The last time the United States women’s national team reached the final of the Women’s World Cup, in 1999, they faced an Asian powerhouse and won in penalties.
This time, it was not to be.
Despite dominating the match and taking the lead twice, the USA could not put the Japanese away. The match finished 2-2, and the Japanese won the trophy after three Americans missed their penalty kicks.
Alex Morgan scored in the 69th minute to give the US their first lead, before Aya Miyama equalized in the 81st minute.
In added time, Abby Wambach headed in a cross from Morgan in the 104th minute to give the US the second lead of the night. But with just three minutes to play, Japan captain Homare Sawa flicked a corner kick in to tie the game again and force penalties.
In the shootout, the first three American shooters, Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, and Tobin Heath failed to convert from the spot. Boxx’s and Heath’s shots were saved by Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori. Wambach, the 4th US shooter, put hers away, but it was not enough.
The Japanese finished three of their four penalties – US keeper Hope Solo saved the second Japanese penalty by Yuki Nagasato – to seal the victory and become the first Asian team to win either the women's or men's World Cup.
Sawa, who played in her 5th World Cup, won the Golden Boot as the tournament’s leading scorer and was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s outstanding player.
Solo was named top keeper at the tournament.
For the most part, the USA outplayed their opponents on the day, particularly during the first 45 minutes, when Lauren Cheney, the regular left midfielder who started at forward in place of Amy Rodriguez, marauded in the attack.
In the first minute, Cheney announced her intentions when she snuck around the left side and forced Kaihori into a save at the near post. In the 12th minute, Cheney cut in on the right side and angled a cross back to Megan Rapinoe, who chopped her one-timer just outside the post.
Rapinoe again got into a good position in the 18th minute. Cheney played her into the box on the left side, but her shot ricocheted off the outside of the post.
The woodwork saved Japan again in the 29th minute, when Abby Wambach’s left-footed shot banged off the crossbar.
Morgan came on for Cheney at halftime when the latter was unable to continue due to an injury to her foot. Within minutes, Morgan showed her threat, redirecting a cross from Heather O’Reilly off the post.
In the 62nd minute, Japan finally made their first dangerous incursion into the US area. Sawa lifted a ball over the top to overlapping right back Yuraki Kinga, but her running volley flew high.
Wambach came close again on a header two minutes later, forcing Kaihori to tip the ball up and over.
All the close calls finally led to Morgan's 69th-minute opener. The 22-year-old drilled a left-footed shot into the lower right corner after collecting a long ball over the top from Megan Rapinoe.
But just when it seemed like the Americans would see out the game for a 1-0 triumph, Miyama capitalized on a defensive error. A cross from the right side bounced dangerously in the US area. Rachel Buehler, sprawling on the ground, made a first attempt to clear, but the ball came to her teammate Kreiger, who mis-hit her own clearance straight to Miyama. The midfielder took one touch and flicked a shot past a helpless Solo.
The USA dominated the extratime, seeing good chances in the 92nd minute from Wambach and in the 95th from Morgan. But it wasn't until the 104th that they retook the lead. Morgan powered her way past a defender and drove into the Japanese area on the left side. With half a step of space, she drove a cross into the middle, where Wambach was waiting to head it home.
Again, the game seemed to be won. But the Japanese continued their patient movements, and after winning a corner kick, Sawa made the USA pay for some slack marking. Again, it was Buehler at the center of the action, beaten to the near post by the Japanese playmaker, and swept the ball into the goal with the outside of her foot.
Wambach should've put an exclamation point on the game in the 120th minute when she got on the end of an O’Reilly cross, but the veteran striker skyed her onetime shot, dooming both sides to the dreaded shootout.