Stop me if you’ve heard this story before – The United States Women’s National Team jumps to an early lead in a World Cup match, their opponent equalizes early in the second half, Abby Wambach saves the day. In a match that, through the 78th minute, eerily mirrored Sunday’s instant classic (minus the referee miscues), the USWNT was able to alter the script and book their place in the Women’s World Cup final (their first since 1999).
While most of America was at work, the US put in a workman like effort to defeat an up-and-coming French squad that for large parts of the match looked the better side. The US once again jumped to an early lead thanks to a well placed cross, though this time the shot went into the net off an American. Lauren Cheney deftly redirected a cross from Heather O’Reilly in the 9′ to give the Americans the lead. Little did fans know that this would be the last shot for the US in the half. Combining with a forward line of World Player of the Year nominee Louisa Necib, and prolific Marie-Laure Delie, the creative and composed midfield of Gaëtane Thiney, Camille Abily, and evergreen Sandrine Soubeyrand enjoyed the lion’s share of possession. Despite some near misses on both sides – a Carli Lloyd header in the 24′, a Sonia Bompastor blast off Hope Solo‘s crossbar in the 30′, and an Abby Wambach header in the 39′ – the game went into the half with the Americans in the lead.
As the second half began in Mönchengladbach it always looked like Les Bleues would find an equalizer. Running on tired legs – the result of playing 123 minutes three days ago – the USWNT could not keep up with the creativity or pace of the French midfield. The French were rewarded for their attacking style with the game-tying goal in the 55′. The goal did not come from the foot of Nacib or Thiney, but from a Bompastor cross that fluttered over Hope Solo’s head to the far post. Bompastor launched her cross into the box, and Solo was caught out – guarding against what appeared would be a header by Thiney.
To her credit, coach Pia Sundhage did not sit idly by and immediately replaced the ineffective Amy Rodriguez with phenom Alex Morgan. A further substitution in the 65′ brought Sunday’s hero, Megan Rapinoe, on for Lloyd. The effect was immediate, as the fresh legs of Morgan and Rapinoe took their toll on the tiring French.
Rapinoe and Morgan nearly combined for some magic in the 70′ when Rapinoe launched a free kick into the box that Morgan nearly slotted home. Just 9 minutes later, the Americans’ dominance on set-pieces and in the air would prove the difference. Wambach, who has rediscovered her scoring touch, found the back of the net off a corner from Cheney. Rising over her defender at the far post, Wambach contorted her body and shifted in mid-flight to power home a clinical header. Wambach’s header was the type that coaches will use in years to come to train the future national team. Wunderkind Alex Morgan (who in my opinion has earned a start in the final) put the exclamation point on the victory with a cheeky chip over the French keeper, Berangere Sapowicz.
The French deserve a lot of credit, and the scoreline is a bit deceiving. They played a flowing, fun-to-watch brand of soccer, and were the revelation of the tournament. If Les Bleues can improve on their defensive weakness, they will be contenders for years to come. On the other side of the pitch, the US never-say-die attitude, which has been the subject of hundreds of articles since Sunday, has to be applauded. Were it not for the confidence that a winner (or equalizer) will come from somebody, somehow, this team would not be playing for the World Cup. While several teams have shown a technical superiority to the USWNT, the Americans are all about results. Can they get one more?