NEWCASTLE, England — When Abby Wambach touched home a pass from Alex Morgan in the U.S. women’s soccer team’s Olympic quarterfinal match Friday afternoon at St. James’ Park, she pulled herself from the turf and headed toward the corner. Her teammates followed. And there, in quasi-unison, they turned cartwheels — in celebration of their lead over New Zealand and in honor of Gabby Douglas and the girls of the Games: the American gymnasts.
“I was like, ‘Cartwheels for everyone,’ ” Wambach said. “And then finish it off with — you know what they do at the end of a performance? They do this thing,” and she thrust her chest upward and outward as if she had just finished a gorgeous, golden performance.
The Americans can be forgiven for choreographing some excitement into their Olympic experience. Their 2-0 victory over New Zealand not only moved them into Monday night’s semifinal against old rival Canada, but also gave them wins in all four of their Olympic matches. They have scored 10 goals since an opponent last pushed one past goalkeeper Hope Solo. They are two wins away from a third consecutive gold medal, and they profess that’s “the only thing that matters,” Wambach said.
But on the route to London and Wembley Stadium, where the gold medal match will be contested Thursday, the Americans figure there must be amusement. So they have, after scoring goals, slid into the corner. They have lined up and done some sort of squiggle, alternately described Friday as a “worm” or a “snake.” And after they watched Douglas’s inspirational all-around gold during a team meal Thursday, they came up with Friday’s shenanigans.
“Just having some fun with it,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said. “Just trying to get the crowd going and do something special.”
But for every bit of fun, there is the chance someone will feel shown up. New Zealand Coach Tony Readings was effusive in his praise of the Americans’ play Friday, describing in detail the difficulties presented by the bruising Wambach and the fleet Morgan up front, calling Solo “probably the best goalie in the world,” praising their organization and their depth. But Readings was then asked about the cartwheels.
“We wouldn’t do it,” he said without hesitation. “I wouldn’t like it if our team did that. I think when teams concede [a goal], and they’re disappointed, and they want to get on with the game, it’s not something we would do. But it’s obviously something that the Americans do. We’ve seen it a few times in this tournament.”
Likely, they’ll see it a few more. U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage, a relentless optimist, shrugged off any suggestion her players should be reined in.
“Nah,” she said. “I’m not a psychologist. I don’t know. We score goals, and we’re happy. If [that’s] how the players want to do it, whatever they do, it has to be fun. If they come up with ideas, that’s perfectly fine.”
In order to have the celebrations, and even any rumblings of controversy, they must score. Wambach has done that four times in four games here, even as she undergoes myriad daily treatments on her battered body. Morgan, too, had ample opportunities Friday, though she couldn’t convert.
And as the Americans clung to the lead Wambach’s first-half goal provided, Morgan charged in on New Zealand goalkeeper Jenny Bindon, who raced toward the edge of the penalty area to meet her. Morgan touched the ball to herself, then tried to leap over Bindon. But her left knee connected directly with Bindon’s face, a jarring blow that left both players sprawled on the turf.
“She said she can’t remember much of the game,” Readings said. “Maybe she’s blocked it out.”
Morgan, too, was rattled. She came to the sideline for a bit, briefly leaving the Americans with 10 players. She quickly went back in, but with the game both tight and late, Sundhage watched her star forward slowing down.
“We thought that we needed a little bit of a sparkle,” said the coach, a native of Sweden.
So in the 81st minute, Sundhage sent on Olympic rookie Sydney Leroux. The Canadian-born reserve could scarcely contain herself. Shortly after she arrived, in the 87th minute, she had the ball on the left wing. She then rifled a shot that got through Bindon and put the Americans up 2-0.
So, then, how to celebrate?
“I didn’t plan anything, because I just went crazy,” Leroux said. “Because I was unaware that I had scored, I think. I blacked out, I’m pretty sure.”
Leroux’s teammates arrived to reassure her that yes, this was real. She leaped into their arms. Wambach, the old hand who has scored 142 international goals — just 16 off legend Mia Hamm’s record — was moved.
“Best celebration I’ve seen yet,” Wambach said. “I don’t care if you talk about cartwheels or worm stuff. She had the most sincere celebration and it’s because I don’t know if she could believe that she just scored a goal at the Olympic Games.
“For me, it made me emotional. That’s what’s special about being a part of the Olympics — seeing a kid come in, perform and do something that they didn’t even think was possible. It was brilliant.”
The Americans, undoubtedly, will dream up something else for the semifinal.
“If it makes them happy, and they win games,” Readings said, “then good on them.”
Right now, they are happy, they are winning games, and they are celebrating in ways both planned and not.
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