MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany — For the U.S. women’s soccer team, the 2011 World Cup has been a series of triumphs over a number of obstacles, some their own making. On Wednesday, the problem came in the form of sloppy midfield play against a relentless French team that dominated possession after falling behind early.
Wambach, whose miraculous last-minute goal against Brazil on Sunday helped the team stave off elimination in the quarterfinals, scored on another header to give her team the lead for good in a 3-1 victory over France in the World Cup semifinals. Her strike helped send the Americans to the final for the first time since 1999 and raised hopes that the current national team can at long last come out from under the shadow of the memorable squad from 12 years ago.
The U.S. women will face Japan, a 3-1 winner over Sweden in Wednesday’s other semifinal, on Sunday in Frankfurt for the World Cup title.
“Our team has this ability to fight through adversity,” Wambach said. Her teammates “stick together when the going gets rough.”
For almost an hour after Lauren Cheney opened the scoring in the ninth minute, France clearly had the upper hand. Les Bleus controlled the ball 55 percent of the time overall and took 25 shots to the Americans’ 11.
But the only French goal came from forward Sonia Bompastor, who once played professionally for the Washington Freedom. In the 55th minute, she hit a long drive toward the goal. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo held back, watching Gaetane Thiney attempt to head the ball into the goal. But Thiney never made contact with the ball and it scooted past Solo to tie the score at 1.
The U.S. retort came in the 79th minute. Playing on comparatively fresh legs, Rapinoe was able to force a corner kick. Cheney crossed it straight in front of France’s net and Wambach leapt high into the air and pummeled the ball into the goal with her head.
The third U.S. goal — scored by Alex Morgan three minutes later — sealed France’s fate. Again, Rapinoe played a critical role. She crossed the ball in front of Morgan and enabled her to chip the ball past France goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz.
“I see myself as a starter,” Rapinoe said after the game, and before the World Cup, she was. But U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage made the last-minute decision to send Rapinoe to the bench.
Coming in as a reserve is different, Rapinoe said. “You know you have 20 minutes. It’s a different kind of intensity.”
Rapinoe, a 26-year-old midfielder, has been vital to the U.S. attack in her new role. She scored against Colombia in group play, celebrating the goal by singing “Born in the USA” into an on-field microphone. Then, against Brazil on Sunday, she delivered the immaculate crossing pass that Wambach headed into the net for the tying goal late in regulation.
On Wednesday, she may have worked herself back onto the starting lineup.
“We will look back at the games we’ve played and try to figure out who the starting lineup is in the final,” Sundhage said.
l JAPAN 3, SWEDEN 1: Homare Sawa made up for a huge error by scoring the go-ahead goal and surprise starter Nahomi Kawasumi had two goals for Japan in a semifinal in Frankfurt.
Japan advanced to the final for the first time.