The Most Exciting Team in American Sports: Women’s Soccer

The U.S. soccer team, after trailing three different times, beats Canada, 4-3, on a last-second goal by Alex Morgan. Next up: a gold-medal rematch against Japan

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Jon Super / AP

U.S. soccer players Alex Morgan, center, celebrates with teammates Abby Wambach, left, and Sydney Leroux after the winning goal during their Olympic semifinal match at Old Trafford Stadium in Manchester, England, on Aug. 6, 2012

On Monday night at the Olympics, a soccer game, more than worthy of the hallowed ground it was played on, got the ending it so deserved. That doesn’t happen often in sports, especially in soccer, where penalty kicks so frequently settle fierce battles. This one got a buzzer shot. Old Trafford stadium, home to one of the most storied franchises in sports — Manchester United — hasn’t seen much better.

In the final minute of extra time, U.S. forward Alex Morgan leaped over the Canadian defense, headed in a beautiful cross from two-time Olympic gold medalist Heather O’Reilly and gave the U.S. a wild — and wildly exciting — 4-3 victory over Canada in the Olympic semifinals. This one, between two rivals who don’t like one another, was unforgettable: it was maybe the best moment in Olympic soccer history, and arguably the most captivating moment of these Games.

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The Olympics now get the dream gold-medal game: U.S. vs. Japan, a rematch of last year’s similarly classic World Cup final, which Japan won on penalty kicks after mounting two late comebacks. “I don’t have much to say,” says U.S. goalie Hope Solo, after it was all over. Before Morgan scored, Solo was checking her footing on the pitch, mentally preparing for penalty kicks. “I have to wrap my head around what just happened.”

In American sports over the past year, has any team provided more drama than the U.S. women’s soccer squad? The U.S. may have lost last year’s World Cup final, but the game was unforgettable. In the quarterfinals last summer, the U.S. tied Brazil on another last-second goal — one by Abby Wambach — and advanced on penalty kicks. In this year’s Olympic opener, the U.S. fell behind to France, 2-0, before rallying to a 4-2 victory.

In the Olympic semifinal in Manchester, the U.S. trailed three different times. “I’m too old for this,” says defender Christie Rampone, 37, referring to the heart-stopping tendencies of her team. Why does this team play so many close games? “I think we’re asking ourselves that question in the locker room,” says forward Lauren Cheney. “Who are we? Why are we doing that?” The team does realize, however, that playing nail-biters has boosted its popularity, even among casual soccer fans. “It’s fun for us as well,” says Megan Rapinoe, who scored two goals against Canada.

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From the opening whistle, the game was physical. “A lot of the Canadian players were taking us down, getting a lot of yellow cards,” says Morgan. “And I don’t blame them. I don’t think they were as fit as we were.” Within minutes, star Canada forward Christine Sinclair, who has scored more international goals than any player not named Mia Hamm, shoved an American player right into the ground.

The toughness paid off. Canada struck first, in the 22nd minute, when Sinclair danced around Kelley O’Hara near the goal box, and put her country on the board. Coming into the game, the Americans enjoyed a silly-looking 43-3-5 all-time record against their northern neighbors. Canada hadn’t beaten the U.S. in 26 games, dating back to 2001

Rapinoe, however, responded early in the second half by curling a corner kick around the post, directly into the net. In Beckham’s old home, she bent it. “I wish I could say I was definitely meaning to do that,” Rapinoe says. “A bit of a mistake on my part.” Canada failed to station a defender at the post, a huge fundamental mistake. Rapinoe hadn’t scored directly off a corner kick in ages. “Probably when I was like 12,” she says. “And the corner kick [was] 5 yards from the goal.”

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From here, Sinclair’s noggin took over. In the 67th minute, she headed in a cross from Melissa Tancredi to put Canada up 2-1. Just three minutes later, however, Rapinoe scored what she called the goal of her life — a rocket from just inside the 18-yard box that banged off the post, and in. Just three minutes after that goal, Sinclair’s head struck again: this time, she leaped over U.S. defender Rachel Buehler to notch a hat trick and put Canada up by one. That’s three goals in six minutes. Soccer bashers: if you want to see scoring, watch the women.

That had to be the one, right? Canada would pull off the upset — Sinclair was just too good, a Gretzky on grass. The Americans, however, weren’t flustered. “We never think we’re out of it,” says Rapinoe. “We’re kind of like, ‘O.K., that just means we need to score another one.’ Huge heart, huge fight on this team.”

The U.S. kept attacking — and got some huge breaks. In the 80th minute, Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod was whistled for violating the six-second rule, which mandates that the goalie get rid of the ball after holding it for six ticks. This rule is frequently violated and almost never enforced. “There was a warning from the linesman at the start of the second half,” says McLeod. “She said, ‘Don’t delay the play too much.’ But it wasn’t like a real warning.”

The U.S. players saw things differently. “She was taking a long time on the goal kicks,” says Rapinoe. “Every time she had the ball in her hand, she was holding it for 15 to 20 seconds.” The call gave the U.S. an indirect free kick: Rapinoe whacked the ball toward Canada’s Marie-Eve Nault. It appeared to inadvertently hit her arm in the penalty area. The refs called it a hand ball, giving the U.S. a penalty shot to tie it.

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The crowd hissed; afterward, the Canadians were furious. “We were robbed,” says McLeod. Sinclair essentially insisted that the game was fixed. “We feel like we didn’t lose, we feel like it was taken away from us,” she says. “It’s a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started.” Sinclair said that after calling the penalty, the ref “actually giggled and said nothing. Classy! …  We feel cheated.” She wasn’t done. When asked about the bronze-medal game, against France, Sinclair says: “Maybe the referee will wear a Canadian jersey.”

The Americans hit back. “You can’t blame the referee,” says Wambach. “We feel good about the way we won tonight.” Sinclair may have scored three goals, but Solo didn’t offer overwhelming respect. “We made her look good,” says Solo.

On the controversial penalty kick, McLeod guessed that Wambach would shoot it to her right: she bet correctly, but Wambach still kicked it past her, off the post and in. Again, tie game. In extra time, both teams continued to pummel each other. O’Reilly, who entered the game as a late sub, flew into the legs of Canada’s Desiree Scott, knees first. Then she set up the game winner. All night, Alex Morgan had created scoring opportunities by dribbling through traffic and lofting balls toward Wambach, who missed a few easy opportunities. Morgan would finish the job herself, with the game-winning header off O’Reilly’s long cross. “Heading is something Pia [Sundhage, the U.S. coach,] has always said is one of my weakest points,” says Morgan. “Which is, you know, probably a true statement.”

After Morgan scored, says Wambach, “I told her in the dog pile after, ‘Alex, I love you. I think I’m in love with you in this moment. You just sent us to the gold-medal match.’” Rapinoe was similarly ecstatic. “It was one of those feelings, like, ‘Jesus Christ, we just scored.’” Morgan couldn’t contain her emotions. “I’ve never wanted to cry on the field after scoring a goal,” says Morgan. “I think I might have shed a tear. Then after the whistle blew, 30 seconds later, I went up to my family and hugged them, cried with them. They were all shaking, I was shaking, we couldn’t believe it.”

This team is gaining rock-star status. Dozens of fans lined up outside the stadium for autographs, as if the American women played for Man U. If the U.S. beats Japan on Thursday in the World Cup rematch, and wins its third straight Olympic gold, the team’s mainstream celebrity will rise. The U.S. has been itching for this matchup. “We’ve had nightmares about it even, what happened last summer,” says Wambach. “This is an opportunity for us, not even redemption, but to prove ourselves. To let whatever happened last summer go, and be in a position to go after and take the gold medal. Because we believe that we’ve earned it.”

After an incredible night in Manchester, who could say they haven’t?

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