By Matt Ream

Today I watched perhaps the most exciting game I have ever seen involving a United States soccer team.  No, it wasn’t the men’s national team or any male side at all for that matter.  I am, of course, referring to the US women’s soccer team’s quarterfinal penalty kick win against Brazil in the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

Due to Sweden’s upset of the US in the group stage, the US was surprisingly paired with Brazil in the first knockout round.  Of all the teams in the WWC, the hosts Germany, Brazil, and the Americans were the favorites going into the tournament.  Germany and Brazil met expectations in the group stage, garnering maximum points en route to winning their respective groups.  The US, however, posted two unconvincing wins against mediocre opponents North Korea and ColOmbia (do you know how to link to Evan’s tweet to me about my poor spelling of Colombia?  If not, no biggie…) before dropping the result against Sweden.

In a surprise upset, Germany lost 1-0 to Japan in their quarterfinal match the day prior to US v Brazil, which meant that only one of the three tournament favorites would advance to the semifinals.  Because of this stunning development, many observers expected the winner of this match to win the championship.  The Americans had their work cut out for them.

Unlike all of their previous matches, the US started out quickly.  An early long pass freed Shannon Boxx on the left side, from which she delivered a low, hard cross.  Brazilian defender Daiane was in the right place to make the clearance, but unfortunately miss-hit the ball and turned it into her own net.  Two minutes in and 1-0 to the US.

After an otherwise uneventful first half, the Americans began to counting down to their semifinal match against France.  It was never going to be that simple.

Enter Jacqui Melksham, Australian referee.

In the 65th minute, Marta snuck in between Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler to latch onto a long ball on the left side of the penalty area.  Both defenders overcommitted to the inventive forward’s movement and were left in the dust as she flicked the ball over them and toward goal.  Buehler, who was the quickest to react, challenged Marta for the high ball.  Both players missed making good contact with the ball and fell to the turf in a tangled heap.  What looked like a 50-50 ball that Marta was never going to score from turned into a penalty kick and a red card for Buehler as Melksham began to impose herself on the game.

But this wasn’t the worst of it.

On the ensuing penalty kick, goalkeeper Hope Solo saved brilliantly, denying Cristiane her third goal of the tournament.  Rampone cleared the ball, and play seemed to go on normally.

Nope.

Melksham brought the ball back, allowed Brazil to re-take the penalty kick, and gave Solo a yellow for dissent.  Although replays showed that Rampone had encroached on the original PK, one can’t help but feel slighted (as a US fan, anyway) due to the nature of the initial foul and red card.

Marta stepped up in place of Cristiane and converted, sending Solo in the wrong direction.  1-1 and 10 against 14…er, 11.  If the US was going to survive to make it to the semis, they had to weather a newly confident Brazil team for 50 (yes, 50) more minutes until penalty kicks were needed to decide the match.

However, despite having a one player advantage, Brazil seemed to be the ones who needed to weather the storm.  The US brought on Alex Morgan for Amy Rodriguez and Boxx dropped deep to shield the back three.  The US combined well for some chances to score, but always seemed to lack the final touch.  Ninety minutes ended and still 1-1, so on to extra time.

In the 92nd minute, a clever combination resulted in a cross for Brazil.  The play looked like it might have been offside, so as the ball sailed toward Marta, Boxx was caught napping.  Marta redirected the cross off the far post and in with a sweeping touch and all of a sudden, Brazil was winning 2-1 by virtue of another controversial refereeing decision.

Here’s where the game got good.  Where other US teams have hung their heads (see USMNT v Brazil 2009; USMNT v Mexico 2009, 2011; USMNT U-17s v Germany 2011), this team continued to battle.  After all, there was still nearly a full half an hour of soccer to be played and a world cup trophy still to be had.

(Note: USMNT v England; Slovenia; Algeria, 2010 were all examples of a US team battling on despite facing steep odds).

Half an hour later, though, all hope seemed to be lost (pun not intended).  With three minutes of stoppage time left due to Brazil’s gamesmanship and time wasting, the US looked to be headed out of the world cup without reaching the semifinals for the first time ever. 

Then Carli Lloyd got the ball in the center circle just inside her own half.  She played the ball wide to Megan Rapinoe, who took a touch forward, looked up, and launched a cross to the back post.  The ball sailed in inexplicable slow motion, floating over a defender and just out of the reach of Andreia’s outstretched hands and…

Right onto the head of Abby Wambach, who redirected it into the net.  At the death and almost out of the tournament, Lloyd, Rapinoe, and Wambach combined for the game saving goal.  Seconds later, extra time was over and on to penalty kicks, which went as follows:

Boxx stepped up…save.  But wait!  Melksham judged Andreia to have stepped off her line before the ball was kicked, so Boxx got another chance.

Goal, USA!  Andreia way off her line again (as she would be for nearly every one of the US penalty kick attempts), but Boxx made it, so it counts. 1-0, USA.

Cristiane to the spot…goal, Brazil.  1-1.

Lloyd was up…goal, USA!  2-1, USA.

Marta was next…goal, Brazil. 2-2.

Abby “Clutch” Wambach…goal, USA!  3-2, USA.

Up stepped Daiane, scorer of the own goal.  At this point, the rumble pack in your video game controller would be going apeshit.  SAVE, SOLO! 3-2, USA.

(Of note, in the 1999 US World Cup final win against China, Briana Scurry saved China’s third PK attempt.)

Rapinoe…goal and what a hit!  She almost blasted a hole in the net! 4-2, USA.

Substitute Francielle stepped up.  She had to make her shot to keep Brazil in it, and she did. 4-3, USA.

Defender Alex Krieger, who played professionally in Germany, responded to the challenge and stepped up for the US.  If she made her shot, the US would win, but a miss would mean sudden death.  She held her nerve and made her kick!  5-3, USA and the Americans advanced to the semifinals!

A few thoughts:

  • This game was even in just about all respects.  Both teams had near identical statistics, although the US probably had better passing while Brazil was more dangerous on the dribble in their attacking third.
  • With Buehler out for the semifinal match, will veteran Heather Mitts get the nod in her place?  Mitts has 116 caps to her name, but is perhaps more widely known for her looks, as she has spent time as a model and sideline reporter for NCAA football broadcasts.
  • Amy LePeilbet, who had struggled the past few games, had a good showing today.  She was rarely beaten and got forward well before Buehler’s red card.  After the ejection, she was solid when she tucked into space vacated by Boxx.
  • I’ve been saying this all along, but Solo is a beast.  She made several crucial stops when the game could have gone either way and should not have had to face any penalties this game.  Her two stops gave her teammates confidence to do their job and that last minute comeback wouldn’t have happened without her leadership in the back.
  • Is Wambach hitting her form at the right time?  Early on in the tournament, Wambach was mired in a scoreless streak dating back to early 2011.  Now she has two goals in as many games and had a few close chances.  Her form could dictate whether the Americans win the whole thing, or even advance from the semis.

The United States plays France in the semifinals on Wednesday, July 13th at 8:30AM Pacific Standard Time.  The game can be seen on ESPN, ESPN3.com, or Galavision.  The other semifinal match between Sweden and Japan will be televised following the US game, at 11:45AM.

Matt Ream is the older, wiser, and better looking brother of TheSackLunch co-founder Evan Ream.  He occasionally contributes to TSL when he isn’t too busy getting his MA in Kinesiology at CSU Long Beach, coaching youth soccer, or reading.  He can be reached at mtream@gmail.com or @flyingoose.     

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