Abby Wambach scored the go-ahead goal for the United States as they beat France 3-1 in the semifinals to advance to the finals of the 2011 Women’s World Cup. As Michael Birnbaum reported:

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.

But, sparked in part by the 65th-minute entrance of substitute Megan Rapinoe, the Americans were able to repel France’s attack, and in the 79th minute, Abby Wambach struck again.

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.

The U.S. team has taken joy in establishing their own identity throughout the tournament, an identity which has been forged thriough hard work and a tenacity that has seen them through several tough matches. As Sally Jenkins wrote :

Pardon any typos; they’re the result of sprains from doing an Abby Wambach slide across the living room floor after watching the U.S. women’s soccer team make the World Cup final. The American women have at last forged their own identity, those gorgeous toughies, with their bulging shoulders and their sweat-plastered hair and their habit of storming and screaming their way out of trouble. Bulletin to the spray-on tan crowd: Beat it. The big girls are here.

Is there any question there will be scores of Wambach imitators on the fields of America tomorrow, tall girls running like antelopes and butting soccer balls with their heads, and falling to their knees in exultation? Three days ago it was Wambach’s headed goal that saved the U.S. against Brazil in one of the great thrillers ever, regardless of gender. In Wednesday’s semifinal against France it was Wambach once again, just as the Americans seemed desperately played out, who hurled her body through space like “a beast in the air,” as teammate Megan Rapinoe describes her, to bang the decisive goal into the net with her forehead in the 79th minute.

The Americans now advance to their first World Cup final since 1999, a date they are surely sick of hearing about. Among the many things the American women have been fighting against in Germany at this tournament, from awful officiating to leg-whipped fatigue, is the shadow of the greatest of all American women’s sports teams.

They will face a young and motivated Japanese side, who defeated Sweden 3-1 in the other semifinal match. As AP explained:

Homare Sawa made up for a huge error by scoring the go-ahead goal and Japan advanced to the World Cup final with a 3-1 victory over Sweden on Wednesday.

Surprise starter Nahomi Kawasumi had two goals for Japan, which will face the United States in Sunday’s championship. It’s the first World Cup final for the rising soccer power.

In a battle of Japan’s fine skills against the thrust and hustle of Sweden, 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’s goal also gave her four for the tournament to tie her with Brazil’s Marta. Sawa though still has one game left to become the top scorer of her fifth World Cup.

The Japanese players always had more on their minds than their next game in the marquee event for women’s soccer. In the wake of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, they wanted to provide a feel-good story for fans back home.

And they came through.

Following their latest win, they again unfurled a huge banner that said “To our Friends Around the World — Thank You for Your Support,” referring to the global outpouring of aid after the tsunami, that left nearly 23,000 dead or missing.

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