LONDON — The way the Women’s World Cup final played out a year ago in Germany was exactly as the U.S. women’s soccer team wins games: a second-half equalizer, a goal in extra time, then a massive celebration.
But the celebration back then was for the Japanese, upstarts in the sport who thrust themselves into international prominence by stunning the Americans in the game’s waning moments. as time seemed to be ticking away. It is a loss that has colored the London Olympics for the American women, even as they arrived in London for the first time in advance of Thursday night’s gold medal game against those very same Japanese.
“First couple days, as we were waking up after that tough loss, you think to yourself, ‘Was that real?’ ” star forward Abby Wambach said. “‘Did that just happen?’”
Indeed, it did, and the particulars of that game — in the midst of what has been a rough-and-tumble tournament — have hovered over this tournament for the Americans. Wambach initially said she had nightmares about it. Immediately after the Americans’ narrow semifinal win over Canada, midfielder Carli Lloyd used the words “revenge” and “redemption” in close proximity.
“Sometimes I just go back and think, ‘How did that happen?’ ” forward Megan Rapinoe said. “We want to kind of right that. We feel like we should’ve won that game. Feel like we could’ve, and we kind of let it go at the end, and we don’t want to have that happen again.”
In the World Cup final in Frankfurt, the Americans were tied with the Japanese 1-1 after regulation. In the 104th minute, Wambach put the United States on top, and the mission was simply to hold on.
But the Americans couldn’t. In the 117th minute — essentially, with three minutes left in extra time — Homare Sawa tied the score again. So the Women’s World Cup, which the United States hadn’t won since its seminal victory in 1999, went to penalty kicks. Wambach was the only one of four American shooters to convert her chance. The Japanese converted three. And the United States had a loss on which to stew.
There will be, though, a lack of anger translated onto the pitch Thursday at Wembley Stadium, where more than 80,000 fans are expected. The Americans — who played games in Glasgow, Scotland; and Manchester and Newcastle, England, before arriving in London — seem to genuinely like the Japanese. That’s something of an oddity given that this Olympic tournament has been marked by a bit of violence, first when Colombia’s Lady Andrade sucker-punched Wambach in the eye — a move that resulted in a two-game suspension for Andrade — and then when Canadian forward Melissa Tancredi stepped on Lloyd’s head as she lay on the ground in the semifinals.
Asked Wednesday if, after she watched film, she believed Tancredi’s move to be deliberate, Lloyd replied, “Yes.”
Japan is known for a controlled, possession-oriented style of play. When players from both teams appeared before the media Wednesday, they posed for photos with their arms around each other — one American, then a Japanese, then an American, back and forth.
“I can almost guarantee none of that will happen tomorrow,” Wambach said.
What Wambach can’t guarantee: that the United States will handle Japan without any theatrics. The Americans began this tournament by conceding the first two goals against France before reeling off four straight in that game — and 10 straight in the tournament — en route to four consecutive victories. They then allowed Canada to take the lead once, twice and three times, each time figuring out a way to tie the score and eventually using Alex Morgan’s goal at the last possible moment — in injury time at the end of overtime, the 123rd minute — to push their way into the gold-medal game.
“I want the drama to be over,” veteran defender Christie Rampone said. “I want it to be exciting, but not that exciting.”
The United States, though, believes some of those scares have helped, even as they go all the way back to the loss to Japan a year ago. Back then, Morgan was just a part-time player. Now, she trails only Wambach in goals scored in this tournament. In three matches against Japan this year, the Americans have a 1-0 loss, a 1-1 tie and a 4-1 win. It might be convenient spin in the hours prior to another championship match, but the Americans believe they are better because of the path that led here.
“This team has something inside of it,” Wambach said. “The young players learned a lot from that loss. I think the older players gained a lot of respect from the young players. Because guess what? We need everybody. The older players aren’t the ones that are carrying this team right now. It’s Alex Morgan. It’s Megan Rapinoe. Players that you maybe never heard of over a year ago.”
Thursday night comes their latest chance to be heard.
“Hopefully,” Wambach said, “people will become legends tomorrow night.”
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