U.S. women outlast Canada in semifinals

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MANCHESTER, England -- In the still-young history of the United States women's soccer team, it is safe to say there has never been a celebration quite like this one.

There have been epic victories in historic venues these past two decades, big goals that turned anonymous athletes into household names and celebrations so shocking that Team USA's wins have sometimes felt like statements, not of America's growing prowess in the sport but the power inherent in today's young woman -- especially when she has 10 like-minded friends.

Monday night, as the Americans piled on top of Alex Morgan, it was happening all over again. Her header in the 123rd minute gave Team USA a thrilling 4-3 overtime victory against Canada in an Olympic semifinal, saving her team by a matter of seconds from what appeared to be a certain shootout.

"Alex, I love you," Abby Wambach told her in the pile. "I think that I'm in love with you in this moment."

Morgan heard her loud and clear.

"I've never wanted to cry on a field after I scored a goal," Morgan said later.

All around them, thousands in the announced crowd of 26,630 jumped and waved the U.S. flag, behaving like soccer fanatics in a place that has seen its fair share of them.

What was different about this gut-check win for Team USA? Mainly, the setting.

Old Trafford, known as the Theatre of Dreams, is one of the sport's meccas. Built 102 years ago, it houses the famed Manchester United Football Club. Over the years, most players worth watching have taken the pitch, from David Beckham to Cristiano Ronaldo to Pele.

The building survived several World War II bombings by the Nazis, but one thing it hadn't done until these Olympics was host an international women's soccer game (it is believed that one women's game had been played at Old Trafford before a U.S. match a week ago against North Korea).

This may seem like a surprise, given soccer's kingly status in the United Kingdom, but that's exactly the point -- the Brits haven't traditionally made much room for potential female royalty on the soccer field.

Before the game Monday, outside Old Trafford, a woman wrapped an American flag around her waist. She wore a T-shirt stamped with Wambach's visage that read: "Wambach is my homegirl." The natural assumption was that this woman was American.

But no, Leanne Brown, 35, was British, from the Leeds area of England.

"I like the U.S. national team," Brown said. "What they've done over the years for the game is really amazing. They've been pioneers of the women's game."

If only Team USA already had been doing this when Brown was a little girl, then maybe she would have had the chance to play futbol like the boys.

"A lot of the players here, they could play to a certain age on a boys team and then you can't," Brown said. "When I was at school, a few of us would try to play, and the male teachers were out laughing at us."

As Brown said this, there was some commotion about 10 yards away. The Dickinson College women's soccer team from Carlisle, Pa., was posing for pictures. They were in Manchester for some training matches against four British semi-pro teams, and there was no way they were going to miss out on seeing Team USA play in Old Trafford.

"We grew up in the Mia Hamm age," Annie Weichert, 21, said. "I remember just being so excited."

Weichert and her teammate, Ashley Fields, each had every chance growing up to play whatever sport they wanted. They chose soccer, and they were disappointed Monday when they went to the National Football Museum in Manchester and saw basically nothing about the women's game.

"It was all men's soccer," Weichert said.

Standing nearby the boisterous American athletes were Simon Williscroft, his daughter, Rebecca, and two of her friends. They made the trip from Coventry, England, to watch the match because there's really no finding good women's soccer on TV.

"There's not many women's sports that are played in England," Williscroft said. "When you think about it, what do we do? What do women do?"

"I do dancing," said one friend, Chloe Lirmour, 13.

"I do [field] hockey," Rebecca, 13, said.

"I watch TV," Sophie Smith, 13, said.

This is the women's soccer scene the Americans walked into a few weeks ago, and they've been on a goodwill tour ever since. First up, Glasgow, Scotland. Next, Manchester. Next, Newcastle, England. Then, back to Manchester.

On Monday night, Team USA's biggest rival, Canada, stood in the way of a date in London with Japan -- which would be a rematch of the 2011 Women's World Cup championship game, won by the Japanese.

The semifinal would be a match defined by improbabilities. Canada's star forward, Christine Sinclair, scored all three goals for a rare soccer hat trick. Team USA's first goal came in the 54th minute when midfielder Megan Rapinoe's corner kick bent directly into the net.

Trailing, 3-2, and staring into one of the biggest upsets in the sport's history, Team USA got a break when a referee called Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod, a Penn State graduate, for holding the ball longer than six seconds. That set up a free kick for Rapinoe, who drove the ball directly into the arm of Canada's Marie-Eve Nault. A hand ball was called, which meant Wambach got to take a free kick. She slipped it into the lower right corner of the net to tie the score at 3-3 in the 80th minute.

After the first 15-minute overtime period went scoreless, Wambach gave an impassioned speech to her team.

"It really does just take one moment, one moment of brilliance, for somebody to do something individually spectacular," she said.

As the second overtime period stretched into three minutes of stoppage time, it seemed that moment wasn't coming. Both teams were noticeably exhausted.

"It was like a rugby match," U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said.

"My calves were going to go," Rapinoe said.

Solo began mentally preparing for a shootout.

"I had a plan of attack," Solo said. "I felt ready."

Alex Morgan wouldn't remember how Heather O'Reilly got the ball on the Canada side of the field, streaking down the right side, but all Morgan knew was that O'Reilly was capable of a fine cross, and she had better be there for it.

O'Reilly swung and floated the ball toward the middle of the box, where Wambach overshot it.

Luckily, there was Morgan coming from behind, rising with all the energy she had left and striking the ball with her head.

Nobody in Old Trafford could believe it when the ball arched over the outstretched hands of McLeod for the winning goal.

The Americans had come back three times from one-goal deficits to advance to the final.

"Moments like this are what make sports so cool," Wambach said. "Literally doing something that was unlikely, when everybody counted you out."

The Americans' goodwill tour will end Thursday at London's Wembley Stadium, and surely, after Monday night, more people in the host country will be watching.


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough.


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