Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach each scored a goal for the United States National Team on Sunday, but it was Japan that earned the 2011 Women's World Cup soccer title with a 3-1 advantage in penalty kicks in Frankfurt, Germany.
The Japanese, riding a crest of emotions from recent tragedies at home, remarkably rallied from a goal down twice, setting up Saki Kumagai's winning penalty kick.
The U.S. survived pool play, despite losing to Sweden, to reach the title match. The Americans edged world No. 1 Brazil in the quarterfinals and beat France in the semifinals.
Japan, meanwhile, upset Germany and Sweden en route to the world title. The U.S., which outshot the Japanese 21-11, was seeking its first World Cup title since 1999.
Homare Sawa scored in the 117th minute to force the match to penalty kicks. The Americans had a chance in extra time after Morgan was fouled just outside the box. The ensuing free kick found Tobin Heath, though her shot was blocked by a defender.
Morgan opened the scoring in the 69th minute, with an assist by Megan Rapinoe. The Japanese tied it 12 minutes.
The U.S. took a 2-1 lead in the 104th minute. Morgan collected a loose ball, beat her defender and gave Wambach a perfect feed for the header.
The penalty kick phase was dominated by Japan's goalie, who blocked Shannon Boxx's attempt with her right foot as she was diving to her right. Carli Lloyd missed high and Heath's shot was blocked.
"It's obviously heartbreaking," Wambach said. "Japan played well. They never gave up. This is obviously going to hurt for a while. It wasn't meant to be."
Stanford grad Rachel Buehler returned to the starting lineup after serving her suspension against France. She was given a red card in the match against Brazil.
UCLA grad Lauren Cheney left the game early with an injury. She missed an open shot early in the match, as did a handful of her teammates. Those missed opportunities later came back to haunt the U.S.
Not once, but twice, the Americans let a goal advantage slip -- first towards the end of regulation and then with four minutes remaining in extra time. That meant goals from Morgan and Wambach counted for nothing in the end, and once the U.S. missed its first three kicks in the shootout, Japan had the unlikeliest of tournament victories in the bag.
However, it should never even have gotten that far. A catalogue of missed chances was what really denied the USA its first Cup final since 1999, with a dominating first-half performance somehow failing to result in any goals.
Wambach, Cheney, Rapinoe and a string of others all had opportunities to put the Americans ahead early but could not find the net. Wambach came closest, rattling the crossbar with a fearsome left-footed drive that would have been the goal of the tournament if it had been a couple of inches lower. She also missed a chip shot from right in front of the goal in the second OT period, sending the ball over the cage.
By such small margins are trophies decided.
"You don't explain this," U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage said. "You can't. We could have put it away and we didn't. We created a lot of chances and we could not put them away. It is a final and there are small differences between winning and losing so you can't afford that."