The United States was an underdog entering a match for the first time in Women's World Cup history as they faced top-ranked and high-scoring Germany, which squeaked by France on penalty kicks, but had scored a robust 20 goals (10 in one match) so far in the Women's World Cup.
A berth in the Women's World Cup final was on the line in a contest that had a whirlwind of intrigue and subplots. Let's put aside the negative attention garnered by US star goalie Hope Solo's magnificently tumultuous past few years. A time frame that has included coaches clashes, domestic violence incidents, run-ins with the cops while defending her boyfriend on some ride-or-die chick stuff (can't be too mad at that), social media outbursts and wars with past US Women's Soccer legends, and her 30-day suspension from the U.S. Women's National Team in January.
Solo's success at this World Cup solidifies her standing as possibly the greatest goalie in US Women's history and only adds to the outspoken soccer diva's persona as a warrior and an all out badass chick. She has rebounded from these troubles to play flawlessly and be the final line of an impenetrable US Women's defense. Solo has been a record-breaker and supreme goal shaker since 2008, but despite two triumphant Olympic campaigns, she's had mixed experiences with the World Cup.
In 2007, she was sent home from the tournament after speaking out angrily in the aftermath of the team's semifinal defeat to Brazil, for which she had been dropped in favor of O.G. Briana Scurry by then-coach Greg Ryan. In 2011, Solo was voted as the third-best player in the event but was frustrated in the final, with Japan winning on penalty kicks after twice coming from behind to level scores at 2-2. The loss was a stain on her unblemished reputation in goal.
So this go round, the enigmatic soccer diva has two chips on her shoulder. She's just as competitive and fiery. The difference is she's just one of the girls and she is letting her masterful goaltending do the barking.
Before USA dusted off Germany 2-0 on Tuesday night in Montreal, Quebec to advance to the World Cup semifinals, the matchup was billed as a battle between the tournament's top offense against the American's hardbody defense, which has allowed just one goal in the Women's World Cup, and it came from Australia in the first half of the opening match.
Some were calling it the greatest women's soccer matchup of all-time. Even better than the classic 1999 Women's World Cup final in which the USA beat Japan in riveting sudden-death fashion. The final Women’s World Cup of the century launched the beginning a new era of success for women’s soccer. For the first time, the tournament was expanded to 16 teams and was staged in huge stadiums across the host country, raising expectations for attendance, media coverage and television audiences; expectations which were reached, surpassed and then crushed thanks to the power, personality and persistence of a juggernaut women's squad led by transcending superstar Mia Hamm.
The U.S. captured its second Women’s World Cup Championship while thrilling a nation and becoming the story of the year. The team played in front of packed houses across the country, beginning with a crowd of 78,000-plus at Giants Stadium as they smoked Denmark 3-0 to spark the tournament. The victory set a tone for the entire tournament. After fighting their way into the final with five victories, which included a come-from-behind 3-2 victory over Germany in the quarterfinals and a nail-biting 2-0 victory over Brazil in the semifinals, the U.S. battled China for a grueling 120 minutes before pulling out a breathtaking 5-4 penalty kick victory in the finals in front of a sell-out crowd of 90,125 fans at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on July 10.
After a scoreless 90 minutes of regulation, China appeared to get the winner in the first 15-minutes of sudden-death overtime, but midfielder Kristine Lilly jumped high to head a shot clear of the goal. That save would lead to goalkeeper Briana Scurry and defender Brandi Chastain becoming heroes during the penalty kick tiebreaker. Scurry leaped off her line to save China’s third shot, allowing Chastain to slam home the game-winning penalty kick goal. The actions that followed -- Chastain stripping down to her sports bra and sliding with her hands held high in jubilation -- sparked a flurry of emotions and (comical) debates about appropriate behavior for women in sports. With the championship, the U.S. became the first nation to win the Women’s World Cup on its home soil.
Prior to the match, the Women’s Soccer Power Index gave it an average WSPI rating of 95.5. The score is the largest average WSPI of any two teams to ever play each other at a Women’s World Cup. By this measure, the 1999 final is only the eighth-greatest game of all time.
Either the U.S. or Germany — or both countries — has played in every one of the top 10 greatest Women’s World Cup games and they each have two titles to their credit. Their 2003 World Cup semifinal encounter ranks third (Germany defeated the U.S. 3-0). Historically, when the U.S. and Germany have met at a World Cup, the winner has gone on to win the tournament. In both 1991 and 1999, the U.S. defeated Germany en route to its two championships, and in 2003, Germany routed the U.S. on its way to its first of two World Cup titles. However, before last night, the two teams hadn't met at a World Cup in 12 years. According to WSPI,Germany was favored to win the game 57 percent to the Americans’ 43 percent, but Team USA can never be counted out.
The U.S. Women’s National Team will contest a semifinal match for the seventh time in its history of Women’s World Cup play (the only country to achieve that feat). The USA will meet the winner of tonight's other semifinal game between Japan and England in Edmonton. The USA earned its way into the final four with a 1-0 victory against China PR on June 26 in Ottawa. For a squad with such an illustrious international soccer history and some of the greatest female players to ever cleat up (Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Kristine Lilly, current legend Abby Wambach, Michelle Akers), it's no surprise that the US WNT finds itself in a familiar position, having now advanced to the semifinals of every Women’s World Cup it has participated in (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011 and 2015).
It wasn't an easy win because the U.S. was in danger of allowing a goal for the first time in over 500 minutes of play. Fifteen minutes into the second half against high-powered Germany, defender Julie Johnston got a (yellow card) foul in the penalty area when she tugged on the shoulder of a German player, altering the player's shot attempt.
The long goal-less streak seemed certainly over as German sharp-shooter Celia Sasic cracked a confident smile and readied for her attempt to break the 0-0 deadlock. Sasic unfathomably shanked it, hooking it wide left and missing a wide open net as Solo miscalculated and dove right, in the 63rd minute. The misfire was Germany's first of a penalty kick during a Women's World Cup match. It had been 17-for-17 before the striker failed and that gave Team USA the emotional lift it needed to take control of the game.
Six minutes later, midfielder Carli Lloyd converted a penalty kick for the Americans and a 1-0 lead.
Substitute Kelley O'Hara netted her first career goal in international play in the 84th minute off a Lloyd cross to seal the U.S. team's 2-0 victory.
"All I remember is thinking Carli's going to put this across, get there, " said O'Hara, who scored her first international goal in her 62nd career game. "I didn't believe the play would happen but I was there to finish it. I'm just happy to be able to contribute and its an incredible feeling to know we are going to the World Cup Finals."
And they did it by dethroning a seemingly impenetrable force.
"I think we always believe that we are the best in the world or can compete with the best," a humble yet confident O'Hara added when asked how it feels to beat the No. 1 team. "We expect that from ourselves. This is months and months of preparation coming to fruition... our end goal is still to win the World Cup.
The World Cup final is Sunday in Vancouver, British Columbia against defending champion Japan, who the U.S. lost to in the 2011 final. Japan defeated a game England squad 2-1 on Wednesday in the other semifinals match. If the US Women's National Team is victorious on Sunday, the win will be their third World Cup -- the most of any country in women's soccer history. Also, this one would be the most satisfying because of all the on-and-off field tribulations, turmoil and turnover the women have endured along the way.