FRANKFURT, Germany – The bumpy, windy road got the Americans right where they wanted to go all along.
Eight months after having to win a playoff just to get to Germany, the Americans face Japan in the Women’s World Cup final today. A win would be the ultimate finish to their improbable journey, making the United States the first three-time champions and delighting a country of newfound fans.
“I believe all the way we’ll find a way,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said Saturday after the team’s last training session. “It’s going to be a tough match like every other match has been, but I believe that we will find a way and it’s our destiny to get it done.”
For a long time, the Americans were about the only ones who believed that.
The U.S. is the No. 1-ranked team in the world and defending Olympic champion, and the Americans have dominated the women’s game for the better part of two decades. But they arrived at the World Cup looking kind of average. They were stunned in regional qualifying in November in Mexico, a team that hadn’t managed a win in its first 25 tries against its neighbor to the north, and had to beat Italy in a two-game playoff for the last spot in the World Cup.
They opened the year with a loss to Sweden, then fell to England for the first time in 22 years – so long ago Alex Morgan hadn’t even been born yet. Then, after easy wins in their first two games in Germany, the Americans lost to Sweden again, their first loss in World Cup group play.
“In the past, we’d always won everything,” captain Christie Rampone said. “Those losses made our team what it is today. We need each other and you feel that, from the locker room to the time we step on the field.”
Never was that faith in each other more evident than in their quarterfinal against Brazil. Down a player for almost an hour and on the verge of making their earliest exit from a major tournament, Abby Wambach’s magnificent, leaping header in the 122nd minute tied the game and sparked one of the most riveting finishes in a World Cup game – men’s or women’s.
The Americans beat Brazil in a penalty shootout and, just like that, the folks back home were hooked.
Hollywood celebrities, fellow pro athletes and people who don’t care about any sport, let alone soccer, have adopted the players. The Brazil match drew the third-highest ratings for a Women’s World Cup game, and Wednesday’s semifinal victory over France did almost as well – despite being played in the middle of the workday.
The Empire State Building is lit with the red, white and blue this weekend, along with Japan’s colors. The White House is sending an official delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, and Chelsea Clinton, who just happened to be part of the Rose Bowl crowd 12 years ago, the last time the Americans won the title.
“We’ve proved everyone wrong,” Lloyd said. “Now I think everyone is starting to believe in us. We’ve won everybody over, which is tremendous because the support back home has been unbelievable.”
While part of the U.S. appeal is its success here, it’s the team’s spunk that has really charmed fans, a can-do attitude uniquely – proudly – American.
Japan has never beaten the Americans – draws in 2000, 2003 and 2004 are the best it has managed in 25 games – and has been outscored 77-13.