The result was completely unexpected. First, in the quarterfinals Japan defeated two-time defending champion, undefeated Germany, which had been favored to win the tournament it was hosting. Then in the semi-final, Japan upset undefeated Sweden, which had beaten the U.S. in group play.
The U.S. had come from behind in the last minute of its quarterfinal against Brazil to tie the score on Abby Wambach’s magnificent header, then win on penalty kicks. In its semi-final, the U.S. beat an aggressive French team.
The U.S. was strongly favored in the final match against Japan, but it took the U.S. until the 69th minute to score on a beautiful shot by Alex Morgan. That late in the game, it really felt like the U.S. could dominate and cruise to victory. But Japan responded with a goal in the 80th minute, and the score was tied at the end of regulation.
The U.S. scored first again in extra time on another powerful Abby Wambach header, and it seemed like the U.S. could finally claim the victory. But Japan shocked again with only 3 minutes remaining in extra time when Japanese captain Homare Sawa scored on a header of her own. Japan had twice come from behind to erase a U.S. lead, and as extra time expired, the two teams were headed for penalty kicks.
Now you might have expected the U.S. to be favored in penalty kicks because the Americans had so recently used penalty kicks to oust Brazil. But in that game the U.S. had dramatically come from behind to tie the score, and welcomed the penalty kicks. The Brazilian team was shocked to find itself in penalty kicks, and it showed in the shoot-out. All the energy and emotion came from the U.S. side.
In the final the U.S. found itself in the position of Brazil, stunned by a late goal in extra time forcing it into penalty kicks. But Japan assumed the posture of the U.S. in the previous shoot-out, delighted to find itself shooting penalty kicks with everything on the line. And again it showed, with the U.S. shooters seemingly tired, but their Japanese counterparts energized and determined to finish the job.
It was a wonderful final for both teams at the end of an exciting tournament. The Americans can and should hold their heads high for all the wonderful things they accomplished. But congratulations to Japan for a memorable and historic triumph in the 2011 World Cup.