Maura Gladys on the USWNT’s monumental win.
A little bit of drama, a little bit of emotion, and one heck of a comeback by the USWNT.
Thinking about this game, I thought about an idea that Brian Phillips threw around a while ago on his excellent blog, Run of Play. It’s the idea that when something incredible occurs, we look back at it with a “climate of expectation” that’s drastically different from the one in which it occurred. Basically, we look back at it as if it couldn’t have occurred any other way.
And on rare occasions, every event and occurrence seems delicately, and deliberately placed, one after another, onto a perfect string of moments and emotions, creating something that is almost perfect.
What happened today in Dresden was perfect. Every touch, every run, every call, now in hindsight seems as if it was destined to end with Abby Wambach’s header, Hope Solo’s save, and Ali Krieger’s penalty, even though it didn’t seem that way at the time. Because of that afterglow, we’ll remember this game not as one of tactics, but of moments and movement and feeling. In the spirit of that, and giving a nod to the pure literary feel of it all, here’s USA-Brazil in three acts.
Act One: Exposition
There was monumental hype even before the opening whistle. With Germany eliminated just a day before, the game would be a showdown between the two favorites still left in the tournament, the winner emerging as the clear and heavy favorite going forward.
Brazil entered the game on a tear, easily disposing of Australia, Norway and Equatorial Guinea in Group D by a combined score of 7-0. The United States was coming off its first loss in the group stage in program history, a 2-1 loss to Sweden, and looked disorganized and unable to finish.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage stuck with the same 11 she started against Sweden, despite calls to bench forward Amy Rodriguez, who had trouble finishing all tournament, and defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx, who has been relatively invisible.
The move to leave Boxx on the field proved smart just 74 seconds into the game when she sent a cross into the box that deflected off Brazil’s Daiane for an own goal.
She followed that up by setting an aggressive, fiery tone for the first ten minutes of play, the best opening by the United States thus far.
But Brazil showed just how dangerous they could be, peppering the goal with crosses and shots, forcing Solo to be sharp. In the 23rd minute, Marta’s talent shined through when she raced towards the goal on a breakaway with Christie Rampone trailing just a step behind. Her shot went high, thanks to goalkeeper Hope Solo cutting down the angle and Rampone applying pressure. But it was a reminder of just how quickly Marta could make her presence felt.
Halftime came with the United States still up 1-0, but the Stars and Stripes looked disjointed in the latter part of the first half as Brazil gained momentum. At the start of the second half, the U.S. continued their choppy play. As the game ping-ponged back and forth, there was no real hints about the controversy that was about to occur.
Act 2: Madness
In the 65th minute, with two feet flailing in the air, Marta’s 5-4 frame slammed to the turf in front of the U.S. goal, with Rachel Buehler’s body splayed beneath her. Marta had just niftily popped the ball up and over Buehler and Rampone and had an open look at Solo, but Buehler lunged with the striker, causing her to miss the ball and land violently. It’s a common tactic of Marta’s, to lure defenders in close, increasing the chances of a sloppy jab or errant elbow, thereby increasing the likelihood of a foul. In this case, the referee deemed that Buehler had denied Marta of a goal scoring opportunity, which was grounds for not only a penalty kick, but a red card. Was it truly a foul? Was it worthy of a red card? Does anyone other than Marta get that kind of call? Yes, no and no. But what followed was even more incriminating.
As Cristiane took the penalty kick for Brazil, Hope Solo took a hard step to her left and punched the ball away, sending the stadium into hysterics. But as Solo took a step, so too did Rampone, who was standing outside the 18 yard box. The step was good enough to earn Brazil a re-kick for encroachment and a yellow card for Solo for dissent (we think.). All of this wasn’t apparent at the time however, and the United States vehemently questioned the referee’s call. Solo wasn’t as brilliant the second go-round, and Marta coolly slotted the ball into the right corner. USA 1, Brazil 1.
But instead of letting their emotions get the better of them, the ten players on the field re-grouped and kept playing. Shannon Boxx dropped back to fill Buehler’s spot, but Sundhage waved her back up. They’d play with three backs. In order to cover for the space that was created in Buehler’s absence, Krieger, Rampone and LePeilbet hustled to close the gaps. Sundhage also inserted Alex Morgan in an attempt to spark the team, and she did well to earn several corners, but neither team was able to score again by the end of regular time.
As play went on, Marta morphed into the villain of the match. She was the one who had drawn the foul and netted the second penalty, and now she was voicing her displeasure with every call. Fans in Dresden booed and catcalled every time she took a touch. But it took her just 97 seconds into overtime to prove her status as the world’s best scorer with a deft volley off a Maurine cross that floated above Hope Solo into the open side of the net. Controversy marred this goal as well when replay showed that Maurine was offsides.
The United States was now facing the grim task of scoring against one of the best teams in the world, while playing with only ten players, which, in hindsight, is the most absolutely American situation you can find yourself in. And they responded in the most American way possible. They pushed and pushed and pushed. Wambach almost had the equalizer in the 98th minute, and Lloyd had a shot in the 120th minute that sailed high. Minutes turned into seconds as the game burned down to the dying embers. All that remained was the three minutes of stoppage time. Then it happened.
Act 3- At The Death
On the exact day 12 years earlier that the last U.S. women’s team captured the country’s spirit, in a moment that echoed Landon Donovan’s miracle goal against Algeria, Abby Wambach got lifted. At the 1:21:19 mark, Wambach rose above her defender and goalkeeper Andreia’s outstretched arms, eyed up Megan Rapinoe’s absolutely perfect cross and drove the ball into the open net. It wasn’t a sloppy tap-in, a bumbled shot, or a messy finish. It was pure, precise and beautiful. It was the only way the United States could have scored, and it was enough to make you believe.
The goal was a product of a beautiful ball by Megan Rapinoe, which was preceded by a smart swing out from Carli Lloyd and capped the greatest comeback in U.S. soccer. After 55-plus minutes of playing with only ten players, the United States had new life in penalty kicks.
Looking back, you knew they had it in the bag. With the mighty Hope Solo minding net, she was bound to stop one, which she did, stonewalling Daiane (the same Daiane that gave up Brazil’s own goal two and a half hours earlier). Boxx, Lloyd, Wambach, Rapinoe and finally Krieger each unflappably put their shot past Andreia to seal the victory and shock the Brazilians. Probably one of the most poignant moments the cameras caught was the red-carded Rachel Buehler sobbing into Pia Sundhage’s arms after the win, no doubt a release of relief.
But none of it could have happened without each moment that came before it. The own goal, the red card, the penalty kick, the other penalty kick, Marta’s overtime goal, Rapinoe’s cross, Wambach’s header, Solo’s save, Krieger’s kick. It all builds up to a classic story of American spirit and triumph.
But it’s not ever yet. In a very “Miracle on Ice” kind of way, the United States still has two more games to play before they can be crowned World Cup champions. They take on France on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m. and their chances of winning it all are exponentially better now that Germany is out of the tournament. But there’ll be plenty of time for chalk talk and tactics tomorrow and Tuesday. For now, it’s nice to enjoy the fact that today, America got to witness something perfect.