination, framed by short cropped hair held up by a thin headband would enter the equation and change everything. Abby Wambach took to the air and forcefully headed Megan Rapinoe's beautiful long cross into the back of the net. By the time Rapinoe leapt into Wambach's waiting arms, a reality was settling in to all in attendance...
The Americans were alive!

It cannot be understated what the US Women's National Team accomplished on Sunday. This ranks right up there with the Christian Laettner and Michael Jordan buzzer beaters. You can put it right next to Dwight Clark and David Tyree's catches. It stands shoulder to shoulder with Kirk Gibson and Joe Carter's home runs.
That may sound like hyperbole, but few things can stand up against the mix of patriotism and the sense of imminent defeat being overpowered. There was an obvious connection that fans of any level could make, that of feeling like everything is going against you and you cant do anything to stop the proverbial bleeding. Then there was the late game antics of Brazil that essentially tried to cheat it's way to ending the game, and how that could very well have actually given the Americans the extra time they needed.
"Dramatic" doesn't come close to describing this game...
It started out well enough with Brazilian player Daiane accidentally putting the ball in her own net off of a Shannon Boxx pass through the middle in just the second minute of the game. This would oddly prove to be one of the more "normal" events to take place. Daiane would still have a role to play in this game later on.
The game from this point out was relatively routine with both teams fighting and having a handful of decent attempts. At the 65th minute, the five time reigning Female Player of the Year, Marta, did what she does and broke in with a chance to score. American defender Rachel Buehler pulled her down and in the process received a red card and automatic ejection.
For the rest of the match (which included the 30 minute overtime), the US Women would have to play 11 on 10. But more pressing matters still existed from the foul. The first of many controversial calls from Australian referee Jacqui Melksham would come at this time as a Penalty Kick was also awarded on the foul. Commentator and longtime US player Julie Foudy disagreed with the call. Regardless, Brazil would have an excellent chance to get an equalizer.
Brazilian player Cristiane was chosen to take the Penalty Kick and when she did, American Goalkeeper Hope Solo dove out to her left and knocked the ball away. The American women went wild. But the celebration was premature. Melksham would step in and rule that the kick needed to be retaken. In another controversial call, it was ruled that an American player "encroached" the box just before the kick was taken. This time both Foudy and her colleague Ian Darke were in full agreement that they had never seen an encroachment call that close before. The crowd also seemed to agree.
As Marta stepped in and buried the re-kick to tie the game at one apiece, it was clear that the crowd had shifted toward the American teams favor. Perhaps feeding off of this new found energy the US Women would control the flow of the game until the end of regulation, despite being down a player. This already crazy game was going into Extra Time.
Brazil would not take long to score as Marta showed why she is the worlds best female player and converted her 2nd goal of the game just two minutes into overtime. With her back practically to the net, she was able to loop the ball up and over everybody and ring it off the far post and in. The goal was quite impressive and was hailed as a goal that few, if any, other players could have scored. To keep consistent with the theme of the game, many believe Brazil got away with another beneficial call (or lack thereof) as the play appeared to be offside. The Americans were now in serious trouble. But there was still plenty of fight left. At the closing seconds of the first 15 minute period, Wambach had an excellent chance to tie the game but her left-footed smash was just barely turned aside by Brazilian keeper Andreia.
The second 15 minute Extra Time period was a display of both what is bad and good about Soccer. Nearing the final minutes of the game and protecting a 1 goal lead, Brazil tried some underhanded tactics to delay the game getting started back up every chance it got. The crowd was obviously annoyed and if there were any non-Brazilian fans not cheering for the USA, they were now as full on chants of "USA...USA" broke out across the Stadium in the tragically historic city of Dresden.
This would reach a climax when Brazilian player Erika had to be carted off the field in the final minutes. Replays would show that nothing at all happened to her. She just walked into an area where no one was looking, laid down and pretended to be injured. As if this disgusting display wasnt enough.. she actually requested a stretcher and had to be carried off the field. When she was approximately 3 feet off the playing field, she stopped the stretcher bearers, unlatched all the restraints, hopped off the stretcher and sprinted to the sidelines. Seconds later she was sprinting back onto the field. The crowd went nuts when she got off the stretcher and that only escalated as she returned to the pitch. Darke, commentating on the game even went so far as to mention that should Brazil go on to win the World Cup, people would point to this event and question whether or not that is how a Champion should play.
Watch video of this here. Video is in Spanish, but clearly shows the play.
Becasue of Soccer's weird time rules, Brazil was counting on this time not being added to Stoppage Time (time applied after the alloted amount that is supposedly supposed to match the amount of time that the ball was not in play). The Erika fiasco took just shy of 5 minutes to resolve, so you can understand Brazil's thoughts when only 3 minutes of Stoppage Time was added as the the last seconds of Extra Time expired.
Three minutes! That is all they had. It's akin to being down to your last strike while still being down a few runs or facing a 4th & 10 from your own 20 yard line. The odds, as they saw, are not good.
With approximately a minute left in the game Ali Krieger intercepted a pass deep in the American zone. Escaping a threat, she passed the ball up field to Carli Lloyd. Charging up field then suddenly turning to the left and sprinting past players, Lloyd saw the spunky little Rapinoe streaking up the left sideline. Another perfect pass and Rapinoe has the ball in stride as she continues her journey up the left flank.
Planting her right foot, Rapinoe's left foot  swung down and sent the ball spiraling into the air. Wambach eagerly awaits at the far corner of the box. When the ball arrives, she doesn't flinch for a moment as she creates history. The courage on her face is matched only by the look of exuberance it would display moments later. No one in the history of either the Men or Women's World Cup has ever scored a later goal.

And yet.. we are still not done!
The game would have to be decided by Penalty Kicks. The US Women would not be denied, both figuratively and literally... as the first four shooters: Boxx, Lloyd, Wambach & Rapinoe sent in their kicks. On Brazil's 3rd shot, Solo got a good read on Daiane's kick and made an outstretched save to her right. With every other Brazilian scoring, it came down to Krieger. Score and win, miss and leave the door open for Brazil to steal this game back.
Without hesitating, Krieger stepped up, approached the ball and before she knew it, she was charging down field with her fist triumphantly in the air, her shot having skidded into the bottom left corner of the net. Her teammates, knowing what they had just done, wouldn't make her run far as they intercepted her and the celebration begun.
The US Women had prevailed nearly insurmountable odds and they deserve all the credit in the world. They will rest up and prepare for France on Wednesday July 13th. With Japan's amazing upset over Germany, the American team is now the favorites of the final four teams left. How they respond to that pressure will be answered in the next few days, but if we learned anything from Sunday's match, it's that pressure is something the American Women can handle. 
Follow Team USA vs France on ESPN at 11:30am. At work? Follow the game on MatchTracker at ussocer.com or ESPN3.com or follow @ussoccer_wnt on Twitter.

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