It doesn’t get more heartbreaking that this.
The U.S. women’s soccer team had the World Cup all but won — twice. But a plucky Japanese team came through with two equalizers and then won their first World Cup title 3-1 on penalty kicks following a 2-2 draw.
When Saki Kumagai knocked in Japan’s third penalty kick past a struggling Hope Solo, it provided a huge uplift to a nation devastated by tsunami, earthquakes, and lingering radiation. For the Americans, it was a huge letdown, its third failure since the U.S. last won the title in 1999.
“A couple of mistakes, and we let them in the game,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said.
Abby Wambach headed in a goal off a pass from Alex Morgan in the 104th minute to put the Americans on top 2-1. Wambach now stands alone too, atop the list of American World Cup scorers with 13 goals.
Japan scored the tying goal, its second equalizer of the game, with just three minutes left in overtime when Homare Sawa knocked it past goalkeeper Hope Solo to send it into the always-uncertain penalty kick shootout.
Uncertain was the word, too, as the normally accurate U.S. shooters fell flat. Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, and Shannon Boxx all either missed their kicks outright or saw them saved by Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori. Goalkeeper Kaihori saved Boxx’ first PK with her right leg, and Carli Lloyd’s second PK went high. Only Wambach scored for the US. Meanwhile, Japan converted three of their four shots, with Kumagai sending the team into ecstasy with her final kick past an injured Solo.
“It’s sad,” Wambach said. “I can’t explain it.”
Alex Morgan, a second-half substitute for front-liner Cheney, put the US up 1-0 in the 69th minute to finally break the ice after the squad peppered the Japanese goal with 12 shots in the first half, only to come up empty.
The squandered first-half chances came back to haunt the U.S. Solid defense would have sealed the victory after Morgan’s goal, but confusion in front of Solo in the 81st minute allowed Aya Miyama to put in the equalizer.