Manchester, England • Abby Wambach was in the winning position, and the ball spun toward her.
Of course it would end this way, in the 123rd minute of a brutal game underscored by greatness and, at least for the Canadians, overshadowed by controversy. In the most desperate moment of the U.S. women’s soccer team’s latest close call, its most steady player would rise, snap her head and give the U.S. a 4-3 victory against Canada.
Only this time, Monday in front of 26,630 at famed Old Trafford, the ball never got to Wambach. Moments away from a shootout, she rose and snapped her head, but the ball had already been redirected by 23-year-old Alex Morgan. It connected with the narrow pink headband Morgan always wears. Into the net, into history, into Canadian fans’ nightmares, to send the U.S. to the gold-medal match of the Olympics against Japan.
“That’s not what you would have expected,” Wambach said.
Not at all. These things have become the norm for the 32-year-old Wambach. As the Americans have developed a penchant for needing late-game heroics, it’s Wambach who most consistently bails them out. Her header in extra time gave the U.S. the 2004 gold medal over Brazil. She scored the game-winner in the 122nd minute in a quarterfinal win against Brazil in last year’s World Cup.
Morgan, on the other hand, is the up-and-comer. Known primarily for her speed, Morgan has the potential to be as good as any U.S. forward — one day. She had not scored in the London Olympics since netting two in the Americans’ 4-2 opening win against France.
“I’ve been waiting a couple of games now to finally put the ball in the back of the net,” Morgan said with relief.
Often criticized by coach Pia Sundhage for her headers, Morgan couldn’t have found a better time to demonstrate her improvement.
“I’ve never wanted to cry on a field after scoring a goal,” Morgan said. “It was the best feeling ever.”
The only way to top it? To beat Japan on Thursday at Wembley Stadium in London and avenge last year’s World Cup title game loss that was decided in a shootout.
Against Canada on Monday, the U.S. played from behind nearly the entire match, thanks to a historic performance from Canadian forward Christine Sinclair. Sinclair netted a hat trick with goals in the 22nd, 67th and 73rd minutes.
After every one, the U.S. crafted an answer.
Twice, it was Sinclair’s former University of Portland teammate Megan Rapinoe who came through for the U.S.
Usually the server, Rapinoe is known more for her precision passes and timely assists than scoring. It was her pass that went half the length of the field to set up Wambach’s game-winner against Brazil last summer.
If a soccer game were a torch relay, Rapinoe would carry the flame into the Olympic Stadium but not light the cauldron. Her bleached blond hair has two Twitter accounts — two! — devoted to it.
Yet, in the 54th minute, Rapinoe curled a corner kick past everyone and into the net.
A direct corner kick goal, fittingly, is called an “olîmpico.”
“I had never seen a goal scored from the corner,” she said. “It’s pretty rare.”
In the 70th minute, she took the more traditional route and blasted a shot from just beyond the corner of the 18.
Still, the U.S. trailed going into the final 10 minutes after Sinclair’s third goal, which is when the Canadians felt the game was stolen from them.
In the 79th minute, Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod was called for a six-second violation, the rarely seen call that results from the keeper not getting rid of the ball quickly enough.
It led to an indirect kick in the box for Rapinoe, who sent it into a wall of defenders. Two Canadians hit the ball with their hands. A foul was called, which set up a penalty kick for Wambach, who converted.
The Canadians fumed over the call an hour after the game had ended.
“We feel like we didn’t lose,” Sinclair said, “we feel like it was taken from us. It’s a shame in a game like that, which is so important that the ref decided the result before the game started.”
McLeod was even less diplomatic.
“We feel like we got robbed in this game,” she said. “The referee was very one-sided.”
When the game truly was decided, however, the referee was nowhere to be seen. It was just a long pass from Heather O’Reilly to Morgan.
Then it was a pile of sweat and tears and the belief in a third-straight gold as one American after another stacked herself on top of the last to create a victory pile.
Somewhere under there, in the happy darkness, Wambach found Morgan.
“I love you,” she later recalled saying. “I think I am in love with you in this moment.”
Of course it would end this way.
Storylines U.S. 4, Canada 3
R The U.S. advances to the gold-medal match to play Japan on Thursday at Wembley Stadium.
• Alex Morgan’s game-winning goal is her third of the Olympics, but first since the U.S.’s opening win against France.
• Japan advances to the title game by virtue of a 2-1 win over France.