MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany – Abby Wambach sure knows how to deliver.
A goal, a promise and soon, she hopes, a World Cup title.
The U.S. women had fans on edge once again until Wambach broke a tense tie with her header off a corner kick in the 79th minute Wednesday. Alex Morgan scored three minutes later to seal a 3-1 semifinal victory over France, and the Americans let loose with a party that carried all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.
Next up, a trip to the World Cup final Sunday in Frankfurt that will be the first for Americans since 1999, when they last won the World Cup. They’ll play Japan, which upset Sweden, 3-1, to move one step away from realizing its own dream.
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“We’ve achieved part of our goal. We’re in the final,” Wambach said. “We want to complete it. We want to be world champs.”
So do their fans, new and old.
The Americans captivated the crowd back home with their epic, come-from-behind win over Brazil on Sunday, and a little thing called a workday wasn’t going to deter them. Some fans skipped work – bars opened early for the 9 a.m. PDT kickoff – while others sneaked peeks at the game in the office. At the Phoenix airport, dozens of fans crowded around TVs to watch.
When the final whistle blew, Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes and ordinary folks who didn’t know a free kick from a corner kick just a few days ago flooded Twitter with congratulations. “My heroes. Wambach. Boxx. Rapinoe. Solo. That TEAM! Our team!” actor Tom Hanks tweeted. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers said, “Awesome job US Women, finish it off Sunday now.”
Wambach and company were glad to share the moment.
“These wins, we can’t do it alone. We know a whole nation is cheering us on,” Wambach said. “We believe in ourselves, and we’re in the final. I couldn’t be happier.”
A little relieved, too.
France was the surprise of the tournament, making the semifinals with a creativity and flair that was breathtaking to behold. And for much of the game, the U.S. couldn’t contain Les Bleues.
“We didn’t play well today,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “However, we find a way to win and that’s a credit to the players’ hearts.”
With the U.S. struggling to create chances in the middle, Sundhage replaced Carli Lloyd with spark plug Megan Rapinoe early in the second half, moved Lauren Cheney inside and pulled Wambach back to the midfield.
The difference was noticeable immediately. The Americans were able to push forward and began threatening French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz.
Then, in the 79th minute, the Americans won a corner kick.
“I told (Cheney) at halftime, ‘Put the ball to the back post, and we’re going to get a goal,’ ” Wambach said.
Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post and, just as Wambach had predicted, she soared over the scrum and headed the ball past Sapowicz.
Wambach let out a scream and did a sprint ending in a slide into the corner, where she was mobbed by teammates. It was her third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, tying American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.
Morgan then put the game out of reach, outracing four defenders and then stutter-stepping in front of the goal, throwing Sapowicz off and leaving the American with a wide-open shot.
“The priority is not to accept another goal,” France coach Bruno Bini said through a translator. “When that happens, you’ve had it. … That was it for us.”
The U.S. was staked to an early lead by Cheney’s goal in the ninth minute. But with the silky smooth Louisa Necib calling the shots, France dominated for most of the game, finishing with a whopping 25-11 advantage in shots.
In the 55th minute, France got its equalizer. Bompastor floated in a cross from about 30 yards and, with the dangerous Gaetane Thiney right in front of U.S. goalie Hope Solo ready for the header, Solo had little opportunity to move. The ball flew right past her.