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Wambach strikes again, sends U.S. to finals

Lauren Cheney, right, raised her arms after flicking in a cross from Heather O'Reilly to give the Americans a 1-0 lead nine minutes into the game.
Lauren Cheney, right, raised her arms after flicking in a cross from Heather O'Reilly to give the Americans a 1-0 lead nine minutes into the game. AP

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany — Abby Wambach sure knows how to deliver.

A goal, a promise and soon, she hopes, a World Cup title.

The U.S. women had fans on edge once again until Wambach broke a tense tie with her header off a corner kick in the 79th minute Wednesday. Alex Morgan scored three minutes later to seal a 3-1 semifinal victory over France, and the Americans let loose with a party that carried all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Next up, a trip to the World Cup finals Sunday in Frankfurt that will be the first for Americans since 1999, when they last won it all. They'll play Japan, which upset Sweden 3-1 to move one step away from realizing its own dream.

"We've achieved part of our goal. We're in the final," Wambach said. "We want to complete it. We want to be world champs."

So do their fans, new and old.

The Americans captivated the crowd back home with their epic, come-from-behind win over Brazil on Sunday, and a little thing called a workday wasn't going to deter them. Some fans skipped work — bars opened early for the noon EDT kickoff — while others sneaked peeks at the game in the office. At the Phoenix airport, dozens of fans crowded around TVs to watch the game.

When the final whistle blew, Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes and ordinary folks who didn't know a free kick from a corner kick just a few days ago flooded Twitter with congratulations. "My heroes. Wambach. Boxx. Rapinoe. Solo. That TEAM! Our team!" actor Tom Hanks tweeted. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers said, "Awesome job US Women, finish it off Sunday now."

Wambach and company were glad to share the moment.

"These wins, we can't do it alone. We know a whole nation is cheering us on," Wambach said. "We believe in ourselves and we're in the final. I couldn't be happier."

A little relieved, too.

France was the surprise of the tournament, making the semifinals with a creativity and flair that was breathtaking to behold. And for much of the game, the U.S. couldn't contain Les Bleues.

"We didn't play well today," U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage said. "However, we find a way to win and that's a credit to the players' hearts. That's what makes it so wonderful to be coach of this team."

With the U.S. struggling to create opportunities in the middle, Sundhage replaced Carli Lloyd with sparkplug Megan Rapinoe early in the second half, moved Lauren Cheney inside and pulled Wambach back to the midfield.

The difference was noticeable immediately. The Americans were able to push forward and began threatening French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz.

Finally, in the 79th, the Americans won a corner kick.

"I told (Cheney) at halftime, 'Put the ball to the back post, and we're going to get a goal,' " Wambach said.

Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post and, just as Wambach had predicted, she soared over the scrum and pushed the ball past Sapowicz.

"I knew Abby was going to beat her," Cheney said, referring to the French defender who practically mugged Wambach to try to contain her.

Asked how, Cheney said, "Because she's Abby Wambach."

Wambach let out a scream and did a sliding sprint into the corner, where she was mobbed by her teammates. It was her third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, tying fellow American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.

Morgan then put the game out of reach, outracing four defenders and chipping a wide-open shot over a sliding Sapowicz.

Wednesday's other game

Japan 3, Sweden 1: Team captain Homare Sawa made up for a huge error by scoring the go-ahead goal, and Japan won in Frankfurt to reach its first World Cup finals.

Surprise starter Nahomi Kawasumi had two goals for Japan, which will face the United States in Sunday's championship. Kawasumi had just played 29 minutes in the tournament before Coach Norio Sasaki started her in Japan's biggest game ever.

"She is very tough and fit," he said. "I didn't ask her to score two goals but she did an excellent job."

Josefine Oqvist scored for Sweden, which allowed three unanswered goals.

The match turned in the second half when Kawasumi caught Hedvig Lindahl off her line and lobbed it over her from about 110 feet away for the final score, one of the best in a tournament full of excellent strikes.

Sawa, whose fourth goal of the tournament tied her with Brazil's Marta, made an uncharacteristic error in the 10th minute when she fed a defensive pass straight to Oqvist. She gladly took it, ran through the defense and got a lucky deflection to bury the ball past goalie Ayumi Kaihori.

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