Women's World Cup: Tinseltown Via Frankfurt

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A goal in the waning moments of extra time. A penalty kick victory.

The U.S. had been down this path versus Brazil during the quarterfinals in Dresden on July 10.  On Sunday in the final at Frankfurt, Japan wrote a similar script to win the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup that left the Americans the runner-ups in Germany.

It was a classic match, but forgive Pia Sunhage’s squad if it calls for rewrite. The U.S. squandered a pair of one-goal leads that would have given the Americans three of the six Women’s World Cups contested to date. Unlike their match last Sunday against Brazil and their 1999 forbears against China, when Briana Scurry made her stop and Brandi Chastain bared her midriff after the Cup clincher in the Rose Bowl, the U.S. collapsed during the PK session in Frankfurt.

Instead, Japan penned its own Hollywood ending, its fortitude and perseverance both Oscar-worthy, with a finish that perhaps removes some of the pain and loss tied to the earthquake and resultant tsunami that devastated the island nation in March.

The U.S. dominated play throughout much of the first half against Japan, with a number of legitimate chances, notably Lauren Cheney’s deflection that went past the near post in the early minutes and Abby Wambach’s left-footed rocket that hit underneath the crossbar that kept matters square at nil.

Alex Morgan, who had scored the third goal on a wonderful chip to put France away in the semifinal, replaced the injured Cheney at half. Morgan was thwarted on a deflection off the right goal post that then bounced off Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori in the 49th minute.

Twenty minutes later, though, the youngest American and the next (pretty) face of women’s soccer in this nation would not be denied. Running down a long pass from Megan Rapinoe, the platinum-haired midfielder, who was among the top four U.S. players in Germany, Morgan bodied off a Japanese defender and drilled a left-footer inside the far post.

Twelve minutes after Morgan’s rocket and just at ESPN analyst Julie Foudy was extolling the steadiness of the U.S. captain and mother of two Christie Rampone — the link to the 1999ers, who was then single and known as Pearce — turned it over. That started a sequence in which fellow defenders Rachel Buehler and Ali Krieger ultimately failed to clear a ball that Aya Miyami pounced on and pushed past U.S. keeper Hope Solo.

In the extra session, the Americans took the lead in the 104th minute. This was even more dramatic than Derek Jeter going 5-for-5 when he surpassed the 3,000 hit milestone on July 9.  Generation next’s Morgan, sent a cross from the left baseline that found its way to the current standard-bearer Wambach, who headed it home. The 122nd second goal of her career, Wambach’s winner, would immortalize her alongside Hamm, Akers and Lilly as the best players in U.S. soccer history, no disrespect intended to Landon Donovan. The U.S., deemed by many to be too old — five players had more than 100 caps — and lacking in technical prowess, would surely win its third Cup, a testament to its fitness, fight and ability to finish matches. They would join the 1999 squad in futbol lore and fame, and perhaps even breathe life into the struggling distaff domestic circuit, Women’s Professional Soccer, home to 20 of the 21 U.S. women’s national team members.

Even as Foudy again flubbed her extra time math — play-by-play caller Ian Darke, who started the pair’s miscalculations during their extra-session call of the Brazil match, was correctly on the clock for this one — a U.S. victory was at hand. But in the 117th minute, just three to five minutes (stoppage)  short of a glorious, confetti-filled shower, things went off the page.

Japan’s Homare Sawa, playing in her fifth WWC, torched Solo, who moments before had injured her knee on a threatening cross, with a backward leaning deflection past the near post off a corner. Ironically, a set piece — a putative American advantage going in — became their undoing, as Sawa earned Golden Ball MVP honors and the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer.

Still, the U.S. had two last gasps. Midfielder Heath O’Reilly made a right-side cross that Wambach steered over the top. Then, Morgan, off a beautiful pass from midfielder Carli Lloyd, drew a red card off a tackle just outside the box in the last minute of stoppage time. But Lloyd’s free kick past the Japanese wall veered wide left. Wambach did what she could to hold her position and occupy a defender. That opened the door for defender Tobin Heath near the back post.

Like Lloyd’s inaccuracies from distance and then during PKs, Heath, who replaced Rapinoe in the second extra session, came up empty - her tentative attempt was blocked, much as her saved penalty kick lacked verve. But they were not alone in the PK deficiencies: midfielder Shannon Boxx set the tone with an effete try that goaltender Ayumi Kaihori knocked down with her right foot as she dived to her left. Only Wambach scored from the spot, rendering Solo’s stop on Japan’s second shot inadequate.

Thus the 2011 team, which after losing to Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying had to beat Costa Rica and then Italy in a head-to-head pair, merely to qualify for Germany, won’t return to the States as conquering heroes. This team had  overcome defeats at the cleats of Sweden and England during friendlies heading to Deutschland and another to the former in the finale of Group C, the first U.S. loss in the group stage.

They provided thrills and Nielsen winners with their come-from-behind PK win over Brazil, keyed by Wambach’s header in the 122nd minute, in the quarters, and against France, who outplayed them for much of the semifinal match. Heading into the final, destiny was squarely on their side, especially against a foe that had never defeated them.

But when Saki Kumagai put it past Solo on the fourth PK try, there were no more American rewrites from Tinseltown. The last scene belonged to Japan, which was 0-22-3 versus the U.S., including a pair of 2-0 losses in warm-ups, leading up to Germany.

In the championship match, The Nadeshiko — which also had never  beaten the host and two-time defending WWC champion Germans, and Sweden until their confrontations in the quarters and semis — authored an even more impressive Hollywood ending, one that hopefully provides some measure of solace to a grieving nation.

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