That's how medals are won, with moments such as those. A wily veteran using a subtle tactic to get the ref to make a call no one ever makes, one that turns the match around.
When the game for the gold is all there's left to play, it's usually fitting to immediately sweep away the underbrush that preceded it. Not this time. The United States' semifinal win over Canada in the Olympic women's soccer tournament was so dramatic -- and produced such fiery accusations of bias against the referee from the Canadians -- that it's taking some extra time to digest it all.
"It's definitely draining," U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said Tuesday before boarding the bus to London, where the Americans will play Japan in the Olympic final on Thursday. "We played 123 minutes. And, on top of that, all the emotion."
The basic facts and bitter words were evident after the 4-3 result at Old Trafford on Monday night. Alex Morgan scored the winning goal in the final minute of extra time, but it was Wambach's out-loud timekeeping that led to the game's pivotal moment: Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen's decision to whistle the Canadian goalkeeper for holding the ball too long, a call that led to the tying goal for the U.S. in the 80th minute.
It's a rule rarely enforced, akin to an umpire in baseball deciding the batter hit by the pitch didn't make a sufficient attempt to get out of the way of the ball. It gave the U.S. an indirect kick, which turned into a hand ball, which turned into a penalty kick.
The Canadians were furious. And they made their feelings known after the game.
Coach John Herdman: "The ref, she will have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replay. She's gonna have to live with that. We will move on from this. I wonder if she will be able to."
Forward Christine Sinclair: "We feel like it was taken away from us. It's a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started."
Goalkeeper Erin McLeod: "I think the referee was very one-sided."
Soccer governing FIFA is weighing disciplinary action against Canada for those remarks. Regardless, when such serious allegations are made, it's imperative to look closely at what happened.
The goalkeeper is supposed to control the ball with her hands, including bouncing it to herself, for no more than six seconds. In many ways, it's a laughable rule: U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo is one of the quickest in the game at getting rid of the ball, but it's not unusual to see her go over that limit.
But McLeod pushed the rule to the extreme. The first time she caught the ball Monday night -- off a deflected header -- she held it for 17 seconds before punting it away. A couple of minutes later, she controlled it for 16 seconds. There was another 16-second possession later in the half as she cradled the ball, gave it a bounce, walked forward and directed traffic.
"Their plan is to slow down the game," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "If I put myself in (their coach's) shoes, it's about game management, slow down the game and you feel like you have a chance to win against the States."
It's customary for the referee to give a warning when she thinks the goalkeeper is taking too much time. Wambach said she saw Pedersen give McLeod a warning. McLeod said she was told by a linesman at the start of the second half not to slow down play, but didn't consider that a proper warning.
Wambach felt McLeod's time-wasting got worse once the Canadians took the lead. That's when the American started counting out loud whenever McLeod had the ball.
"It was obviously clear that Canada was trying to bide their time," Wambach said. "They're up a goal, and they're taking as much time as they need. Throughout the game, I was speaking with the ref. She warned Erin throughout the game that she was taking too long. Erin responded with an 'I understand."'
With Canada leading at 76:36 on the official clock, McLeod fell to the ground making a two-handed catch of a corner kick by Rapinoe. McLeod took three to four seconds to get up, still cradling the ball. She started to run forward, then slowed to a walk. At 76:44, she started to wave her players forward. She bounced the ball once, then started to punt it at 76:47.
Wambach was keeping track.
"I had gotten to 10 seconds counting out loud next to the referee," Wambach said. "And at 10 seconds she blew the whistle, and I think it was a good call. Yes, it's uncharacteristic for that call to be made in a soccer game, but the rules are the rules."
"Here's the thing -- we needed a goal," Wambach added. "They're trying to waste time, and I'm trying to speed it up. You can say it's gamesmanship, you can say it's smart, but I'm a competitor and I want to get the ball back at our feet."
At 78:03, Rapinoe takes the resulting indirect free kick about 16 yards from the goal. She rams it right into Marie-Eve Nault, who instinctively raised her right arm, with the elbow bent. If she had kept her arms at her side, it's probably not a hand ball. It's like an offensive lineman in football who can get away with holding until he extends his arms to make it blatantly visible to the officials.
The Americans were awarded a penalty. At 79:33, Wambach converted the kick to tie it at 3.
The U.S. is now in the gold-medal match against Japan. The Canadians will play France for bronze, having failed to beat the Americans now in 27 straight games.
The U.S. players have no second thoughts about how they won. They do, however, understand why the Canadians said what they said.
"The Canadians are obviously going to be frustrated," Morgan said. "If I was in their position, I would be frustrated as well and not really want to sugarcoat my interviews. I'd just let it all out -- like they did."