July 10, 2011

US Advances on Miracle Finish

One could only call this a game for the ages. It had a bit of everything, good and bad. There was compelling drama and cheap theatrics. There were great goals and own goals. There were great saves and questionable calls. There were great plays and red cards. There was magic and despair. In the end, Abby Wambach's improbable goal in the 122nd minute forced the match to penalties, with the United States prevailing 5-3 to advance to the 2011 World Cup semifinals.

The United States looked all but dead after Rachel Buehler was sent off and Marta's penalty kick tied the match in the 67th minute. Things looked even worse for the US after Marta's beautiful goal in the first overtime. And as time ticked into stoppage of the second overtime, things looked bleak indeed. But this script had a surprise ending, one that was truly unbelievable.

It wasn't always the prettiest of games. Certainly the referee crew had a very rough day at the office as several calls came into question, a couple of which had a direct effect on the outcome of the match. To be fair, the players didn't make their job any easier with overly dramatic theatrics, seemingly fake injuries, and incessant complaining, from both sides at times.

Kleiton Lima made no real changes in his lineup, keeping Daiane at center back over Renata Costa. Pia Sundhage made only one subtle change, switching the center backs and moving Christie Rampone to the left side with Amy LePeilbet, while moving Rachel Buehler to right center back.

It was almost a precursor of weird things to come that the United States would strike first at the 1:16 mark of the game on an own goal. Rampone sent a long ball to the left corner, with Shannon Boxx chasing it down just before it got to the end line. She hit a low cross into the six, which deflected off Daiane and past Brazilian keeper Andreia into the net. The US had the early lead.

The United States played well in the opening 20 minutes of the match and created a few chances. Rampone sent a long free kick forward with Abby Wambach getting her head on it, but Andreia was able to deflect the ball wide. LePeilbet hit a drive from 25 yards in the 17th minute, but the ball flew just wide of the left post.

However, as play wore on, the United States began to have difficulty stringing passes together. Meanwhile, Brazil was starting to get into their game. Marta placed a right side corner kick toward the back post and over Hope Solo's head, but Aline headed the ball just wide in the 22nd minute.

Just one minute later, Brazil broke out of their own end on a counterattack and Marta nearly had a clean breakaway. Luckily for the US, it was a speedy Rampone giving chase and she was able to stay close to harass Marta just enough. She forced Marta to the left side of the box and the Brazilian striker shot over the crossbar. Just four minutes later, Marta played the ball square to Formiga just outside the 18, but Formiga's shot from dead straight on also cleared the crossbar.

Brazil continued to pressure later in the half. A hard 25-yard shot from Cristiane right up the middle was smothered by Solo in the 36th minute. An Amy Rodriguez turnover in her own end led to a Rosana cross from the right side that landed on top of the crossbar and bounced over. Clearly, Brazil was now controlling play, but the United States went into halftime with a 1-0 lead.

Yellow cards were the order of the day. Both Carli Lloyd for the United States and Aline for Brazil picked up yellows for fouls and Marta received one for complaining to the referee. Four were handed out to both teams before this match was over.

Pia Sundhage made her first substitution in the 54th minute, sending Megan Rapinoe in for Lauren Cheney. Nearly 70 minutes later, Rapinoe would have a major impact on this match.

Brazil continued to pressure in the 2nd half. Cristiane shot from 25 yards on the right wing with Solo making the save. The ball rolled away briefly, but Solo scrambled to cover up before danger arrived. A minute later, Fabiana was dangerous on the right side of the box, but Solo cut off and grabbed her cross before it could become trouble.

The United States came very close in the 63rd minute. Rapinoe's free kick was from 35 yards out on the left wing found Lloyd who headed the ball off the upper left corner of the crossbar.

Controversy came in the 66th minute. Marta had possession on the left side of the US penalty area, with both Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler in front of her. She half-volleyed the ball over the heads of the American defenders. She then raced stride for stride with Buehler to the ball which was headed toward the six. Both players had their arms fully extended, Buehler's right and Marta's left. As they neared the ball, both of Marta's legs flew three feet in the air and the whistle was blown.

The referee was in a very tough position to see and there was certainly contact, but both players were using their arms on the play. Buehler may have briefly grabbed Marta's jersey as both jostled. However, Marta sold it well and on this day at least, the referee was buying. Buehler was sent off and Brazil awarded a penalty. Marta was jeered for the rest of the game by many in the crowd, with even many of the neutral fans appearing to turn against her.

More controversy followed with the ensuing penalty. Cristiane stepped up to take the kick and Solo made a brilliant diving save to keep the US in front. But hold on a minute, maybe not. It appeared that the ref had ruled that another American player had barely stepped into the box as Cristiane had struck her kick, encroachment if you will. It is play that happens all the time and it is rule that is rarely enforced and a call that is rarely made.

Brazil was awarded a retry and Marta made no mistake on the second kick, beating Solo and tying the match at one. The United States now faced the prospects of playing Brazil down a player for the rest of the match in a tie game.

But if anything, the calls seem to steel the American's resolve and they actually started playing better than they had earlier in the match. Sundhage was hoping that Alex Morgan could provide the US with the spark she had in November's qualifying playoff against Italy, sending her in for Rodriguez in the 72nd minute. Lima, who substitutes minimally, sent Francielle in for Rosana in the 85th minute.

The US had one final chance in regulation as Heather O'Reilly crossed from the right side. The ball came to Lloyd, but it was bouncing and the US midfielder failed to make a connection. Overtime it would be.

Brazil didn't take long into the first overtime to grab the lead. They had possession along the left sideline to start the play. Maurine worked a short little give-and-go with Erika, with Maurine getting the ball in the left corner. She crossed to the six, where Marta hit a left-footed swinging shot over her shoulder, sending the ball over Solo's head, bouncing into the right post and then into the goal.

Once again, though, there was some controversy. It appeared that Maurine had put herself in an offside position before she received the return pass from Erika. However, the call wasn't made and nothing could take away from the brilliance of Marta's strike on the play. It was Marta's 14th career World Cup goal, tying her with Birgit Prinz. Brazil now had a 2-1 lead and were a player up with just 28 minutes to kill.

The United States nearly tied the match in the 98th minute. Shannon Boxx blocked a Brazilian clearance with the ball coming to Wambach on the right side of the penalty area. She hit a low driven shot headed for the inside of the left post, but Andreia made a great diving save to keep her team a goal up.

In the 101st minute, Marta's cross from the right side gave Solo trouble, but the American keeper was able to reach up and punch the ball out at the last second. The first overtime was over and the US was down to their final 15 minutes.

What appeared to be a bit of play acting caused even more controversy. Brazilian defender Erika got bumped in the back in the 114th minute. She then took several steps and decided to kneel down on the turf with an apparent injury.

Play was stopped for over a minute and a half, while she was attended to. She was taken off on a stretcher, but once the stretcher cleared the field of play, she bounced right up, jogged around to the sideline and was ready to come back in. The referee was clearly incensed by this bit of theatrics and promptly carded the Brazilian defender upon her return to the game.

Three minutes stoppage were added, one would guess primarily for Erika's "injury" time. With time running out, it appeared the Americans would be heading home. But the United States had one final shot left in them.

The US gained possession deep in their own end and were able to get the ball forward to Lloyd just shy of the center line. Lloyd was able to work her away across the field and sent a soft pass on the left side to Rapinoe. Rapinoe touched the ball forward until she was about 35 yards out on the left wing. She hit the ball with her left foot, sending it toward the penalty area.

In what could only be called the immaculate cross, Rapinoe's serve flew toward the right corner of the six-yard box, where Wambach was moving in toward the Brazilian goal. With both sweeper back Daiane and goalkeeper Andreia leaping out to intercept, Wambach rose to head the ball. The two Brazilians arrived late and Wambach drilled the ball perfectly inside the right post. The US had miraculously tied the match in the 122nd minute.

The final seconds ticked away and the match was headed to penalties. Penalties are almost always a dicey affair, even if one team appears to have the advantage at keeper. This one would put Hope Solo and Andreia in the spotlight.

Shannon Boxx stepped up to take the first kick for the United States. Andreia took nearly two full steps forward as Boxx approached the ball. She made a good save, but Boxx was correctly awarded a rekick. Boxx converted her second attempt perfectly, and it had to be, because Andreia guessed right and nearly got there. In fact, Andreia guessed correctly on the next two kicks as well, one by Lloyd and one by Wambach, but each one was dead perfect.

Meanwhile, Cristiane and Marta had taken the first two attempts for Brazil and had easily converted their kicks as Solo guessed wrong on both occasions. The Americans led 3-2 as Daiane stepped up to take the third try for Brazil.

Daiane appeared to hit the ball well, going for the right side as her two teammates had previously. But she elevated the ball just a little so that it was about three feet off the ground by the time it got to Solo. This time Solo guessed right and fully extended, punched the ball clear of the goal and the US held the advantage.

Megan Rapinoe went lower left corner with the fourth US try and this time Andreia guessed wrong. The United States were now up 4-2. Young Francielle stepped up next for Brazil. It appeared that Solo had stepped out toward Francielle as the Brazilian took the ball from the referee, perhaps in an effort to psych her out. Solo and Francielle had been teammates in 2009 on Saint Louis Athletica and the two knew each other from there. Francielle did not rattle in the least, calmly placing her shot in the lower right corner to bring Brazil within one at 4-3.

It was all up to Ali Krieger, the one US player who had played much of her professional career in Germany. Krieger stepped up and hit a low bouncing shot inside the left post, out of the reach of Andreia. Krieger had converted and the United States had made one of the most improbable comebacks in soccer history.

Likely, much will be made of the calls that were made and weren't made in the match, most likely by backers of both sides. There are surely some things that need sorting out there.

Brazilian defender Daiane certainly had a rough day, between the own goal, the final US goal, and the missed penalty. To be fair, she played very well otherwise and quite frankly, the Brazilian team as a whole failed to finish off the match when they had the chance, so one could hardly place the blame on any one player.

The United States has now reached every semifinal in Women's World Cup history. They will now face a very tough French team who went through the ordeal of overtime and penalties just 24 hours earlier. The US will have to do so without the services of their starting center back Rachel Buehler, since she will be forced to miss that match on suspension. One wonders if they can lift themselves back up after this emotionally draining day.

But at least until Wednesday, they can believe that miracles can happen, especially when you believe in yourself.