The United States started brilliantly, but struggled in the pressure-packed penalty kick shootout, falling to Japan Sunday in the World Cup final in Frankfurt, Germany.
The Americans allowed two one-goal leads slip away, one in regulation and another in extra time, and missed their first three penalty kicks to open the door for Japan. By the time Abby Wambach scored the Americans' fourth kick, it was too late. Saki Kumagai connected for Japan for a 2-2 (3-1 PK) win and the country's first World Cup title.
The game was a mirror image of the United States' game last week against Brazil. Now, however, the Americans know how the Brazilians felt.
Japan's superstar, Homare Sawa, scored with minutes left in extra time to send the game into penalty kicks. Unlike a week ago, when the U.S. rode the momentum of Wambach's late goal to a perfect (5-for-5) shootout victory, the Americans hit a wall tonight.
Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath missed the first three penalty kicks for the United States, which fell behind 2-0. Wambach, who scored in extra time to give the U.S. a lead, fired one in, but Kumagai clinched the title for Japan by drilling it high into the back of the net.
The Americans dominated much of the game, missing several chances in the first half, which ended scoreless. Substitute Alex Morgan finally broke through in the second half, scoring a stunning goal in the 69th minute for a 1-0 lead. But, Japan's Aya Miyama scored in the 81st minute to equalize.
Wambach's goal in extra time was the 122nd of her career and fourth of this tournament. But, Sawa scored her tournament-leading fifth in the nick of time to save Japan from defeat. In the shootout, Japan goalie Ayumi Kaihori saved the first and third American shots, while Lloyd's second shot sailed high.
For more details, click below for my running commentary of all 120 minutes and the heart-stopping shootout ...
A little history ... The United States will be gunning for its third title, having won the tournament before in 1999 and 1991. Japan is going after its first. The two teams should have a good grasp of what to expect, having faced each other three times already in 2011. The U.S. won all three games by a combined score of 6-1 and Amy Rodriguez found the net in each of contest. In fact, the U.S. has never lost to Japan, owning an all-time record of 22-0-3.
Other interesting notes:
-- Defender Rachel Buehler will be eligible to play in the final after sitting out a game because of the red card she picked up in the quarterfinal win over Brazil.
-- Abby Wambach has scored in three straight games, boosting her career World Cup tally to 12. Brazil's Marta and Germany's Birgit Prinz are tied for first all-time with 14.
-- Four U.S. players have played every minute of this World Cup: Wambach, Hope Solo, Ali Krieger and Christie Rampone.
-- Japan, ranked No. 4 in the world, upset tournament favorite and two-time defending champ Germany, 1-0, in the quarterfinals. Then, it brushed aside the Swedes (who defeated the Americans last week) in the semifinals, 3-1.
-- Japan's most notable player, Homare Sawa, 32, has been around so long, she played in he 1995 World Cup. She was 16 at the time and when Japan met Sweden in the group stage, she faced off against Pia Sundhage -- the current head coach of the United States.