FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) – In a summer that has left American sports fans begging for any reason to get passionate and excited, one dampened with pro sports lockouts, the US women's soccer team has picked the perfect time to pick up a sports-loving nation that badly needed an inspiration.
They did it again Wednesday with an emphatic 3-1 victory over France in the Women's World Cup semifinals, showing their continued ability to rise to the occasion, to deliver in the face of adversity and pressure.
Taking on a highly skilled France squad that looked every bit like a team capable of pulling off the upset, the US women brushed off the French challenge like a team that has forgotten how to be afraid, like a team fully confident it will lift its first World Cup in a dozen years.
Led by Abby Wambach, who is captivating soccer fans and non-soccer fans alike with her determination and ability to deliver in the clutch, these US women are putting together a historic and dramatic World Cup run that feels even more impressive than the one their predecessors made en route to their 1999 triumph.
That US team was a pioneering group that helped make huge inroads for the sport of women's soccer. This current team has built on that legacy, transcending the niche that women's soccer had become and inspiring Americans of all sporting preferences with their displays of courage and fearlessness.
You don't have to be a soccer expert to enjoy this US team. Even casual sports fans know great drama, and they can sense when elite athletes reach deep and find a way to deliver when things look bleak. Wambach, Hope Solo and the entire US team did that against Brazil on Sunday, and Wambach and midfield starlet Alex Morgan did it Wednesday against France.
And, so, the US women have captured the imagination of a country enduring a forgettable sports summer.
Whether it's the NFL and NBA labor battles, the countless scandals involving athletes, the US men's soccer team's ugly loss to Mexico in the Gold Cup final (and even the US Under-17 men's national team's ugly World Cup exit, 4-0 to Germany in the Round of 16), the summer of 2011 has been the Summer of Disappointment for American sports fans.
At least, until this Women's World Cup.
The US women's work isn't done, though. Sure, they have already written an amazing story, but it will be forgotten quickly if the Americans don't bring home the gold medal on Sunday against Japan.
The American women have grabbed the attention of casual sports fans, but without the perfect ending, those same fans will not hesitate to abandon the soccer and Women's World Cup bandwagons.
The US men's team knows that all too well. In 2002, the US men reached the World Cup quarterfinals and drew unprecedented attention -- only to see it fade soon after the Americans lost to Germany in the quarters.
More recently, in 2009, the US men shocked the world by upsetting defending European champions (and eventual 2010 World Cup champions) Spain in the Confederations Cup. But with an anxious nation watching, the US men blew a two-goal lead and lost to Brazil.
Then, last summer, after having won their World Cup group thanks to Landon Donovan's unforgettable game-winning goal against Algeria, the US men suffered a crushing defeat against Ghana, thus ending what seemed like an excellent opportunity to make a deep World Cup run.
On each occasion, casual sports fans embraced soccer, with some even getting hooked on the sport permanently. But each time, an opportunity to convert more fans and garner more invaluable attention went wasted.
The US women have an opportunity in Sunday's World Cup final to do what their male counterparts couldn't. But they'll have to do it against an opponent whose story is every bit as inspirational as theirs.
Japan knocked off two-time defending World Cup champion Germany in the quarterfinals before demolishing Sweden 3-1 in Wednesday's semifinal. (That's the same Sweden team that defeated the United States in the group stage.)
The Americans will enter the championship game as favorites, having beaten Japan three times this year and having not lost to Japan in 25 previous meetings (22-0-3).
But the Japan team we have seen in this World Cup is playing at a different level than it has previously.
The tragic and devastating tsunami that ravaged Japan in March has clearly motivated this Japanese team. And, in turn, the Japanese women are succeeding in uplifting a healing nation by playing a successful and beautiful brand of soccer, a possession game that has wowed observers and befuddled opponents.
So two teams will take the pitch Sunday, each trying to write a perfect ending to an inspirational World Cup run.
Japan has shown it has the skill to make its dream come true. But the US women have shown in their past two victories a determination and poise that has convinced American sports fans they will have a championship to celebrate come Sunday.