It took the U.S. Women's National Team 12 long years. But Brandi Chastain finally has some company.
No, we're not already putting yesterday's fightback-for-the-ages against Brazil on the same pedestal as Chastain's legendary Cup-clinching penalty kick and (just as legendary) jersey-optional celebration. That moment remains the single most iconic moment in U.S. soccer history, men's or women's, and until Abby Wambach winds up on the cover of Time, it's no contest.
But it is a conversation. Wambach's 122nd-minute goal* and the U.S.'s subsequent victory on penalties sent Twitter into a frenzy, led every highlight package edited in this country between then and now, and drew congratulations from everyone from Ochocinco to Li'l Wayne. Not one not two but three different senior CBSSports.com writers were moved to sing the praises of their epic in Dresden. Yes, the USWNT have had their moments since 1999 (a pair of Olympic gold medals among them), but at no time have they firmly, decisively re-entered the national sports consciousness the way they did yesterday.
So they've got our attention. Which is why we ask: What now?
It was just a year ago the country was experiencing the same brand of summer soccer euphoria, thanks to Landon Donovan's equally-thrilling goal against Algeria to send the U.S. men into the final 16 of their World Cup. Wambach's goal drew immediate comparisons to Donovan's for many reasons -- their improbable lateness, their shared do-or-die drama, the impeccable call of ESPN's Ian Darke on each -- but one overlooked similarity is the golden opportunity each created for their respective teams. For the USMNT, it meant a path to an unprecedented Cup semifinal berth free of any of the world's traditional powers; only Ghana and Uruguay stood in their way.
After a carnage-filled quarterfinal round, the U.S. women likewise find themselves the sudden favorite among the four remaining teams. Highly-touted England went out on penalties to upstart European rivals France; hosts Germany were stunned by Japan 1-0 in what many observers have called the biggest upset in Women's World Cup history; and of course Brazil is going home trophyless once again, having run into their American archrivals a round (or two) earlier than they'd have liked. Both the French and likely finalist Sweden (3-1 quarterfinal victors over a solid Australian team) have strong, sound programs that only the U.S.'s best efforts will overcome, but neither can boast the USWNT's overall depth or tournament-honed pedigree.
In short, the door is open. And with the team still riding the wave of interest generated by yesterday's impossible finish, walking through it means the names of stars like Wambach, Hope Solo, and Megan Rapinoe (provider of that pinpoint cross to Wambach) could reach the same kind of household status held by previous USWNT stars like Chastain, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. Win these two matches -- winnable matches, at the minimum -- and the U.S. women come home with even more than a championship.
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That's not the team's only problem, either. For all of Wambach's aerial brilliance and fellow striker Amy Rodriguez's speed, the U.S. has often lacked creativity in attack, preferring a direct route approach that defenders at this level (unless they've been on the field for 122 minutes already) are usually prepared to deal with. Coach Pia Sundhage has seemed unwilling or unable to call on her bench, exacerbating the fitness issue. And most worryingly, the U.S. back line -- led by intelligent-but-aging centerback Christie Rampone -- has looked wobbly throughout the tournament (most notably in the 2-1 group stage loss to Sweden that doomed the Americans to the Brazil quarterfinal in the first place). Now they face France without red-carded starter Rachel Buehler, and the relatively green Becky Sauerbrunn making her tournament debut in Buehler's place.
But for all of that, the Americans still have plenty going for them. They have Solo, by nearly all accounts the world's best goalkeeper. They have the indomitable Wambach. In Rapinoe, Lauren Cheney, and Heather O'Reilly, they have a wealth of outside attacking talent that few teams can match. More than anything, they have the same never-say-die fighting spirit that has always been the hallmark of American soccer, men's or women's.
That spirit is why they now also have the the greatest opportunity of their soccer careers. What now? Now the USWNT either takes advantage of that opportunity, or Wambach's goal -- like Donovan's before it -- is remembered as the brilliant high point of a World Cup campaign that wound up less brilliant than it might have been.
*Do you realize how few soccer matches even have 122nd minutes?