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