‘One Day in Dresden’: Excerpt from ‘The Making of the Women’s World Cup’
If you’ve been waiting to purchase “The Making of the Women’s World Cup: Defining stories from a sport’s coming of age”… well, what are you waiting for?
Kieran Theivam and I co-wrote the book, which was released prior to the 2019 World Cup (surely another chapter worth writing). It’s a light read in which each chapter represents its own miniature story. So, you can jump to any chapter and not be totally lost as to what is happening. Whether you’re new to following soccer or a longtime fan, you’ll find value in some of the details and interviews we included.
As I write this, we’re without live sports due to the coronavirus outbreak. We don’t know when the new National Women’s Soccer League season will begin, or when the United States women’s national team will next play. We know their Olympic journey will be delayed another year.
So, if you’ve been looking for a new book to pick up, I strongly encourage you to consider this one. You can get it instantly by purchasing the audio book or Kindle edition. Buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s or wherever else you shop for books.
Below, you’ll find a full preview of the chapter I wrote about the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal between the U.S. and Brazil, the game which laid the foundation for everything which has happened since. Thank you to our publisher, Robinson — an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group — for allowing us to provide this preview to you all. Go ahead and buy the book to read all of the chapters.
One thing to note: This was originally printed in the UK and uses British English. So, the spelling of some words might look strange if you’re used to American English (realise instead of realize, worshipped with two ‘p’s and single quotes for full quotes, etc.) Yes, you can even revel in the irony of me, the founder of The Equalizer, writing “equalising.”
Anyway, please enjoy the below and consider purchasing the book. For the best daily coverage of the sport in North America, subscribe to The Equalizer Extra to get all of our premium content.
One Day in Dresden
The 2011 World Cup is when the United States women became rock stars. Their triumph four years later cemented their status as the world’s most high-profile women’s sports team, but 2011 was the year those roots truly began to take hold.
New York City gave a hero’s welcome to the twenty-three players and their staff when they returned from Germany in mid-July 2011. The Americans had just captured the attention of the nation with the most epic of comebacks in the quarter-finals and went on to appear in their first World Cup final since that magical 1999 triumph on home soil.
Upon returning home in 2011, players did all the standard New York media rounds that come with the fanfare of American athletic greatness: late-night and early-morning talk shows, daytime news interviews, promotional events and, of course, autographs for the hordes of screaming fans.
Such festivities were not entirely new to the American women. They were, at the time, the two-time defending Olympic gold-medalists, and they would make it three in a row the following year in London. Players had been on these publicity tours before. And this was how they envisioned returning from Germany that summer: as champions – as heroes. Swathes of fans worshipped them as they parted seas of human bodies simply to walk from a bus into the entrance of a television studio or their hotel. Players were lauded for their efforts and showered with congratulations. Champions, some of the general populous thought.
How awkward, the players thought, in reply. It took reminding for some that the US women did not win the 2011 World Cup. They finished runners-up, falling to Japan in the final, playing antagonists to the most incredible and unlikely of Women’s World Cup stories to date. Japan – a team that had never previously even been to a semi-final, and a country reeling from a catastrophic earthquake and subsequent tsunami just a few months earlier – had won the World Cup.
‘I think because of the Brazil game – the quarter-final – that people thought we won the World Cup, because that one game kind of encompassed and defined the World Cup for us,’ Abby Wambach said.
Wambach was the centerpiece of attention. She was the hero who scored that goal which made front-page headlines and dominated sports television shows just over a week earlier. Her header in that quarter-final against Brazil tied the game in the 122nd minute – at the time, the latest goal ever scored in an official FIFA competition. It was quintessential American grit, the never-say-die, red-white-and-blue flag-waving, undying belief that US players have long taken pride in.
Their emotional roller coaster in Germany temporarily sheltered them from the pandemonium back home. Upon returning to the US, however, the players quickly gained a sense of how much attention their run to the final attracted.
‘The moment that I realised that things were going to be different from there on was actually when we returned, after having lost to Japan in the final, and we were on a bus from the airport,’ Wambach said. ‘We had just gotten off the plane from Germany and we still had to go and do the New York media tour. Even though we lost, all the TV stations, they wanted us on.
‘It was the moment that we were pulling into our hotel room that there was just a mob of a crowd. It was like, “What the heck is going on? What is happening here? Why are we staying at this hotel that is crazy outside?” And as we got closer, as the bus stopped, I saw that they were all wearing USA jerseys. I looked at Christie Rampone sitting next to me and I said, “holy shit, they are here for us. We didn’t even win the World Cup.”’
Even in the disappointment of defeat, US players recognised that this was a special moment. One incredible week in Germany created what would become a much more sustained ripple effect in the United States for women’s soccer. There had been optimism before – no more so than following the wildly successful 1999 Women’s World Cup on home soil – but this time felt different. The climate around the sport and the country was changing. Players were still heartbroken from the loss to Japan, but they did their best to embrace an onslaught of positive attention.
‘When you get back from losing and you are still being revered as champions . . . it was a little bit weird for us,’ Wambach said. ‘Even though we lost, we defied the odds in that game against Brazil, and it felt like it was a way for Americans to define who we are. We never quit, we play until the last minute. Even against the odds, there are still miracles that happen, and I think we kind of personified that feeling that Americans were needing to have.’
The difference was jarring between their welcome home and their send-off. This was a team that suddenly everyone knew. Nobody could have predicted that just one month earlier.
It’s 5 June in Harrison, New Jersey – a short skip over the Hudson River from New York – and the US women are playing their World Cup send-off game against Mexico at Red Bull Arena. This is the last match the Americans will play before boarding a plane to Germany in search of a World Cup title that has eluded the prestigious programme since 1999. The New York metro area provides both media opportunities to spread the word and easy travel to Europe after the match. At least one of those things was true.
An announced crowd of 5,852 is on hand at the twenty-five thousand-seat Red Bull Arena for one final look at this US team before the World Cup. The stadium is a sea of blue plastic seats. Sunil Gulati, then president of the US Soccer Federation, would spend part of his half-time media availability defending the poor attendance, noting that a Sunday afternoon in the late spring, when so many youth soccer players and their parents are off participating in games of their own, is always a difficult sales proposition.
One day earlier, a few hours up Interstate-95, in Foxborough, Massachusetts, the US men’s national team attracted a crowd of over sixty thousand fans as they got whooped, 4-0 by reigning world champions Spain. The buzz which surrounded the US women’s team over a decade earlier had faded, all the legends of that generation now retired.
‘If you’re talking about recreating the magic moment of ’99, no, that’s not going to happen,’ Gulati told reporters. ‘We’re not at home. It won’t be that iconic. Very few things can compete with that in any sport. And the history of women’s leagues is that they’re a struggle.’
‘If you’re talking about winning the World Cup, that’s very possible,’ Gulati said. ‘This team has a record unmatched by anyone around the world.’
Gulati was defensive and the US players were more hopeful than anything. They intertwined their success on the national team to the overall future of their sport and their livelihood. Bringing home trophies was not just about winning; it was about surviving. Winning another World Cup was, ostensibly, the way to keep their league alive.
Women’s Professional Soccer (WPS) was in the middle of its third season when the 2011 World Cup rolled around. Three teams had already folded, another moved down to an amateur division, and the iconic Washington Freedom brand had been cheaply renamed after an internet phone product and relocated to Boca Raton, Florida. All indications were that this second attempt at a professional women’s soccer league in the US would end after three seasons, just as the previous incarnation had. The Women’s United Soccer Association kicked off in 2001 in an attempt to capitalise on the attention the US team captured at the 1999 Women’s World Cup. But the WUSA shut down after the 2003 season – an announcement that came just a few days before the start of the 2003 Women’s World Cup, which was back in the United States after the SARS outbreak in China forced a relocation of the tournament.
A meagre crowd in New Jersey for the Americans’ final game before the 2011 World Cup didn’t inspire confidence in the sport’s overall health. The weird match that day was fitting for the overall temperature of the women’s game at the time. The Americans out-shot Mexico 34-4, dominating but failing to score until the second minute of added time in the second half. This was the Mexico team which eight months earlier defeated the US in World Cup qualifying, producing the most shocking upset in the sport’s history. That result forced the Americans – ranked first in the world – to win a two-leg playoff against Italy in order even to qualify for the World Cup. The result was unthinkable heading into the tournament: Mexico had never defeated the US, and the Americans had won every single World Cup qualifying match that they ever played. A team once viewed as invincible suddenly had an air of uncertainty around it. Now, the World Cup was here, and the US women were in a precarious place.
Dresden served as the site of the Americans’ opening game of the 2011 World Cup. The opponent, North Korea, was both familiar and formidable. This was the fourth consecutive Women’s World Cup in which the two teams were slated to meet in the group stage of the tournament, and the encounters had become increasingly tighter. The US won the first two clashes handily, but the two teams drew, 2-2, at the 2007 World Cup in China. North Korea entered this 2011 World Cup ranked as the eighth-best team in the world.
In addition to North Korea, Group C featured Sweden, ranked fifth in the world. Only two of the four teams – Colombia rounded out the group – would advance to the knockout stage. One of the world’s top-ten teams would be bowing out early.
North Korea had long been an enigma as a team difficult to scout. Defensive discipline and tactical sophistication were staples of the team, no matter which coach was in charge or which players were selected. A scoreless first half between the two sides only confirmed as much, but the US got on the board nine minutes after half-time thanks to a beautifully-placed, headed goal from Lauren Cheney, who, at the time, was a somewhat surprising starter in place of Megan Rapinoe. Defender Rachel Buehler added an insurance goal for the Americans in the seventy-sixth minute, and the 2-0 victory got them off to the start they needed.
What followed for North Korea was a loss to Sweden and a scoreless draw with Colombia, an otherwise forgettable World Cup. Away from the field, however, the team’s tournament was downright bizarre: five North Korean players failed drug tests. The first two tested positive following the team’s second group match and they were suspended for the final group game. Upon that news, FIFA decided to drug test the entire team, and three more players failed.
North Korean officials presented their excuse to FIFA: players had accidentally taken steroids with traditional Chinese medicines based on musk deer glands . . . to treat players who had been struck by lightning during training camp prior to the World Cup. North Korean officials first mentioned the lightning strike after losing their opening match to the US, but they refused to elaborate. FIFA, along with most of the rest of the world, wasn’t buying it. This was the biggest doping scandal at a major international tournament since Diego Maradona’s ban in the 1994 men’s World Cup, and the fallout was immense: North Korea was fined $400,000 USD and banned from the next Women’s World Cup in 2015.
The US, meanwhile, moved forward. Colombia made their Women’s World Cup debut in 2011 and entered the tournament with zero expectations from the outside world. The US was expected to comfortably handle the debutantes, and they did just that. Heather O’Reilly pounced on a poor giveaway by Colombia twelve minutes into the match and fired a knuckling shot into the upper corner to score one of the goals of the tournament. The eleven American players on the field celebrated the goal with a military-style salute, a nod to the local US military community, some of whom attended the match.
Rapinoe scored a second goal five minutes after half-time and added to the festive atmosphere, grabbing a field microphone and celebrating by singing, ‘Born in the USA.’ Carli Lloyd added another goal seven minutes later and the US cruised to a 3-0 victory.
And then came Sweden. Both the Americans and the Swedes had already guaranteed advancement by the time they met in Wolfsburg on 6 July, each team having won its first two matches of the tournament. The group-stage meeting was a tradition for these two rivals: this was the third straight World Cup in which they had been drawn in the same group, a tradition which carried on in 2015 and 2019.
The winner of this match would top the group, while the loser would face the first-place team from Group D. Wambach’s second-half goal was not enough to erase a pair of Swedish strikes in the first half, leaving the Swedes as 2-1 victors and handing the Americans their first-ever loss in the group stage of a World Cup.
Of more importance were the ramifications for the rest of the tournament. Sweden would now play the second-place team from Group D: the young, upstart Australians. The US would now face a difficult quarter-final opponent in old rival Brazil, back in Dresden.
Just over a minute has ticked off the clock, and it’s difficult to imagine a better start for the United States. Midfielder Shannon Boxx serves a low cross in the direction of Wambach, and Brazilian defender Daiane slices her clearance into her own goal. One-nil, USA.
This is the type of start that teams dream of for a knockout-round match. But just over an hour later, everything changes. Marta, Brazil’s once-in-a-lifetime legend, has used her impressive agility to squeeze between US defenders Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler while chasing down a bouncing ball in the United States’ penalty box. With the deft flick of her left foot, Marta seamlessly loops the ball over the heads of both defenders and toward the goal, all while keeping her stride to ensure she gets back to the ball first.
Buehler, having allowed Marta to get goal-side of her, now has a decision to make: let her go, and likely allow her to score Brazil’s equalising goal, or foul her. Buehler – nicknamed, ‘the Buehldozer,’ for her physical play – opts for the foul, pulling down Marta by her canary yellow shirt as the Brazilian tries to shoot.
Whistle. Foul. Red Card.
The Americans are reduced to ten players and will have to play the final twenty-plus minutes of regulation at a disadvantage. Brazil also has a penalty kick, one which is likely to tie the match. In goal for the US stands Hope Solo, the legendary goalkeeper whose specialty is the spectacular – including saving penalty kicks. Longtime Brazilian forward Cristiane stares her down, lining up the shot with her left foot.
Goalkeepers largely have two options on penalty kicks: guess and risk diving completely the wrong way or wait to try to track the ball and hope to react in time to a shot taken from just 12 yards away. It’s easy to see why many prefer to guess: there often isn’t enough time to react to a shot from that close. Goalkeeping has evolved through the years, though, and the guessing game is not blind luck, but a combination of scouting reports, intuition and reading body language.
Here, Cristiane appears to be forecasting her shot – or, perhaps, that’s what she wants Solo to think. Cristiane’s run-up is short – just two steps. Logically, she’ll want to slot the ball to her left; pushing it across her body, to her right, is a much more difficult task with a short run-up to generate power. And indeed, the penalty is relatively poor, hit tamely and at hip-height. Solo tracks it the entire way, diving to her left (Cristiane’s right) and swatting the ball away. The Americans have dodged danger and might just get out of this game despite their disadvantage.
Only, referee Jacqui Melksham blows the play dead as the Americans celebrate. Melksham is pointing back to the spot for a re-take, to the dismay of Solo and her teammates. Solo is cautioned for protesting and confusion hangs over the near-capacity crowd. Television replays depicting the referee’s view show the slightest of infractions by Rampone. The American captain stepped into the penalty area a fraction of a second prior to Cristiane’s kick. That is against the rules, but the marginal nature of this particular infraction means it is rarely called. Rampone has one foot in the box as the ball leaves Cristiane’s foot.
So there sits the ball, again placed on the white spot centred 12 yards from goal. Players from each team are once again standing on the outskirts of the penalty area. Solo is once again standing on her line, crouched over as she intensely stares at a yellow jersey threatening to unravel her World Cup dream. The face staring back at her is different this time, however.
Marta, the player who earned the penalty, is standing over the ball. She, too, lines up a left-footed shot, but she will give herself a longer run-up than her teammate did. Marta also decides to shoot across her body, to her right, placing the ball lower than Cristiane did. This time, Solo guesses and moves in the opposite direction.
Now the Americans are flirting with trouble. They’ve long been known for their resiliency, their ability to win games when logic and probability say they shouldn’t. It’s why they won two of the first three Women’s World Cups. It’s why they entered this World Cup as two-time defending Olympic gold-medallists. And it’s why there isn’t full-on panic amid the chaos. They are still in this game – it’s only 1-1, after all – but the warm July sun is wearing on a team playing with one less player than the opponents. The clock ticks off until ninety, and the game heads to thirty minutes of extra-time.
There’s an accomplishment in just getting to that ninety-minute mark when down a player. One chance; all you need in extra-time is one chance. That’s the message that Wambach tells her team.
But that one chance comes for Brazil less than two minutes into extra-time. US defenders collectively get pulled out of position toward the sideline while their help defenders get caught ball-watching. Marta is standing in the centre of the box, a few feet from the penalty spot, watching the play develop. The ball is crossed and Marta switches from standing to sprinting. She extends her left leg and swings it like a pendulum, softly looping the ball over the heads of her and her trailing defender and toward the far post. The angle and the approach seem nearly impossible. Solo chases the ball across the goal line, tracking it from her near-post to her far-post.
Marta turns and watches hopefully as the ball travels across the face of the goal and toward the far post, time having seemingly slowed down. She half-skips with her left arm partially lifted, mouth open – the look of a player willing the ball into the net, ready to celebrate what could be a monumental moment for her and her country. The ball kisses the inside of the metal post and bounces into the net. Brazil leads.
Marta celebrates as if she knows she just won the match. She’s well aware of the weight of the moment. She is the most talented player women’s soccer has ever seen, but Brazil has long underachieved, having never won a World Cup or Olympic gold medal on the women’s side. Much of that is blamed on the federation’s lack of investment in its women’s team, and the players – Marta more than any other – carry that burden into each major tournament.
Four years earlier, Brazil came as close as ever, at the expense of the US. On that September day in 2007, Marta and her teammates embarrassed the US, defeating the Americans, 4-0, in the World Cup semi-final. Marta, who was twenty-one at the time, truly announced herself to the world at that tournament. She scored twice in that semi-final, but Brazil came up short against Germany in the final. This 2011 Brazilian team has another chance, and the road was always going to go through the United States at some point. Clearing that hurdle in the quarter-finals would go a long way toward Brazil capturing its first Women’s World Cup.
Meanwhile, the Americans were fighting off the wrong side of history. In five World Cups and four Olympics to this date, they had never finished worse than third in a major tournament. They were champions at five of those nine events. Many players on this 2011 team also remembered the bitter, embarrassing defeat they suffered to Brazil in 2007, including how the Brazilians celebrated.
FIFA had inexplicably arranged for Brazil and the US to stay in the same hotel around that 2007 semi-final. US player folklore tells a story of a tense scene that saw the Brazilians return to the hotel lobby celebrating and playing the drums in the faces of the devastated Americans who were being consoled by family members. Much like Norway’s ‘train’ celebration in 1995 burned into the memories of that American team which lost in the semi-final, the 2007 Brazilian lobby celebration served as constant motivation for US players of this generation.
At this moment in 2011, however, it felt like a nightmare repeating. The Americans are down a goal and down a player. The tension in Dresden, and back home on the other side of TV sets, is palpable. US players, however, knew what they needed: One. More. Chance.
To understand the moment that changed everything for the United States, one first must understand how the moment came into existence. Brazil clung to its one-goal advantage as the clock ticked toward the 120-minute mark in extra-time. Brazilian players – the men more so than the women – are known for their gamesmanship. Killing the clock is a nuanced art as old as the sport itself. Everyone does it when they are leading a match; Brazilians are just known to be . . . creative.
On this day, that meant faking an injury. Simulating an injury is a tricky and generally frowned-upon act. But how can an opponent question whether someone is truly injured without looking like an awful person?
Counteracting this is stoppage time, soccer’s inexact answer to time-wasting. The clock doesn’t stop in soccer, but time deemed to be ‘wasted’ is tracked and then added on to the end of a match. So, in theory, the time is not lost. The subjective nature of the process, however, can mean that a team artful and effective at time-wasting can shave precious seconds or minutes off the game to protect a lead. And stoppage time is kept on the referee’s watch, typically out of view of players. At that point in a match, time becomes unknown.
That brings us to the 115th minute of the 2011 USA-Brazil quarter-final. Brazilian defender Erika is laying on the ground in her own penalty area – away from the ball – clutching her lower back and rolling in pain. Television replays show that she dropped to the ground about six seconds after an uneventful play in which she was loosely involved. There’s no obvious source of injury. The referee motions for medical trainers to enter the field and then she checks her watch – the unspoken message to the United States that she is keeping track of how much time is lost.
Another motioning of the hand: the stretcher team is brought on and Erika is strapped in and carried off the field, behind Brazil’s goal. Within seconds – and with international television cameras following her course – Erika sits up on the stretcher, springs off it and begins jogging, casually rubbing her back as she rounds the corner flag to head toward midfield and check back into the match. It’s rare that simulating an injury is so transparent and so clearly deceitful, but here we are. Whistles and jeers pour out from the stands of Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion as fans realise that they have been duped. The high-pitched hum turns to a deeper, louder booing as Erika re-enters the field seconds after apparent immobility, and the displeasure turns to momentary applause as the referee – equally unimpressed with the act – issues a caution to the Brazilian defender. Erika smoothly trots by the upraised arm holding the yellow card, stopping her stride in her own box, a few feet from the scene of the crime. Megan Rapinoe promptly whips the ball in on a corner kick, right toward the head of Erika, and play resumes.
Seconds later, the Americans are awarded a foul 35 yards from goal, and the crowd erupts with a chorus of the distinct ‘U-S-A!’ chant. The situation is getting desperate for the Americans, but there’s a renewed energy from players and fans alike, inspired by Brazil’s act of deceit.
The chants carry on as Carli Lloyd sends the free kick wide of the goal. Mild whistling returns from a pro-US crowd as Brazilian goalkeeper Andreia takes her time putting the ball back into play. The clock ticks toward 120 minutes, and an eerie calm comes over the stadium, the scattered screams echoing off the underside of the roof covering the stands. There’s a quiet nervousness among the thousands of Americans on hand.
The electronic board goes up at midfield: three minutes of stoppage time. Three minutes until the United States’ worst-ever finish at a Women’s World Cup. Brazil has another goal kick – another opportunity to eat away at the clock, which has now passed the 120-minute mark.
‘I had two minds going at the same time,’ Wambach said. ‘I had this one side of me that was just relentlessly unable to accept this defeat as reality. And then I had the other side of me, the saner side, that was like, “How is this happening? We are about to lose.”’
‘I would like to say that I believed every second that it was in the bag,’ Heather O’Reilly said, ‘but obviously, when you are past 120 minutes, you start to physically feel sick. And I think that was starting to set in.’
Cristiane collects the ball off an errant touch from US defender Christie Rampone, and she heads to the corner of the field. This is where matches die. Get the ball to the corner, play it off a defender and out of bounds to kill time, repeat. Experienced players go to the corner to kill the clock even if an obvious attempt on goal seems possible. Cristiane is an experienced player.
An important piece of going to the corner to kill the clock, however, is having the patience to stay there. Cristiane appears to be doing everything correctly. But when she gets to the corner and sees that Marta has joined her in the attack, she turns around and plays a low-percentage pass with the outside of her left foot as Rampone challenges her for the ball.
‘Wow, I can’t believe Christie got away with that foul, because I thought she actually fouled the Brazilian,’ Wambach thinks, watching from some 50 yards away.
US defender Ali Krieger intercepts Cristiane’s pass and plays the ball to Lloyd, who dribbles on an angle across the field, eluding Brazilian defenders.
‘Carli, why are you dribbling the ball so much? The ref is about to blow her whistle. Why are you dribbling it, still? Kick it up to me,’ Wambach thinks.
But Lloyd has an open Rapinoe in sight and heavy pressure on her heels. Rapinoe has ample space in front of her, but the clock – one with an unknown number of seconds remaining – continues to tick. ‘We really have no time,’ she thought.
Wambach continues to wait, impatiently, waving her hand to signal to Rapinoe. Now, the picture is clear to Wambach. Rapinoe has space to serve the ball, and there’s only one thing she is going to do: put her head down and hit it.
‘Stay onside,’ Wambach tells herself.
Rapinoe’s eyes drop and her left foot swings through the ball.
‘Holy shit, she got all of it,’ Wambach says to herself.
That she did. But the odds are still low: Wambach is alone in the box, surrounded by four Brazilian defenders, in addition to the goalkeeper. Rapinoe’s service must be perfect. Wambach’s positioning must be perfect.
‘It was kind of a Hail Mary,’ Rapinoe says.
In comes the ball from 30-plus-yards toward the back post to Wambach, the most dominant aerial player in the sport. Four yellow jerseys converge upon the point where the ball might drop. Andreia tracks the ball as well and decides to come off her line, and it’s a jump-ball now. Brazilian captain Daiane half-heartedly jumps but barely makes an effort, perhaps realising that her goalkeeper has come to claim the ball or perhaps knowing her positioning wouldn’t allow her to reach it, anyway. Andreia takes a few long strides and jumps with both hands reaching for the ball.
Wambach patiently waits. ‘Don’t. Screw. This up.’ Wambach’s World Cup hopes flash before her.
Andreia seemingly realises mid-jump that she has miscalculated her effort and begins to reach behind her; she falls horizontally. Daiane’s half-jump – while backpedalling – has only made her an additional obstacle for her goalkeeper.
Wambach is already in the right position, right on the line which marks the 6-yard-box, the ball attracted to her like a magnet, as she describes it. She jumps vertically, rising to meet the ball as she snaps her head forward and through the ball, sending it into the net.
The crowd of fans in Dresden erupts. Wambach sprints to the corner to celebrate, cutting her dramatic slide short as she realises she’s headed straight for the concrete walkway. She is joined by her entire team, bench players and all, as they sprint past some Brazilian substitutes warming up and past the stretcher which had just a few minutes earlier carried Erika off the field. One chance: that’s all Wambach needed.
At 121 minutes and twenty seconds, the goal is the latest ever scored in a World Cup, men’s or women’s.
‘It was fate that we were meant to score that goal,’ Wambach said. ‘In that moment, with that kind of emotion, with that kind of pressure, with that kind of timeline, with those kinds of circumstances – being down a man, them going up a goal in extra-time, and us scoring; and we still have to go to penalty kicks – there were just so many things rooting against us. I feel like, of course there was skill involved, but I feel like there was some other energy at play that was forcing us to score that goal, because I really can’t explain the sequence of events and how it could come to fruition like it did.’
Years later, the Americans can admit that even their unwavering spirits thought about the ramifications of an early exit as that clock ticked away. Said Rapinoe: ‘Honestly, it was probably more relief than excitement in that moment. I was like, “thank God.”’
Shortly thereafter, the full-time whistle blows with the match tied at 2-2, and the two teams head to a penalty-kick shootout – the US amped from their incredible (but still incomplete) comeback, the Brazilians trying to come to terms with what had just happened.
The shootout begins with some irony, as Andreia saves Shannon Boxx’s shot, but the kick is retaken because the Brazilian goalkeeper moved forward off her line, a violation. Solo saves Daiane’s effort on Brazil’s third spot-kick, and the Americans convert all five of theirs to advance to the semi-finals against France. The most epic comeback in Women’s World Cup history is complete.
What followed that day in Dresden was an onslaught of attention on the US women, who became instant heroes back home. The Sunday afternoon kickoff, US time – at the quietest point of the year on the US sports calendar – created a perfect platform for the masses to witness the incredible feat.
But the job was hardly finished. Such dramatic victories which come before a championship match create difficult circumstances for teams. They are drained emotionally as much as they are physically. There is still a semi-final to be played in less than seventy-two hours.
US coach Pia Sundhage calls a team meeting the day after the dramatic victory. It turns out to be more of a group therapy session than anything. Each player shares her personal experience relating to the goal and the game. There are stories of families calling from back home and an overflow of text messages. Each player gets to express outwardly what the moment meant and how things played out in the hours afterward.
‘OK, that game is now behind us,’ Sundhage says. ‘Now we move forward.’
The Americans escaped their semi-final against France with a 3-1 victory despite some rocky moments, advancing to play Japan in the final. The US had already faced Japan three times that year, winning all three meetings. Japan was ranked fourth in the world entering the tournament, but the Nadeshiko were not universally viewed as serious title contenders. They had faltered at the group stage in four of the first five Women’s World Cups, only reaching the quarter-finals in 1995, when the United States ended their run.
A promising first half for the Americans fails to produce any goals. Lauren Cheney just misses on a close-range attempt, and Wambach smacks a long-range effort off the crossbar. Alex Morgan hits the post a few minutes after half-time before Wambach’s diving header is tipped over the bar. US players feel like they should be leading by multiple goals.
Morgan finally breaks the deadlock in the sixty-ninth minute, but Aya Miyama equalises for Japan twelve minutes later. Extra-time.
Wambach restores the US lead with a textbook header fourteen minutes into extra-time, and the Americans appear to be on their way to their third World Cup title in six attempts. But Japan’s captain, Homare Sawa, equalises with three minutes remaining. Sawa scores off a corner kick as she is running away from goal. Her cleat gently grazes the ball to redirect it toward goal from an unlikely angle to produce a goal she would later admit she probably could not repeat. This is the time for Japan’s hero to shine.
One last chance for the US – in the 121st minute – is denied by Azusa Iwashimizu, who is sent off for denying a clear scoring opportunity. This match is headed to penalty kicks. The US fails to convert each of its first three spot kicks, and Saki Kumagai buries the winning penalty kick. Japan are champions.
Slightly conflicting emotions come over the US players. There is heartbreak, of course. None of them are inherently happy to see Japan win, but there is also an understanding of the incredible, uplifting story on the other side of the equation. A country devastated by natural disaster has rallied around unlikely sporting heroes. In the end, the Americans were the antagonists in the fairytale.
‘I was heartbroken, and it took me a long time to understand why those circumstances ended up the way that they did,’ Wambach said. ‘And the truth of that matter is that nobody knows. Japan was meant to win that game.
‘Our team had something more to learn, and I think that’s what the next four years, leading into the 2015 World Cup was, was trying to figure out what we needed to learn to get the result that we wanted.
‘I’m super grateful, because I probably wouldn’t have continued playing after the 2012 Olympics, so I got three more years of playing, because I was still searching for that elusive World Cup championship.’
The 2011 Women’s World Cup final was, at the time, the most-watched and highest-rated soccer telecast in ESPN history, drawing an average of over thirteen million viewers.
Players’ eyes were opened to just how important their achievements – even in defeat – were when they arrived home to those mobs of people in Times Square. ‘I was like, “Do these people know that we lost?”’ Rapinoe recalls.
‘It was a very present reminder that there was a bigger thing at play, and that is the growth of women’s football,’ O’Reilly said.
That dramatic goal in the 2011 quarter-final is the catalyst for everything the US women would build over the following four years as they returned to the final in 2015 – once again against Japan – and reclaimed the World Cup title. The bigger crowds and the increased media attention that surrounded the US team in the years following their 2011 run can be traced back to that dramatic week in Germany.
That measly crowd in New Jersey for the Americans’ World Cup send-off match was the rule, not the exception, at the time. The US played at home twice in May that year in front of crowds of nearly identical sizes. They played 2010 exhibitions in front of embarrassingly empty stadiums: 3,069 fans in San Diego; 4,759 fans in greater Atlanta; 2,505 fans in greater Philadelphia. Even the home leg of their World Cup qualifying playoff couldn’t produce a five-digit crowd. The US women were largely afterthoughts in a crowded sports landscape.
But flash to late 2011, after their World Cup run, and the crowd sizes spike dramatically: sixteen thousand fans in Kansas City; eighteen thousand each in Portland, Oregon, and Glendale, Arizona. All thirteen home games that year attracted crowds of ten thousand-plus fans, with four of those being sellouts.
‘You really can’t look at a point, other than ’99, that really propelled women’s soccer any more than that, at least in this modern era,’ Rapinoe said.
‘If that moment doesn’t happen – obviously if we lose, but even if we just won that game in normal time and it wasn’t all that exciting, we’re not here today. And, frankly, I don’t think we’re anywhere near it.’
Women’s Professional Soccer would eventually fold in early 2012. The US women’s national team would once again capture attention by way of a dramatic, controversial win, 4-3 over rival Canada in the semi-final of the London 2012 Summer Olympics. Morgan’s headed goal in the 123rd minute was the game-winner en route to a third consecutive gold medal for the United States.
The team was once again in the spotlight, and a new professional league was set to begin in 2013. Morgan, Wambach and company had firmly established themselves as an entertaining team that Americans loved. More media and sponsorship opportunities began appearing for players. US Soccer increased its marketing efforts around the team.
As the 2015 World Cup approached, the difference was night and day: crowds of thirty-five thousand-plus in St. Louis, eighteen thousand in San Jose, twenty-seven thousand in greater LA greeted the US women in their send-off games. Their final match before leaving for Canada was – just as it was before the 2011 World Cup – at Red Bull Arena. The match was a lacklustre, scoreless draw against South Korea. But the crowd this time? A sellout: 26,467. What a difference four years make.
The attention that was thrust upon the US team in the summer of 2011 was bottled and developed over the following four years. More media attention than ever zeroed in on the American women as they ascended upon Canada for the World Cup. And the expectations were clear: go win the World Cup.
Want to read every chapter from the book, including the stories of the United States’ 1991, 1999 and 2015 World Cup triumphs? U.S. readers: Buy it at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s or wherever else you shop for books.
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