DRESDEN, Germany (AP) – It was 12 years ago Sunday that the United States won its last Women's World Cup. Sunday's quarterfinal between Brazil and the United States did its best to match the drama of that final, which the US won over China on penalty kicks. In time, Sunday's match may be seen as more dramatic.
At one point, Sunday's match looked as though it would end in injustice following a controversial call in the 65th minute that saw American defender Rachel Buehler sent off and a penalty kick awarded to Brazil. Marta finished the try - the second attempt, after Hope Solo's save of Cristiane's first effort was nullified due to an apparently encroaching defender. Marta's subsequent attempt leveled the game at one, and when Marta scored again in the second minute of extra time, feelings of how Australian referee Jacqui Melksham changed the game were all that dominated the thoughts of most observers.
And as the game crept on into the waning moments, as Brazil tried to kill the clock with gamesmanship and survive against a US team that was pressing as if it was the one with the player advantage, it looked like the US was due for a gut-wrenching, earliest-ever exit from the Women's World Cup.
Then, at the 122-minute mark, Abby Wambach headed in the goal that lifted a nation.
The US would prevail 5-3 on penalty kicks and secure its greatest victory since 1999. This game may have only been a quarterfinal, but it had the feeling of a final. There was the feeling that the Americans had to win this match, not only for the sake of interest in women's soccer in the United States, but just by pure fate.
Players of the US celebrate after the quarter-final match of the FIFA women's football World Cup Brazil vs USA on July 10, 2011 in Dresden, eastern Germany. USA won the match after a penalty shoot-out. AFP PHOTO / ROBERT MICHAEL
There is something to be said for leadership in pressure situations. As Brazil spent much of the match complaining about calls and even to each other, the United States stayed composed under the guidance of captain Christie Rampone, who led a stellar defensive effort from the Americans.
Yes, there were momentary lapses in mental toughness, such as when Solo was shown a yellow card for arguing about the penalty being retaken. But the Americans did not let anything get to them. Even in extra time, when the US conceded what looked like the winner less than two minutes into the 30-minute period, the US players never looked dejected; they never looked like a team of players about to lose, never mind a team about to lose due to decisions out of their control.
Wambach's strike - the latest goal in the history of the Women's World Cup - embodies the incredible theme that has emerged in this Women's World Cup: Anything is possible. Absolutely anything.
The goal was a moment that justly deserved an Al Michaels' call: "Do you believe in miracles?" It deserved Ian Darke's "Go, go, USA," call from South Africa. What it got was pure jubilation from the American players, fans and even the neutrals in Dresden.
This is the type of victory that can rally a nation, just as it did in 1999, when a record TV audience and crowd at the Rose Bowl sent women's soccer to all-time highs and launched the WUSA, the first fully professional women's soccer league. WPS can only from similar momentum in 2011.
But the job is far from complete for the United States, which now faces France in the semifinal on Wednesday. Both teams endured penalty kicks to advance to the semifinal even though both were convincing enough in regulation to win their respective games before the 90th minute.
The US got on the board against Brazil just 74 seconds into the game when Shannon Boxx's cross deflected off of Brazil defender Daiane and into the net, giving the Americans a dream start. The goal came from a Rampone long ball that found Boxx out on the left flank, an area that the US had to expose to find success against Brazil's three back system.
For at least the opening 30 minutes the US attacked the wide open flanks that Brazil offered, but the American attack grew too narrow in the final minutes of the first half. Playing direct and through the middle is exactly what Brazil wanted the US to do.
Heather O'Reilly and Lauren Cheney (replaced by Megan Rapinoe in the 55th minute) struggled to stretch Brazil's defense laterally in the second half and when Buehler was sent off and the game was soon after tied up, it looked like an impossible task for the Americans.
For all the cliched talk of the intangible American spirit that can miraculously win games, the amount of bravado and determination on the field was still astounding and admirable to even the neutrals in Dresden and across the globe.
Rampone led the charge with leadership in the back across the full 120-plus minutes, highlighted by the 36-year-old mother of two going step for step with Marta - the 25-year-old, five-time World Player of the Year - on a breakaway in the 23rd minute.
Wambach followed that up with the biggest goal of her career and the most important run of play goal in US women's soccer history. And to cap it off, defender Ali Krieger, the underrated but spectacularly consistent right back for the United States, finished the fifth penalty kick to seal the victory.
It was a monumental win in an epic match that could unfortunately have only one winner. Marta, the world's best player, ended up on the wrong side of the result yet again (after losing to the US in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic gold medal games and losing to Germany in the 2007 Women's World Cup final).
Now the United States (without Buehler) will have to come down from this emotional high to play France on Wednesday. Tired legs might litter the pitch, but Sunday showed that determination can overcome any physical or mental road block.