With spirit — and Hope — there’s a way!

Jeez Abby, did you have to leave it so late?

It’s been dubbed a celebration of the American human spirit.

But really, it was  more than that.

The U.S.A. and Brazil Women’s World Cup quarterfinal clash, played out in a sweltering Dresden in Eastern Germany on Sunday, has ensconced itself among the greatest international games of soccer ever played – either by men or women.

Spirit had its part, but so too did controversial decisions, great goals, drama and an ending which had justice and karma written all over it.

I revisited those games people described the “greatest” encounters in recent times. They were all men’s clashes, and they included — not surprisingly — Liverpool’s victory over AC Milan in 2005 on penalties after an amazing 3-3 comeback; Manchester United’s unbelievable come from behind 2-1 victory over Bayern Munich in 1999 (when one down going into injury time); and Brazil’s sublime performance in the 1970 World Cup final against Italy.

There were others, of course, and you probably have your own favorite too for varying reasons, but I’m struggling to find one that matches what we saw on Sunday for sheer drama and controversy, where the odds were overcome by a group who refused to give in.

It had the earliest ever own goal; it had a team seemingly hard done by courtesy of a debatable penalty retake and a sending off all in one go; it had a once neutral but incensed German crowd take the side of the U.S, and it had a spirited fight back from a team uniting to overcome adversity, manufacturing the latest ever goal in a World Cup.

And to top it all, the game had a thrilling penalty shootout victory with a goalkeeper called Hope pulling off a match wining save and player named Krieger – German for “Warrior” – ending the battle. It was a sports movie in one game.

And it even has a couple of Hoosiers as part of the plot. There’s Lauren Cheney (Ben Davis HS, 118 goals in four years), who has emerged as one of the players of the tournament, and Lori Lindsey (Pike HS), who played well enough against Colombia to hopefully feature in the final stages.

First there was the early goal. There might have been calls for veteran Shannon Boxx to be dropped for this game after the Sweden loss, but it took her all of 74 seconds to make an impact when her pass from the left saw Brazilian defender Daiane slice into her own goal with Abby Wambach breathing down her neck. It was the quickest own goal in the history of the tournament.

Then, in the 65th minute, disaster struck. Marta hooked the ball over Rachel Buehler, whose seemingly fair challenge was deemed to be illegal. Not only was Brazil awarded the penalty, but Buehler was given her marching orders and the U.S found itself down to 10.

Hope Sole saved from Cristiana, only for the referee to order it to be retaken for what seemed to be a harsh call for encroachment into the penalty area by the U.S.

Marta stepped up for the second spot kick and made no mistake converting to tie the game at 1-1.

Pia Sundhage’s troops might have been a woman down, but it didn’t show too much for the remainder of regulation time as they pushed for a winner.

It didn’t arrive, and then, just two minutes into overtime, five time world player of the year Marta seemingly stuck a dagger into the heart of American hopes with a superb strike, hooking it in off the post. Replays suggest Maurine, who provided the assist with a cross from the left, was offside.

With the U.S. just seconds away from elimination (it had reached at least the semifinal stage of all five previous World Cups), Megan Rapinoe crossed from the left, finding Wambach at the back post and she headed home past an oncoming Andreia. At 122 minutes, it was the latest goal ever scored in a World Cup and it sent the team and its fans into raptures.

However, there were still penalties to be taken. Boxx missed, but Andreia was adjudged to have moved off the line and Boxx made no mistake with the retake. Lloyd and Wambach scored, then Solo saved from Daiane (she of the own goal). Next for the U.S was Rapinoe, then Krieger slotted home to send the U.S. into the semifinals.

The amazing victory came 12 years to the day that the U.S. beat China on penalties to win the 1999 World Cup at The Rose Bowl. But this was “just” a quarterfinal. Nothing has been won. Now it’s on to tomorrow and a tough semifinal clash against France in Moenchengladbach (coverage starts 11.30 am ET, ESPN).

And hopefully – now — there’ll be a sizeable audience to see the U.S against one of the most impressive teams of this tournament. One of the main talking points up to Sunday, other than Germany’s shock defeat to Japan, was the gigantic TV audiences being witnessed in the land of the host nation.

For example, average TV audiences for games in Germany when they’ve not been involved has so far been around six million.

That, however, was five times the audience in the U.S.A. for games concerning the Americans in the group stages. The ESPN  rating for the Brazil encounter is 2.3, which equates to 3.89 million viewers and is the highest for a women’s world cup game since ’99, so maybe the nation is waking up.

However, if you want to gauge the real appetite for the tournament, maybe you should also be looking at what’s going on online. Various soccer blogs and sites from both fans and journalists are reporting huge increases in visits during the tournament (Our own Kick It blog reached record levels this past week — streets ahead of visits for last year’s men’s World Cup.)

There’s a notable shift in how people obtain information or watch games. Nowadays, you can just log onto ESPN3, for example, and pull up a match replay when it suits you. Twitter and other sites, meanwhile, can provide up to the minute info while you’re out and about with your trusty phone.

It’s being described as World Cup 2.0. If the U.S. reach the final, it may not get the famed 40 million viewers of the 1999 victory, but it sure to have a feverish following by other means.


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