Team U.S.A. prided itself on succeeding with its back against the wall. It wanted the pressure. In the final match of the 2011 Women's World Cup, that pressure might have proven to be too much.
The U.S. played a better game at every single point of the game that mattered, until the part that mattered the most. Up by one in regulation and then again up by one in overtime, the Women's team twice let its lead evaporate and eventually headed to penalty kicks. The only other Women's World Cup that had gone to penalty kicks was the famous 1999 Brandi Chastain-imprinted win. When it came time to shoot down those echoes of the past, however, this team simply could no do it.
When the game started, it looked as though it was going to be a US-dominated affair. Lauren Cheney got things off on the right foot with a quick run up the left side within the first minute. Megan Rapinoe continued the US pressure with a killer cross to Cheney in the 8th minute and Carli Lloyd almost had a neat clean-up at the 11th minute. Cheney passed to Rapinoe for a fantastic straight-on shot only 20 seconds later.
After an advantage call in the 28th minute, Abby Wambach had a shot bounce off the top of the crossbar, in a dramatic instance that would be repeated time and time again. Despite numerous chances, the United States did not seem as though they'd be able to capitalize.
Things started to pick up for Japan when Shinobu Ohno got a good shot in the 30th minute, but U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo cut off that effort easily. In the 2011 Women's World Cup, three of Japan's 10 goals had previously come on set pieces. And at the 37th minute, despite being outplayed for virtually the entire first half, they got a corner kick where they might have had another one of those set piece goals. One minute later, Japan got a great service for Kozue Ando, but Solo came off her line quickly and successfully.
As the first half ended, the momentum appeared to have shifted, albeit slightly. The United States had more chances—all missed—but they couldn't capitalize at any point. They played so well for almost the entire half, but they could not come out ahead. It was at this point that the question of pressure had to be rising in many people's minds.
To counter that doubt, coach Pia Sundhage started the second half by removing Cheney and putting in Alex Morgan, who almost put in a cross to the short corner a mere four minutes into the second half. After the referee incorrectly called an offside offense against Japan, Heather O'Reilly hit Wambach with a lift in the 64th minute that Wambach nearly headed just above the Japan keeper.
In the 68th minute, super-sub Morgan got an excellent feed from Rapinoe. Morgan took one touch on the ball and blasted a left-footed shot into the lower right hand corner to take the lid off the goal for the Americans.
In the 80th minute, though, Japan got an equalizer from Aya Miyama and put on non-stop pressure. With two more chances in the next minute for Japan, it seemed as though the U.S. was on its heels. Making it through the last ten minutes of the regulation game was its own blessing, though, and the World Cup Final went to overtime.
Team U.S.A. got overtime started in a similar fashion, with an on-target header from Wambach that was halted by Ayumi Kaihori. However, as the first half of the overtime period moved toward its conclusion, in the 103rd minute, Morgan sent a small cross sailing past the Japanese goal which Wambach redirected masterfully into the back of the net off a header.
In the 111th minute, Team U.S.A. survived a scare, as Solo came off her line, missed the ball and then two defenders collided while attempting to clear the ball. But Japan could not convert. Shortly after, Rapinoe got subbed out in favor of Tobin Heath finishing the game with fresh legs. The threats were not over, however, for the United States, as Yukari Kinga broke toward the goal off a feed from Homare Sawa. Solo was hurt and remained on the ground, but captain Christine Rampone was there to clear the goal. Unfortunately, on the resulting corner kick in the 116th minute, Sawa put in the cross to knot things up 2-2.
There would be no more points scored in the overtime period. And while Japan converted three of its first four penalty kicks, Team U.S.A. was only able to put in one of five, total.
As the pressure finally cracked, nothing good came of it. There was no tremendous release, no dismissal of the specters of the past. There was a better finish for Team U.S.A. than in the previous two World Cups. That's the silver lining. But for the game they played, the way they executed, the near-perfect—minus goal-scoring—team effort, it's hard to focus on that silver lining. For a team that was aiming for a championship or bust, second place cannot be anything other than first loser.