Posted by Jerry Hinnen
There were a lot of scripts for today's Women's World Cup final that ended in defeat for the U.S.A. against Japan. The one it followed had to have been the most far-fetched of all.
Because if there was one thing the U.S. knew they could rely on, one strength they could always fall back to, it was their ability to finish. No team was fitter. No team was more resilient. No team dealt better with pressure. Down a goal and a player in the 122nd minute to Brazil? No problem. Tied 1-1 with France with 15 minutes to play after an hour of French domination? We'll win by two.
So when the U.S. went up 1-0 thanks a brilliant Alex Morgan strike and took that lead into the 80th minute, you could have forgiven the watching nation for believing the Cup was within reach. But the crushing defensive lapses that had hamstrung the U.S. in group play reared its head again, two failed clearances from Rachel Buehler and Alex Krieger leaving Aya Miyama to stab home from close range. Cup: back out of reach.
OK, so it's extra time, but they're the U.S. No problem, right? It looked that way when the terrific Morgan turned her defender and lofted a pinpoint cross that Abby Wambach headed home with maximum authority. 2-1 up and with the clock ticking under five minutes to play, the Cup was within the U.S.'s reach. Again.
But with the American defense suddenly -- and surprisingly -- looking dead-legged, Japan mounted a last-minute surge and forced a corner. That corner fell to Homare Sawa, Japan's best player and the tournament's high scorer. 2-2. Cup gone. Again.
But they'd done it at the absolute death of overtime once already, right? And sure enough, with just seconds remaining, Heather O'Reilly somehow broke free on the right flank to cross to an unmarked Wambach just six yards from goal. Wambach, the U.S.'s certain closer, the U.S.'s cold-blooded assassin, their finisher of finishers. But the ball fall fell to her feet, rather than her head; the one-time shot skewed wildly over the bar.
But with Hope Solo in goal and the kind of precision on display in their 5-for-5 ouster of Brazil, surely a penalty kick shootout would belong to the U.S. Right? Please?
No. The U.S.'s first three penalty takers (Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, and Tobin Heath) went a stunning 0-for-3. It was over.
It was unthinkable. A loss? Not a shock. But like this? As not just the second-best team, but the second-most resilient team, the second-most clutch team?
It's the sort of defeat that -- like the U.S. men's loss to Ghana in the wake of Landon Donovan's heart-stopping goal against Algeria last year -- cannot help but take some of the shine off of the Brazil comeback that first seized the country's sporting attention the Sunday before. As amazing a moment as that remains, quarterfinals aren't finals. Goals scored in the 122nd minute don't count more than ones given up in the 117th. Losses from ahead are every bit as devastating as wins from behind. That's sports.
That's not to say the U.S.'s one shootout loss should overshadow what came before it. The USWNT took advantage of this tournament to re-establish themselves as one of the world's elite sides. They reminded the nation of the drama and power of the sport they play, just a year before they look to defend their Olympic title. They lost to a deserving champion, one who punished opponents' mistakes mercilessly throughout the tournament and did so again today. The U.S. should remain immensely proud of their accomplishments, and the nation should remain immensely appreciative of the giddy ride we've been taken on.
But assessing the Americans' entire tournament means also assessing the Final's last 10 minutes of regulation, that final 5 minutes of extra time, that dreadful shootout. And as brilliant as the U.S. was in Germany, there's no way that assessment can't conclude that the U.S. chose the worst possible time to close in the worst possible fashion.
It's not the script we expected. And after 12 long years, the U.S. must now wait four long more for their World Cup rewrite.