DRESDEN, Germany – It was destined to be forever remembered as "that" goal. Landon Donovan's dramatic winner last year in South Africa was a World Cup finish for the ages and the defining moment that soccer in the United States had long waited for.
But after a sweltering Sunday in Europe ended with the coronation of a new legend and a fresh stitch of magic, Abby Wambach can lay a realistic claim to Donovan's previously unique position as owner of American soccer's most momentous goal. Just a year and change after he sunk Algeria and thrilled a nation, could it be that Donovan's strike is now relegated to being "that other goal"?
Perhaps we should let them share top billing for now. Because there is no doubt that Wambach's extraordinary late equalizer to force extra time and rescue the USA from a quarterfinal defeat to Brazil at the Women's World Cup evoked the same kind of memories, emotion and drama as Donovan's shot of destiny that sent the U.S. men to the knockout rounds.
[Related: Solo gets redemption in leading U.S. to win]
Soccer in America craves water-cooler moments such as these, when ordinary folks head into work on a Monday morning and discuss the round-ball game instead of more traditionally beloved sporting codes or the latest reality television bilge. They don't happen very often and they need to be ridden for all they are worth.
"We just try to make it so dramatic for you guys," Wambach joked as she spoke with reporters in the bowels of Rudolf Harbig Stadion after the USA beat Brazil on penalty kicks 5-3.
Funnily enough, Donovan said something similar back on June 22 last year, cracking jokes with a voice still trembling from the emotion of it all. He slid towards the corner flag, too, just like Wambach. And his goal, while coming with his left foot whereas Wambach's was a perfect header from Megan Rapinoe's pinpoint cross, also came during time added on for injuries.
Whatever U.S. soccer lacks in the deep-rooted tradition that European and South American nations rightly pride themselves on, it is making up with determination and steel and character under pressure.
For two summers running, grit has manifested itself as drama.
Just as Donovan was derided for so long as being weak-willed, Wambach had her game questioned when she missed a spate of chances (especially headers) early in this tournament and continued to be bothered by an ongoing Achilles injury. Yet there she was when it counted and the U.S., which was moments away from elimination, is now a strong favorite to win it all.
Next up is France in a semifinal at Moenchengladbach on Wednesday. The Americans will need no reminding that the job, for all the thrills of Sunday, is only part-way completed.
"This is top three," Wambach said when asked where this game ranked among her career favorites. "But it will mean absolutely nothing if we don't go all the way."
While Hope Solo deserved her Player of the Match award for some superb saves, including one from the penalty spot in the shootout, there were a multitude of heroes for the USA.
Carli Lloyd scored the winning goal in the 2008 Olympic gold medal game, but her powerful run with time ticking away Sunday may be a memory she cherishes just as warmly once her career is done. Lloyd cut through three Brazil midfielders to free Rapinoe on the left and allow her to deliver a dream ball for Wambach.
The American public fell in love with the women's national team in 1999 after Brandi Chastain's iconic World Cup-winning goal, and while that affair never truly ended it has hovered beneath the surface for quite some time. Now, if the explosions seen on Facebook and Twitter are anything to go by, that fascination has been rekindled with a vengeance.
This is a team that deserves its plaudits, too. The American women have handled themselves with composure and grace and set a fine example. And rarely have they been subjected to more provocation than they did at the hands of a Brazil squad that was, lamentably, never slow to dive or foul or feign injury or berate the overwhelmed officials.
While nursing a late 2-1 lead, Brazil took time wasting to a whole new level, with even the team's doctor being ordered to slow his run onto the field as he went to tend to an "injured" player.
For as much class and style as the Brazil men's team possesses, its women's team has little of the same pedigree and joy for the sport. Brazil has never won a Women's World Cup and given its shenanigans here it is a positive thing for women's soccer that it won't win this one.
For the United States, however, the possibility of overall triumph just increased dramatically and there is no question that Pia Sundhage's squad now views itself as the team of destiny.
Given the way things fell together at that critical moment, when all looked lost but Wambach stood tall, it is hard to argue with that sentiment.
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- Landon Donovan
- Abby Wambach