SANTA FE, Argentina (AP) – Kristin Luckenbill, goalkeeper on the US's 2004 gold medal winning soccer teams at the Athens Olympics, reacts to the women's teams' Sunday victory over Brazil.
It was an incredible game, a roller coaster of emotions for a Team USA fan. From the US's fortunate bounce for the early goal, to Rachel Buehler seeing red, to the penalty kick debacle and the dramatic goals in extra time (Marta's brilliance, Abby Wambach's heroics), we ran the gambit from elation to anger and back, never losing faith that this team would find a way to pull it out.
When Hope Solo heroically saved that second half penalty kick, I just knew the US was going to win. And when the referee awarded Brazil a retake out of the blue? I couldnt believe my eyes. A loss against Brazil in a well-fought, fair battle (well, maybe I could have) would have been one thing, but losing after a controversial call like that - and on a second Brazilian goal that might have been crossed in by an offside player? That wouldn't have sat well. Thankfully (and key to the match), no one lost their heads when the referee awarded the re-kick. The team did not back into a defensive shell or panic when they went down a player. They simply reorganized and kept playing their game. If anything, they started to play more intelligently and more together as a unit from that point on. And 55 minutes later, in one last fateful strike of the ball from Megan Rapinoe, time stood still. Like a rocket, seemingly from out of nowhere, Abby Wambach came flying in to blast the ball into the back of the net. Hallelujah! A 122nd minute hallelujah! How about that for a Do you believe in miracles moment? At the final whistle the Brazilians looked shell-shocked and the Americans were ecstatic, a dynamic that carried into the shootout. The US handled the penalty kicks with the calm efficiency that the 1999 World Cup team made famous. Perhaps most-impressive was Shannon Boxx, who was given the responsibility of taking the stage-setting first kick. She had to recollect herself to take a second kick after the Brazilian goalkeeper had unfairly come off her line to save her first attempt. You cannot imagine the fortitude it takes to step up and confidently hit a second shot after seeing the first one deflected away. Three Brazilian players into the shootout, Hope Solo, not surprisingly, did what she had to do to give the United States a chance to win, saving Daianes shot with her fully-outstretched right hand. A few shooters later, Ali Krieger stepped up and sealed the win for the United States with a calmness that made it look like she was just taking another shot at the end of practice. Game over. Let the tears of joy fly.
Brazil will spend a long time thinking over what went wrong. Daiane, whose miskicked clearance went into the net as an own goal, and whose penalty kick Hope Solo saved, will certainly receive a lot of the blame. But the Brazilians should look deeper than that. Brazil had every chance to win the game and simply did not take care of business. They seemed oddly content with the 1-1 tie in regulation even though they were up a player. They never used their numerical advantage to put pressure on the Americans. Even throughout overtime, down a player the entire time, the United States looked to be the team covering more ground. Finally, up a goal and a player with time winding down in the second overtime, the Brazilians completely failed to manage the clock, and in an embarrassing display, Brazilian defender Erika attempted to fake an injury in order to kill off time and give Brazil a rest as the US was attacking. The referee, and the rest of the stadium, didnt buy it. Her injury is what led to the three additional minutes of extra time at the end of the game. Wambach scored her goal in the second minute of injury time. How is that for Karma, Erika? But lets get back to my team. How was it that the United States was able to overcome such great odds to win a game that often seemed like ten players up against eleven Brazilians and three referees? Two reasons: fitness, and mentality. The United States often gets criticized for relying too much on their strength and conditioning to win games instead of beating their opposition using skill and tactics. You cannot argue against the value of their fitness against Brazil. Even after playing down a woman for 55 minutes, the US players still looked fresh at the end of 120. Fitness was key to their ability to transition up the field quickly and score their last goal (Im still wondering where the Brazilian midfielders were). And fitness was key in the Americans ability to confidently and solidly strike their penalty kicks. Even more important than fitness, however, was their never-give-up attitude. When the rest of the world had written them off and awarded Brazil the win, the Americans kept fighting. They kept believing in themselves. With almost no time left on the clock, every American player on and off the field (and every one of their coaches) believed that somehow they were going to find a way to win the game. Not a single person lost faith. That alone is what separates good teams from great teams. That's been the difference for the United States for so many years. It started with the group that won in 1999. While Christie Rampone is the only player remaining on the current squad from that famous team, the attitude has been passed on to the younger generations. The American attitude is so contagious that even their Swedish coach has completely bought into it. And why wouldnt she? It has worked countless times for the United States this far. With four quality teams remaining, any one of them is capable of going through to the finals and winning it all. If we take one thing away from this Womens World Cup, it has to be that anything can and will happen. Down the stretch in a close game, mentality could prove to be the difference between winning and losing. The United States players showed the world and their doubters that they truly believe they are going to win this Womens World Cup. If you doubted them before, now do you believe they can win it all? I certainly do.