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The Match That Upstaged South Africa

 The Match That Upstaged South Africa

Abby Wambach, from

If, for whatever reason, you’ve dismissed the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup and didn’t bother to watch this afternoon’s war between the United States and Brazil, you missed one helluva match. Some might call it the greatest finish in US soccer history, regardless of the gender involved.

If that paragraph has made you curious enough to want to see the match, and your provider has an agreement with ESPN, go to ESPN3 and watch it. You can also tape it on ESPN2 starting at midnight tonight. I’m serious. Set aside the two hours or so and treat yourself to a drama fit for hardcover. For those who have watched, continue below and we’ll discuss this battle.

Why does this upstage Landon Donovan’s goal in South Africa? It cones down to the opponent, Brazil. While we are #1 in the FIFA Rankings, Brazil is a close 3rd. For the day Brazil may have been our enemy, but as the match turned, the stadium (and what seemed like the entire nation of Germany) turned against Marta and crew. On any other day, the brilliance of Brazil’s skill would have won over the crowd, wowing them with stepovers, pullbacks, volleys, and other glimpses of technical magic. That didn’t happen in this match.

The story started well for the Americans. The gameplan laid out prematch by the entire ESPN crew (exploit the flanks) resulted in the opening goal, less than a minute and a half in. Shannon Boxx was freed down the left side, and her cross was misplayed by sweeper Daiane straight into the net for the own goal.

The rest of the first half and beginning of the second half were well-controlled by the US. Brazil’s chances came on the counter, but they couldn’t find an equalizer until the 65th minute. Marta, double-covered in the area by two American defenders, flicked the ball over their heads, and was free towards goal. Rachel Buehler grabbed Marta’s shirt, preventing her a quality shot on goal, and referee Jacqui Melksham pointed to the spot. She also gave Buehler a red card for her professional foul. Cristiane took the penalty, and though Hope Solo saved, the referee controversially ruled an infraction. Marta deposited the retake to tie.

After the penalty goal, the US were reduced to 10 on the pitch, but they completed regulation with a chip on their shoulder. They felt the referee was harsh in the entire penalty sequence, and Brazil seemed to relent a bit during the final twenty minutes acknowledging the Americans’ intent. More importantly for the United States, the crowd began to turn their way. The Americans fed off this energy. This allowed the US a number of chances, but neither team found the winning goal after a full 90 minutes.

Extra time began, and Brazil turned it on. They immediately earned the go-ahead goal, on a sharp-angle Marta volley from 8 yards that miraculously grabbed the far post and dashed into the goal. A funny thing occurred though: at that point, Marta had taken on the villain role with the crowd. It wasn’t just the penalty, that alone wasn’t her fault. Throughout the match, the Brazilians had seemingly manipulated Melksham through complaints and simulation, especially Marta. The perception that they were embellishing injuries only heightened the stadium’s ire as they tried to hold the lead in extra time.

The second fifteen minutes of extra time whirred by like a freight train, the Americans pressing hard for the equalizer but short on players and even shorter on time. Brazil continued to feign injury and waste inordinate amounts of time. The fourth official signaled 3 minutes of injury time, for an overtime period a lot, but a seeming short shrift for the trailing Americans.

Brazil’s endgame might have worked on a different day. Was it using a sweeper, allowing a deep forward to remain onside? Was it the inability to maintain possession and while away time in the offensive corners? Or perhaps it was the sheer determination of the Stars and Stripes, something the entirety of America has been waiting to see from its international sports stars for many years?

To me, it was just a great play. To me, it was slightly reminiscent of Cal’s Kevin Moen dashing through Stanford’s kick coverage and marching band to grasp victory from the clutches of defeat. Carli Lloyd could have been cynically taken down by a Brazilian midfielder, but wasn’t. She passed to Megan Rapinoe on the left flank. Rapinoe calmly dashed forward, and launched a cross into the area. Andreia, Brazil’s goalkeeper, lunged for the ball, but it was beyond her fingertips. Abby Wambach, the experienced forward from Rochester, NY, was in perfect position to head the ball and produce a moment for all to remember.

At that point, it seemed inevitable that the US would prevail. Marta made the American fans gasp in the final seconds of extra time, but the match remained level and penalties ensued.

The spotlight then moved directly from Wambach to Hope Solo. The goalkeeper who spoke out against her previous coach four years ago now had a chance to back up her talk. On the third Brazilian penalty, own goal scorer Daiane placed the ball well to Solo’s right, but the Washington native deflected the shot wide of goal. When Ali Krieger calmly completed the team’s 5-for-5 from the spot, a spot in America’s heart was won.

Yes, the US Women’s National Team is ranked #1 in the world, so this wasn’t the shocking result of, say, the 1980 Winter Olympics Hockey semifinal. On paper we should be better than Brazil, but sometimes it can seem like rankings are meaningless when it comes to neutral site matches. But let’s set that all aside. While I love tactics, I also think there are times you just have to absorb a match for what it’s worth. While this match wasn’t a historic result, it was a historic clash which has given us one of the most clutch performances you will see on the World’s Stage. Let’s savor it while we wait for Wednesday and France.

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