San Francisco – The storybook ending was there to be written, but in the end the US women's national team saw another team write its own fantastic World Cup finish, with plenty of help from the United States.
When Abby Wambach headed home an Alex Morgan cross in the 104th minute to give the United States a 2-1 lead in extra time, it seemed like the perfect ending to a dream World Cup for an American team that had endured so many ups and downs on its path to this World Cup final.
The US women weren't the only ones trying to write the perfect ending to this World Cup though. Playing for a nation still recovering from the tragic tsunami that killed thousands and shattered so many lives, Japan had played some of the best soccer in this World Cup, beating mighty Germany and destroying Sweden. All it needed was its own dream finish.
That finish came on Sunday, when after being saved by a 117th-minute Homare Sawa equalizer, Japan beat the mighty USA in penalty kicks. The Americans, a week removed from going a perfect 5 for 5 from the penalty spot to knock off Brazil, missed 3 of 4. Even Hope Solo couldn't bail the USA out of such a disastrous set of penalties. Japan made 3 of 4 to clinch the 2011 World Cup, the first in Japan's history.
In the end, it wasn't about dream endings or story books. It was about one team wasting its chances, and another taking every chance it got. This US women's team had impressed us in its past two games by showing determination, fearlessness and a never-say-die attitude. On Sunday, Japan was the one displaying those qualities while it was the Americans that were making defensive blunders, wasting countless scoring chances and, of all things, missing penalty kicks -- the same things that had doomed the US team's recent opponents.
The loss was a bitter one for the Americans because you could argue Sunday's final was the best soccer the team played all tournament. The United States jumped all over Japan early, creating quality chances only to see them go begging. The Americans were actually the better possession team in the first half, which went away from the pre-match script pitting the possession-minded Japanese against the USA's brute force.
None of that first-half domination mattered because none of the US team's chances could break through. An early Abby Wambach blast caromed off the crossbar. A Megan Rapinoe volley whistled past the left post, while an Alex Morgan chance in the second half rattled off the right. With each missed chance by the USA it felt more and more like destiny was wearing Japanese blue, and even when the USA did finally find the net, Japan wasn't about to give in.
Japan didn't buckle after Wambach's goal, instead forcing the Americans into an uncharacteristic defensive blunder to equalize in the 80th minute as defenders Rachel Beuhler and Ali Krieger combined to set up Aya Miyami's equalizer.
The Japanese could have ended matters late in regulation, nearly finding a winner and outplaying a reeling US team for the final 10 minutes. The Americans eventually regained their composure and looked to grab a likely winner when Morgan sent in a hard cross to a wide-open Wambach, who finished the chance easily to give the USA a 2-1 lead with 16 minutes left in extra time.
The USA were poised to hold on before Sawa stepped up and hit a perfect jumping side volley past Solo off a corner kick to tie the score 2-2 with just three minutes left in extra time. The goal was a crushing blow the Americans never recovered from while Japan went into penalties brimming with confidence.
That much was clear as Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath all missed their penalty attempts while Japan converted three of four to clinch the World Cup for a grateful nation.
For the US women, all that is left is the empty feeling of what could have been. After pumping up interest in the team, and in this World Cup, throughout the United States, the US women missed an opportunity to give the women's game in the US a real boost. That may still be the case to some degree, because there's no denying that interest in women's soccer is greater now than before the World Cup, but a US win would have done so much more.
Perhaps its unfair to ignore the run the US women made because of the loss in Sunday's final, but the fact remains while it was inspiring to see the Americans beat a favored Brazil team in the quarters, and beat a more skillful France team in the semifinals, losing to a Japan team it had beaten three times this year -- a team it outplayed for most of the day on Sunday -- leaves a bad taste that will overshadow all the heroics that came before it.
Now, instead of the dream finish and the World Cup and the celebrations that would have followed, we are instead left with an aging team in transition that may not get this close to a World Cup for a long time.
With talented young teams like France and Sweden, and traditional powers like Germany and Brazil all looking like formidable foes come 2015 in Canada, the US women's program is left in the same position it was in before this tournament: Holding onto memories of the 1999 Women's World Cup Final, wondering if and when we'll ever see the United States enjoy a moment like that again.