The FIFA Women's World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan had a familiar feel to it, as the American squad once again found themselves being pushed to the brink. But the confidence, skill and resourcefulness that propelled them past Brazil and France weren't quite enough Sunday, and the U.S. women lost despite never trailing Japan in 120 minutes of play on the field.
Instead, it was the Japanese who seemed to draw on deep reserves of will and creativity to stay in the game long enough to force it into overtime, and finally to win on penalty kicks. It was a frenetic, back-and-forth game, the kind the Americans had thrived in as they made their way toward the final. But Japan displayed the resolve and skill that helped them dispatch host Germany in the quarterfinals.
After the championship game, U.S. coach Pia Sundhage told an ESPN sideline reporter that she was proud of the way her team played in the final — the Americans managed to control the ball 47 percent of the time, a feat against a possession-oriented team like Japan.
"But, we could have put away our chances," she said. "We created a lot of chances in the first half. You know, it's a final: small difference between winning and losing."
Those missed chances to score, and perhaps put the game beyond Japan's reach, were also on the mind of striker Abby Wambach after the game.
"It's obviously heart-breaking," Wambach said. "It's unfortunate; we couldn't pull it out. We had chances though, throughout the game. And we didn't put them away.
FIFA statistics show that the U.S. team took 27 shots on goal, but 22 of those shots were off-target. By contrast, Japan took 14 shots, and only 8 were off-target. The Americans also had eight corner kicks, to Japan's four.
Both the U.S. and Japanese teams had a sense of destiny about them as they approached Sunday's final in Frankfurt, Germany. For the Americans, it was a chance to win the world title for the first time since 1999. For the Japanese, it was a way to inspire their country, which is still dealing with the effects of a tsunami that sparked a nuclear crisis in the spring.
And both teams sought to deliver world titles to their stars: Japan's Homare Sawa, 32, and America's Wambach, 31. It's likely that both strikers could be past their prime by the time the next World Cup begins. With long national team careers, neither player has won the World Cup, until now. And on Sunday, both of them scored.
"Evidently it wasn't meant to be," Wambach said. "This is obviously going to hurt for a while. But I'm proud of our team, we never gave up. But congratulations to Japan. I think their country is very, very proud of them."
Asked how the U.S. lost the championship, coach Sundhage said, "We let them in the game, and I still think we did pretty good out there. We had some good possessions in the first half, and played some good soccer. I thought for the crowd, it was very exciting."
The excitement kept on coming, as the title game spilled over into overtime and then a penalty kick shootout.
The Americans missed three penalty kicks after the two teams played to a 1-1 draw in regulation and a 2-2 tie in overtime. In each instance, the U.S. team scored first, only to have the Japanese answer.
And then came the penalty kicks. With the U.S. shooting first, both Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath had their shots saved by Japan's Ayumi Kaihori, while Carli Lloyd's shot went high. When asked to explain how her players failed to convert their chances — they didn't miss any against Brazil in the quarterfinals — Sundhage said, "You don't. You can't."
Wambach buried her penalty kick into the net to make it a 2-1 lead for Japan. But then Saki Kumagai got her shot into the net past Hope Solo, and Japan had won the final, 2-2 (3-1).
"Japan just kept coming, and they never gave up," Wambach said. "And in the end, they're world champs."