FRANKFURT, Germany – Abby Wambach's brow creased as she shook her head in disbelief. Hope Solo's expression smoldered with anger and frustration. Alex Morgan could not hold back a few tears – a moment of glory that should have belonged to her and her teammates was somehow stripped away.
The amazing ride was over for the United States women's soccer team, a week of drama and thrills and what seemed like a pre-written tale of destiny instead turned out to be one of heartache.
Yet what stung the most for the USA in those pained moments after its penalty shootout defeat to Japan in Sunday's World Cup final was that this was a game, and a tournament, that it had within its grasp.
Not once but twice the Americans let a goal advantage slip, first towards the end of regulation and then with four minutes remaining in extra time. That meant goals from Morgan and Wambach counted for nothing in the end, and once the U.S. missed its first three kicks in the shootout, Japan had the unlikeliest of tournament victories in the bag.
However, it should never even have gotten that far. A catalogue of missed chances was what really denied the USA its first Cup final since 1999, with a dominating first-half performance somehow failing to result in any goals.
Wambach, Lauren Cheney, Megan Rapinoe and a string of others all had opportunities to put the Americans ahead early but could not find the net. Wambach came closest, rattling the crossbar with a fearsome left-footed drive that would have been the goal of the tournament if it had been a couple of inches lower.
By such small margins are trophies decided.
[Related: • Missed chances plague U.S. in Cup final loss to Japan ]
"You don't explain this," U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage said. "You can't. We could have put it away and we didn't. We created a lot of chances and we could not put them away. It is a final and there are small differences between winning and losing so you can't afford that."
When the USA eventually got on the scoreboard, thanks to Morgan running onto Rapinoe's long ball forward and firing into the bottom corner after 69 minutes, it looked as though the side was on course for the triumph that seemed so likely ever since it squeezed past Brazil in the quarterfinals and survived France in the semis.
But a dreadful mix-up between Rachel Buehler and Ali Krieger allowed Aya Miyama to pounce for the equalizer and force extra time with nine minutes to go.
Wambach produced yet another crucial header near the end of extra-time's first period, deflecting Morgan's cross into the net, and once more the Americans were within touching distance of the Cup. However, player of the tournament – Homare Sawa – produced a goal for the ages with four minutes left, striking the ball past Solo with the outside of her right boot from a Miyama corner.
It was a goal worthy of a final, and worthy of a champion. This was arguably the best World Cup final – men's or women's – since 1966, what with the drama and emotion and sheer twists and turns of it all.
Just like Wambach's goal against Brazil late in injury time, Sawa's desperation equalizer shifted momentum and set the tone for the shootout. Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath had their penalties saved, Carli Lloyd blasted her shot over the bar and Solo could only stop one Japanese effort.
"We worked so hard and we all believed in each other," Wambach said. "This is going to hurt for a while."
And so, an extraordinary ride came to an end in a way that few could have predicted. All the incredible events of the past week served to propel the USA into the hearts of a nation back home, and that won't be forgotten even when the public eye moves swiftly onto something else.
For now, it will share the heartbreak of the players – America's pain for America's team.
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