Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pride of '99

DRESDEN, Germany - Abby Wambach had just finished her freshman year in college when Mia Hamm played for the 1999 U.S. Women's Soccer team. At the time, Hamm was seen as the untouchable soccer star, without question the best female player in history. How would Wambach have felt, then, if she had been told that 12 years later, the only person between her and the all-time scoring record for women's soccer would be Hamm?

Megan Rapinoe had just turned 14 when Kristine Lilly made the save of the 1999 Women's World Cup. Lilly wasn't a goalkeeper, of course, but she was standing against the far post on that Chinese corner kick in extra time, in perfect position to head away the ball that would have defeated the Americans. What would Rapinoe had thought, then, if she had been told that exactly 12 years to the day, she would launch a perfectly placed 50-yard cross onto the head of Wambach to produce the most dramatic goal in her team's history?

Hope Solo was 17 years old when Briana Scurry leapt off the line and saved China's third penalty-kick attempt during the 1999 shootout, the save of a lifetime, the save that won the World Cup. Twelve years later, to the day, Solo leapt off the line to save a penalty kick late in the second half, only to be told she had moved early and that it would have to be taken again. Did Solo think back to Scurry's save in 1999, when she had most certainly moved early, only to have it not be called? No, more likely she was channeling Scurry when she stopped Brazil's third penalty kick of the shootout, the save that guaranteed the comeback would be complete.

Ali Krieger was just about to turn 15 when Brandi Chastain showed the world her bra. It's very likely she was watching, enthralled, inspired, hoping she would get a similar chance. Could she have ever known that 12 years later, to the day, she would be in the same position? That she would bury the game-clinching penalty kick for the United States in a World Cup? This time, though, Krieger didn't take off her shirt. The game was far too important to be overshadowed like that.

The game the U.S. women won earlier today in Dresden was one of the greatest in the team's history, the only one that could rival the 1999 World Cup final in terms of drama. They were holding a 1-0 lead but were getting generally outplayed when, in the 65th minute, Rachel Buehler got sent off on a questionable foul. Solo saved the resulting penalty kick, but the referee inexplicably awarded a second try, which Brazil converted. Tie game.

Their lead gone and freshly down a player, the U.S. lit into Brazil. Whether they were inspired by the women of '99 or by the men of '10, or whether they were just pissed, something changed. For the rest of the game, it looked like Brazil was the team playing with 10 players instead of the United States.

But still, despite the advantage of play, the U.S. was still helpless against the mastery of Brazil's Marta, whose goal in the second minute of extra time seemed to seal the deal. But then Krieger made a steal in her own box and passed it ahead. Two passes later, the ball was on Rapinoe's foot, and she launched the picture-perfect cross toward a hard-charging Wambach. Brazil keeper Andreia tried to punch it away, but the ball missed her hand by inches, instead finding the head of Wambach, who promptly buried it in the 122nd minute.

From there, it was obvious who was going to win. It was also obvious that this was one of the most important wins in Women's soccer history. That it came on the same day as their singular defining moment was just extra poetic. The 1999 World Cup final will probably remain the greatest moment in U.S. women's sports history for a very long time. Depending on how they finish this tournament, the 2011 team may have just provided moment No. 2.

No comments:

Post a Comment