I decided to wait a day before reacting to yesterday’s USA vs. Japan match in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final, because that’s how amazing a match it was. There are many adjectives to describe what happened in Frankfurt yesterday, but here a few examples: unbelievable, incredible, unthinkable. The U.S. were such favorites, and dominated the match so badly, that if you looked at the final stats, you would’ve thought they had won 5-0. USA had 27 shots in the game to Japan’s 14, and had so many great chances in the first half, but simply couldn’t convert on any of them. Once Alex Morgan scored on a beautiful long pass from Megan Rapinoe in the 69th minute, it seemed as if the U.S. would finally win a World Cup title for the first time since 1999.
But, as they had all tournament, Japan showed their resiliency. Aya Miyama scored on a broken play in the 80th minute to force extra time, which only seemed fitting; both of these teams had done their best work with their backs against the wall in the extra session. In the 104th minute, Abby Wambach scored another huge goal, and it looked again like the U.S. women had the World Cup in their grasp. But once again, Japan came through, as Homare Sawa scored in the 117th minute, and it was on to penalty kicks. The U.S. simply fell apart in penalties, as Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, and Tobin Heath all missed consecutively, and Japan won the penalty shootout 3-1. A country that had never appeared in the final of a major tournament and never beaten the U.S. in 25 previous matches had done the unimaginable.
Though this was clearly a frustrating loss for the U.S., it was a needed victory in Japan. Still reeling from the March 11th tsunami that ravaged the country and left nearly 23,000 people dead or missing, Japan was looking for something to cheer for, and they found it in Germany over the last few weeks. Japan managed to defeat the two-time defending World Cup champs on their home soil in the quarterfinals, took care of Sweden in the semifinals 3-1, and then managed another remarkable upset over the Americans. It was a moment that the Japanese nation won’t soon forget, and the entire team are now heroes in their home country. As for the American women, this 2011 World Cup was a victory despite an agonizing defeat in the final. Similar to 1999, this team captured the attention of the country, and their thrilling win over Brazil in the quarterfinals was one of the most mesmerizing sporting events in recent memory. Players like Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, and Alex Morgan all became part of the national conscious, and the USA-Japan game set records on Twitter for tweets per second.
Now there are many who believe that soccer will never be more than a niche sport in this country, that other than the World Cup every four years the sport will never hold any amount of importance in the America. Though I do agree it would take a lot for soccer to vault itself into the top-four sports conversation in the U.S., moments like the 2011 Women’s World Cup and the 2010 World Cup are making a difference. More money is being spent on soccer in this country than ever before, and the MLS is growing in popularity. I am not naive enough to think that soccer can challenge the big-money professional sports in the U.S., but I do think more and more Americans really appreciate and enjoy the sport. It’s called “the beautiful game” around the world for a reason, and it’s finally beginning to make a real impact here in the United States. So even though the U.S. women fell short in Frankfurt, soccer will continue its rise here on U.S. soil.