It has been 12 years since the United States last reached the finals in the Women's World Cup. When that happened, the site was the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles. The heroine was veteran Brandi Chastain, making a winning penalty kick to beat China in the 1999 Women's World Cup.
Fast forward to Moenchengladbach, Germany, site of the 2011 Women's World Cup. This time there is no need for penalty kicks -- probably because it' was only the semifinals. The heroine was veteran Abby Wambach, who scored the go-head goal that stood up in a 3-1 victory over France on Wednesday.
Wambach also provided the tying goal in Sunday's quarterfinal victory over Brazil, which ended 2-2 before the USA won in penalty kicks, 5-3.
Wambach now has a chance, perhaps, to become the Brandi Chastain of 2011.i
"We've achieved part of our goal. We're in the final," Wambach said. "We want to complete it. We want to be world champs."
Wambach broke a tense 1-1 tie with a thunderous header in the 79th minute, and the U.S. earned its long-awaited return to the World Cup final.
UCLA grad Lauren Cheney and Cal grad Alex Morgan also scored for the Americans, who will play Japan, a 3-1 winner over Sweden in the other semifinal. The championship match will be on Sunday in Frankfurt (11:45 a.m., ESPN). If the U.S. wins, it would be the first team to claim three World Cup titles.
When the final whistle sounded Wednesday, the Americans rushed onto the field. Wambach found U.S. coach Pia Sundhage and gave her a bear hug as the pro-American crowd of 25,676 serenaded the team with chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and the party quickly spread across the Atlantic. A thrilling win over Brazil in the quarterfinals captivated fans back home, and a little thing called the workday wasn't enough to deter them.
Dozens of fans crowded around TVs in the Phoenix airport to watch the game, and less than an hour after it ended, "World Cup Finals" was trending on Twitter. "My heroes. Wambach. Boxx. Rapinoe. Solo. That TEAM! Our team!" actor Tom Hanks tweeted. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers said, "Awesome job US Women, finish it off Sunday now."
Wambach and company were glad to share the moment.
"These wins, we can't do it alone. We know a whole nation is cheering us on," Wambach said. "We believe in ourselves and we're in the final. I couldn't be happier."
The U.S., which played without Stanford grad Rachel Buehler after losing her to a red card against Brazil, had only two days' rest following that match on Sunday. It was the Americans' quickest turnaround of the tournament, and there had been concern that fatigue or emotions might get the best of them. But Wambach, who has been playing with an Achilles' tendon so sore it often keeps her out of practice, dismissed that idea.
And she sure didn't look hobbled.
Cheney, who'd staked the Americans to an early lead with her goal in the ninth minute, took a corner kick in the 79th and immediately looked for the star forward. Wambach is one of the world's best in the air, and France was guarding her tightly. But Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post, and the 5-foot-11 Wambach soared over the scrum, pushing the ball past French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz.
"I knew Abby was going to beat her," Cheney said.
Asked how, Cheney said, "Because she's Abby Wambach."
Wambach let out a scream and did a sliding sprint into the corner, where she was mobbed by her teammates. It was her third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, tying fellow American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.
Morgan added an insurance goal in the 82nd, the first for the World Cup rookie. Fed by second-half sparkplug Megan Rapinoe, Morgan outraced four defenders up the left side before stutter-stepping to throw Sapowicz off before taking her shot.
"The priority is not to accept another goal," France coach Bruno Bini said through a translator. "When that happens, you've had it. We conceded another goal and that was it for us."
While France held a 25-11 shot advantage for the match, the Americans got stronger and stronger as the game went on before Wambach came through.
:In the end, we're in the finals," Wambach said, "and that's all that matters."