The U.S. was a minute away from getting involved in the first penalty kick shootout in Olympic women’s soccer history. At which point, point-blank shots from 12 yards away would decide one of the most memorable games in the sport’s history.
Luckily for competition’s sake, a memorable match like that wasn’t decided by the equivalent of a coin flip.
While the shootout can be fun to watch at times, soccer’s ultimate decider of meaningful matches reduces the world’s most team-oriented sport into a one-on-one game of which goalie can guess right first. Abby Wambach seemingly gave a taste of that impending drama when she calmly converted a penalty kick in the second half.
Given the circumstances, Wambach’s goal — her fifth goal in as many games — was as meaningful as they come. It was in the 80th minute. It was to tie the game for a third time against rival Canada, which hadn’t beaten the U.S. in 26 straight matches. It was to prevent the U.S. from being left out of the gold medal match for the first time in history.
But for a goal that had every reason to put every fan on the edge of his/her seat, it had many reclined wondering what would happen once the score inevitably became 3-3.
That in itself makes forward Alex Morgan’s miraculous header in the 123rd minute that much more gratifying, especially when you hear the reaction of this fan. I think it’s safe to say he didn’t react quite the same way when Wambach scored her goal. I also assume a game-winner in a shootout wouldn’t be replayed a million times over like Morgan’s goal already has been.
Prior to that goal and before the start of the second half of extra time, Wambach encouraged her exhausted team by saying, “I know I’ve said this before. But it really does just take one moment and one chance, one moment of brilliance for somebody to do something individually spectacular.”
However, Morgan’s classic game-winner was more than just an individual flash of excellence. It was a product of a pass from Wambach that dribbled to the touchline for Heather O’Reilly, who booted a magnificent cross that descended right in front of the goal and at the edge of the goal box for Morgan.
When determining which team is better, that type of execution delivers a verdict that is harder to dispute than the closing statement that is made by goals off of penalty kicks. Even if the controversial sequence of events that led to Wambach’s try wasn’t shrouded with controversy, a U.S. victory in a shootout wouldn’t have been nearly as respected.
Now, the U.S. will play in an even bigger match with even more reason to keep your blood pumping.
In Thursday’s gold medal match, the world will watch two different motivations go head to head: Revenge vs. History. The U.S. is starving to get payback for its loss to the Japanese in last year’s World Cup. Meanwhile, Japan is aiming to build on that World Cup by being the first to follow it up with Olympic gold.
Gator alum Heather Mitts wrote on Twitter: “We never take the easy road but we always make it exciting! Win from within. Rematch!!!! Gold or bust. Can finally say it.”
There’s no doubt the U.S. always makes it exciting, and a gold medal match decided by penalty kicks would be thrilling. But if the goal is to decide who the better team is, give me a goal in extra time. Every time.
Abby Wambach and Canada’s Christine Sinclair are tied at No. 2 with 143 international goals apiece, both chasing Mia Hamm’s world record of 158.
Interesting facts about the two controversial calls that led to Wambach’s penalty kick goal. The first one was whistled on Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod, who was charged with holding the ball more than six seconds. That’s a violation that’s only been whistled for once in the history of women’s soccer. The call awarded the U.S. an indirect free kick inside the penalty box. McLeod admitted after the game that the linesman had warned her at the start of the second half not to slow down play. Nonetheless, it was a rule that only surfaced one other time in an English Premier League game in 2002.
The second call came as a result of the previous one. When American Megan Rapinoe took the set kick, it struck the hand of Eve-Marie Nault, a Tennessee alum. The referee awarded the U.S. a penalty kick, which Florida alum Abby Wambach put in the back of the net to tie the game 3-3 in the 80th minute.