By Gary D’Amato, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –
LONDON — It was the epitome of the instant classic, a riveting match that ended in the 123rd minute, included a hat trick by a player on the losing side and was tainted by controversy.
What can the United States possibly do to top its 4-3 victory over Canada in a women’s soccer semifinal at the Olympic Games?
Win the gold medal, of course.
“This team,” said feisty veteran forward Abby Wambach, “is bound for glory.”
Perhaps, but glory will not come without a struggle.
Standing in the Americans’ way in the final at 7:45 p.m. (1:45 p.m. in Milwaukee) Thursday at Wembley Stadium is Japan, which gives up nothing to the U.S. when it comes to pride, skill and fierce determination.
“For the final, I would like to show a good game and empower and give courage to the Japanese people,” said coach Norio Sasaki.
Nadeshiko Japan, as the team is known, did exactly that at the 2011 FIFA World Cup final in Germany, beating the U.S on penalty kicks and giving hope to a nation ravaged by a tsunami just months earlier.
“I’m still heartbroken about losing the World Cup in the way we did,” Wambach said. “If we can be standing on the top of the podium at the end of this tournament . . . it would be brilliant. I would be the happiest human being alive.”
This year, the Americans have won 21 of 23 matches, including five at the Olympics. The two they didn’t win? A draw and a defeat, both to Japan.
“We go to the final wanting only gold,” said Japanese striker Kozue Ando. “We are not thinking about silver. It does not matter who we play. We have shown we can beat anybody.”
Japan has never finished higher than fourth at the Olympics. The U.S. has won gold three times in four tries since women’s soccer made its Olympic debut at the Atlanta Games in 1996. The “blemish,” if it can be called that, was silver in 2000.
Both teams were pushed to the limit in their respective semifinals.
Christine Sinclair, Canada’s prolific goal-scoring captain, put her team ahead three times, and three times the Americans fought back. Alex Morgan, whose knack for scoring big goals has made her a star at 23, finally ended it with a header in added time at the end of extra time at venerable Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United.
“I think it says everything about this team,” said Pia Sundhage, the U.S. coach. “The team refuses to lose and always finds a way to win. If you look in their eyes and listen to Abby, there is something special about this team.
“They seem to have an extra gear and it has been the same with the U.S. team since 1991. It is a gift. I’m very proud of the way the players performed.”
Japan fought off a furious comeback by France to win its semifinal, 2-1.
“They were very strong,” Ando said. “We tried not to lose the game instead of trying to win it. France came at us and made it very difficult.”
The U.S.-Canada match was marred by a couple of controversial calls by referee Christiana Pedersen of Norway — notably a delay of game ruling against Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod for holding the ball more than six seconds .
“The ref, she’ll have to sleep in bed after watching tonight’s replay,” said Canada coach John Herdman. “She’s got that to live with. We’ll move on from this. I wonder if she’ll be able to.”
The Americans have been criticized for their physical style of play. Herdman called some of their tactics “highly illegal.” Then there’s goalie Hope Solo, whose Twitter rant aimed at NBC broadcaster Brandi Chastain, a former U.S. women’s national star, got plenty of play earlier in the Games.
But Team USA is offering no apologies. Asked if she felt sorry for the Canadians after a call so rare she admitted she’d never seen it, Sundhage simply said, “No.”
The Americans are a tough and resilient bunch. They have one of the best goalies in the history of the game in Solo, a tremendous scorer in Morgan and pressure-hardened veterans in Wambach, Heather O’Reilly and Christie Rampone.
Wambach managed to restrain herself after a Columbian player gave her a black eye during a 3-0 victory by the Americans on July 28. But her post-game comments spoke volumes about her makeup.
“You think about what you would do on the street if someone sucker-punched you and you have the list of things you would do to retaliate,” she said. “But this is the Olympics and I can’t risk getting a red or yellow card.”
Japan also hasn’t been immune from criticism. After an unexpected 0-0 draw against South Africa, considered a weak opponent, Sasaki admitted intentionally playing for the tie in order to prevent Nadeshiko from having to go through exhaustive travel the day before its next match.
None of that will matter Thursday, when the United States and Japan take to the pitch. The two best teams in the world will be fighting for gold.
“We believe we deserve it,” Wambach said. “It’s going to take 90 minutes of a great performance on behalf of the best team in the world, and that’s the team that will be sitting on the top of the podium.”
Those same words are sure to be spoken, in another language, on the other side of the pitch.