Abby Wambach

United States goalkeeper Hope Solo fails to save a penalty during the penalty shootout of the final match between Japan and the United States at the Women’s Soccer World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany, Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

FRANKFURT, Germany — Japan stunned the Americans in a riveting Women’s World Cup final, beating them 3-1 on penalty kicks Sunday after coming from behind twice in a 2-2 tie. Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made two brilliant saves in the shootout.

“Before we went to the match tonight we had some commentary on television and we heard comments on the situation in Japan,” coach Norio Sasaki said. “We wanted to use this opportunity to thank the people back home for the support that has been given.”

This was Japan’s first appearance in the final of a major tournament, and they had not beaten the Americans in their first 25 meetings, including a pair of 2-0 losses in warm-up games a month before the World Cup. But the Nadeshiko pushed ahead, playing inspired soccer and hoping their success could provide even a small emotional lift to their nation, still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northern coast of the country and left nearly 23,000 dead or missing.

After each game, the team unfurled a banner saying, “To our Friends Around the World — Thank You for Your Support.” On Sunday, they did it before the match and afterward they had a new sign to display: Champions — and the first Asian country to win this title.

The Americans found it all too hard to grasp. They believed they were meant to be World Cup champions after their rocky year — needing a playoff to qualify, a loss in group play to Sweden, the epic comeback against Brazil. They simply couldn’t pull off one last thriller.

“The players were patient, they wanted to win this game,” Sasaki said. “I think it’s because of that the Americans scored only two goals.”

While Japan celebrated at midfield, the Americans stood as a group and watched.

“There are really no words,” Abby Wambach said. “We were so close.”

Minutes, in fact.

After Wambach scored in the 104th minute of overtime to give the Americans a 2-1 lead, Homare Sawa flicked in a corner kick in the 117th to tie it. It was the fifth goal of the tournament for Sawa, who was playing in her fifth World Cup.

“We ran and ran,” Sawa said. “We were exhausted, but we kept running.”

The Americans had beaten Brazil on penalty kicks in a quarterfinal, but they didn’t have the same touch Sunday. Give Kaihori credit for some of that. Shannon Boxx took the first U.S. shot, and it banged off Kaihori’s right leg as she dove. After Aya Miyama made her penalty, Carli Lloyd stepped up and sent her shot soaring over the crossbar. As the crowd gasped, Lloyd covered her mouth in dismay.

Hope Solo saved Japan’s next shot, but Kaihori made an impressive two-handed save on a shot by Tobin Heath.

“This is a team effort,” Kaihori said. “In the penalty shootout I just had to believe in myself and I was very confident.”

Solo came up with a save, and Wambach buried her penalty kick.

But Japan need to make just one more, and Saki Kumagai did.

“It’s tough to do two rounds of penalties,” Wambach said. “The keeper knows in a lot of ways where we’re going to go. She made some great saves.”

Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes, even folks who don’t know a bicycle kick from a Schwinn were captivated by the U.S. women and charmed by their grit and can-do attitude that is uniquely — proudly — American. Even President Barack Obama was a fan, taking to Twitter himself Sunday morning to wish the team well.

“Sorry I can’t be there to see you play, but I’ll be cheering you on from here. Let’s go. ­— BO.”

But, of course, it was not to be.

“If any other country was to win this, then I’m really happy and proud for Japan,” Lloyd said. “Deep down inside I really thought it was our destiny to win it. But maybe it was Japan’s.”

Printed on 07/18/2011 as: Japan stuns US in back-and-forth final mach

Abby Wambach celebrates her 79th-minute go-ahead goal during the United States’ 3-1 win over France in the Women’s World Cup semifinal match. The U.S. will face Japan in the final Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany — Abby Wambach sure knows how to deliver.

A goal, a promise and soon, she hopes, a World Cup title.

The U.S. women had fans on edge once again until Wambach broke a tense tie with her header off a cornerkick in the 79th minute Wednesday. Alex Morgan scored three minutes later to seal a 3-1 semifinal victory over France, and the Americans let loose with a party that carried all the way across the Atlantic Ocean.

Next up, a trip to the World Cup final Sunday in Frankfurt that will be the first for Americans since 1999, when they last won it all. They’ll play Japan, which upset Sweden 3-1 to move one step away from realizing its own dream.

“We’ve achieved part of our goal. We’re in the final,” Wambach said. “We want to complete it. We want to be world champs.”

So do their fans, new and old.

The Americans captivated the crowd back home with their epic, come-from-behind win over Brazil on Sunday, and a little thing called a workday wasn’t going to deter them. Some fans skipped work — bars opened early for the noon Eastern Time kickoff ­— while others sneaked peeks at the game in the office. At the Phoenix airport, dozens of fans crowded around TVs to watch the game.

When the final whistle blew, Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes and ordinary folks who didn’t know a free kick from a corner kick just a few days ago flooded Twitter with congratulations. “My heroes. Wambach. Boxx. Rapinoe. Solo. That TEAM! Our team!” actor Tom Hanks tweeted. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers said, “Awesome job U.S. Women, finish it off Sunday now.”

Wambach and company were glad to share the moment.

“These wins, we can’t do it alone. We know a whole nation is cheering us on,” Wambach said. “We believe in ourselves, and we’re in the final. I couldn’t be happier.”

A little relieved, too.

France was the surprise of the tournament, making the semifinals with a creativity and flair that was breathtaking to behold. And for much of the game, the U.S. couldn’t contain Les Bleues.

“We didn’t play well today,” said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. “However, we find a way to win, and that’s a credit to the players’ hearts. That’s what makes it so wonderful to be coach of this team.”

With the U.S. struggling to create opportunities in the middle, Sundhage replaced Carli Lloyd with sparkplug Megan Rapinoe early in the second half, moved Lauren Cheney inside and pulled Wambach back to the midfield.

The difference was immediately noticeable. The Americans were able to push forward and began threatening French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz.

Finally, in the 79th, the Americans won a corner kick.

“I told (Cheney) at halftime, ‘Put the ball to the back post, and we’re going to get a goal,’” Wambach said.

Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post and, just as Wambach had predicted, she soared over the scrum and pushed the ball past Sapowicz.

“I knew Abby was going to beat her,” Cheney said, referring to the French defender who practically mugged Wambach to try and contain her.

Asked how, Cheney said, “Because she’s Abby Wambach.”

Wambach let out a scream and did a sliding sprint into the corner, where she was mobbed by her teammates. It was her third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, tying fellow American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.

Morgan then put the game out of reach, outracing four defenders and then stutter-stepping in front of the goal, throwing Sapowicz off and leaving the American with a wide-open shot.

“The priority is not to accept another goal,” France coach Bruno Bini said through a translator. “When that happens, you’ve had it. We conceded another goal, and that was it for us.”

Mia Hamm, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy and Co. got the rock-star treatment during the ‘99 World Cup, and every team since then has lived in their shadow. Part of the problem is that no team’s been able to duplicate that group’s success. But nobody’s been able to captivate the U.S. public like that golden group, either.

Until now.

“In the end, we’re in the finals,” Wambach said. “And that’s all that matters.”

FIFA Women's World Cup

U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo deflects a penalty shot during the quarterfinal match against Brazil in Dresden, Germany, on Sunday.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

DRESDEN, Germany ­— Running low on hope and almost out of time, the Americans were surely beat, about to make their earliest exit from the Women’s World Cup.

And then, with one of the most thrilling goals in U.S. history, they weren’t.

Showing a dramatic burst sure to captivate the folks back home, the Americans packed an entire World Cup’s worth of theatrics into a 15-minute span by beating Brazil 5-3 on penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie Sunday night.

Abby Wambach tied it with a magnificent, leaping header in the 122nd minute, and Hope Solo denied the Brazilians — again — in one of the most riveting games in the history of the World Cup, men’s or women’s.

“There is something special about this group. That energy, that vibe,” Solo said. “Even in overtime, you felt something was going to happen.”

The United States advanced to Wednesday’s semifinals against France, which eliminated England on penalty kicks Saturday. And while the Americans will have to win twice more to win the final, they are the only one of the favorites left after two-time defending champ Germany was stunned by Japan on Saturday night.

The U.S. victory came 12 years to the day the Americans last caught their country’s attention in a big way with their penalty-kick shootout victory over China at the Rose Bowl that gave them their second World Cup title.

For Brazil, it is yet another disappointment at a major tournament. And this one is sure to sting more than any others because Marta had it won for the Brazilians, scoring her second goal of the game in the second minute of overtime for the 2-1 lead. But Erika stalled when she went down on a tackle, and the delay added three minutes of stoppage time to the game.

That was all the time Wambach and the Americans needed, after pushing themselves to limit while playing a woman short after Rachel Buehler’s 66th-minute ejection.

Two minutes into stoppage time, Megan Rapinoe blasted a left-footed cross from 30 yards out on the left side that Andreia didn’t come close to getting her hands on. Wambach, one of the best players in the world in the air, made contact and with one furious whip of her head, buried it in the near side of the net from about five yards.

“I took a touch and smoked it,” Rapinoe said. “I don’t think I’ve ever hit a cross with my left foot that well. And then that beast in the air got ahold of it.”

Wambach let out a primal scream and slid into the corner, pumping her fists and quickly mobbed by teammates. No goal had ever been scored that deep into a World Cup game.

“Everything seemed to be on the safe side, but it wasn’t,” Brazil coach Kleiton Lima said. “Unfortunately there was the goal.”

The Americans, shooting first, made their three penalty kicks only to have Cristiane and Marta easily match them. But then it was Daiane’s turn — the same Daiane who’d given the U.S. a 1-0 lead with an own goal in the second minute of the game. She took a hard shot, but Solo stretched out and batted it away. Though the U.S. still had to make two more, the celebration was already starting.

After Rapinoe blistered the net with a blast and Ali Krieger converted hers, the Americans raced onto the field, their joy only matched by that of the pro-American crowd of 25,598. Wambach tackled Solo and U.S. coach Pia Sundhage even broke out her air guitar when AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” began to play.

“It is a special moment for me and for this team,” Solo said.

It’s redemption for the rest of the Americans, too, who have been roundly criticized and questioned for their uncharacteristically inconsistent play in recent months. After going more than two years without a loss, they’ve been beaten four times since November.

“It’s like a storybook,” Wambach said.

Brazil has never won a major tournament. It lost to the Americans in the two Olympic gold-medal games, and to Germany in the 2007 World Cup final.

The U.S. has now eliminated Brazil at five of the last seven major tournaments. The lone consolation was that Marta’s goals, the 13th and 14th of her career, tied her with Birgit Prinz atop the all-time World Cup scoring list. The Americans also have won their last five meetings against Brazil.

None, however, was more memorable than this.