But there was even more to the gloom than this one particular game. American women’s soccer was struggling in general. The U.S. pro league, WPS, was about to become the second top-flight women’s league to go belly-up in less than a decade. Attendance at U.S. women’s games had dropped steadily since the heyday of Mia Hamm and the 1999 World Cup, with an average of just 5,654 fans showing up for games in the two-and-a-half years before World Cup ’11. The final U.S. send-off match before Germany 2011—just outside New York City—drew a paltry crowd of 5,852 to a stadium that seated nearly five times that many. Media coverage had declined, too: The only U.S. print outlets covering the team on-site for the entire World Cup were the Associated Press and USA Today.
Now the U.S. was staring into the abyss against Brazil again. Four years earlier, in China, Brazil had humiliated the U.S. 4-0 in the World Cup semifinals. The two teams shared the same hotel, and that night the Brazilians had rubbed it in, dancing and singing in front of the inconsolable U.S. players in the lobby as they celebrated their victory. “They were gloating in front of us,” says U.S. forward Abby Wambach, who seethed quietly and vowed never to treat another team the same way. “We remembered that, and we told the younger players that story just so they understood the meaning of it.”
Yet the prospect was now very real that the scene would repeat itself. Brazil and the U.S. were sharing the same hotel again in Dresden. And the Brazilians had taken control of a game that featured a little bit of everything. “It was such a circus in a way, this hilarious game where all these weird things happened,” recalls U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe. A second-minute own-goal by Daiane gave the U.S. an early lead, but the game changed in the 65th minute when U.S. defender Rachel Van Hollebeke was dubiously sent off for a foul in the box. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo saved the penalty, but—what was this?—Australian referee Jacqui Melksham whistled for it to be retaken. Had Solo left her line too early? Or had defender Christie Rampone encroached into the box too soon? Nobody knew for sure. Solo was livid, stomping around the penalty box, but she couldn’t stop Marta’s penalty, and the game headed into extra time tied at 1-1.
When Marta scored again in the 92nd minute for Brazil (after an unwhistled offside), Wambach had a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach. “I’m thinking, ‘Well, that’s going to be that,’” she says. “In the back of my mind, I know that’s how soccer goes. If you score in overtime, that’s usually the game. They’re just going to sit back, and we’re down a man. It felt like everything in the world was against us.”
But if the U.S. needed a Hail Mary, it didn’t hurt to have Mary Abigail Wambach up top.
U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd is on the line, reminiscing about the play that’s frozen in time for her, its component parts as familiar as if they’d happened yesterday. It took 15 seconds, to be exact, beginning with the moment Rampone won the ball deep in the U.S. end. This was in the 122nd minute, at a time when Melksham could have blown the final whistle at any moment. But there was some serious karma going on. In a classic time-wasting effort, Brazil’s Erika had gone down writhing in pain, only to pop up and run back into position, drawing whistles and boos from the mostly-German crowd. Yet Erika’s theatrics only earned the U.S. the time it needed to move the ball forward.
Wambach may have been pessimistic inside, but outwardly she kept yelling to her teammates the same thing, over and over: If we just get one chance I know we’ll score! She thought that chance had come and gone when Lloyd sailed a shot over the crossbar in extra-time. Now Wambach was desperate. Rampone passed the ball to right back Ali Krieger, who fed Lloyd in the central midfield, and Wambach yelled in agony: “Carli, kick it to me! Don’t kick it out wide!” She thought the whistle was going to blow before the U.S. could get off a shot. But there was time. Lloyd sprayed the ball out to Rapinoe on the left.
At this point, it’s worth noting that Rapinoe is a right-footed player who, when forced to take crosses with her left, almost always puts them on the near post. To send a cross from distance with her left foot to the far post would require an adrenaline-fueled wallop that Rapinoe was not sure she possessed. “I wish I could say I picked Abby out from 45 yards on my non-dominant foot,” Rapinoe says, laughing, “but I didn’t. I didn’t see her, but I knew she was going to be in there. She’s always in there.”
From the moment Rapinoe’s left foot hit the ball, Wambach read its flight with the skill of a baseball outfielder breaking in the right direction at the crack of bat on ball. She knew the Brazilian goalkeeper, Andreia, and center back Daiane were reading it wrong, moving too far in Rapinoe’s direction. “I was like, ‘No, she’s crushed it, just killed it,’” says Wambach. “I’m just standing there thinking, ‘Get over her hands, over her head, and I’ve got a bead on the ball.’ It comes over her hand, and I’m just thinking, ‘Please, don’t miss. This would be the most epic failure to have a wide-open goal and miss.’ So I jump and connect with it and hit it, rather than letting the ball hit me.”
In the 122nd minute of the World Cup quarterfinals—the latest goal in the history of the World Cup, men’s or women’s—Wambach’s header sailed just inside the post. Nothing but net. There’s a moment in the YouTube clip when you can hear the sound, ball and net, true and pure, just before bedlam took over. “OH CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS?” screamed ESPN broadcaster Ian Darke. “ABBY WAMBACH HAS SAVED THE USA’S LIFE IN THIS WORLD CUP!” Wambach ran crazily to the corner flag, awaiting a dog pile of teammates. Rapinoe began the long triumphant run to join them. “I wish I would have blacked out, because I did some embarrassing things,” she jokes. “I was just freaking out.”
The final whistle blew. A penalty-kick shootout awaited. Was there any doubt the U.S. would prevail?
“No doubt whatsoever,” says Rapinoe.
“When we scored that goal,” says Wambach, “it was like, ‘O.K., we’ve got this.’”
The U.S. converted all five penalties. Solo saved one, and the miracle comeback was complete.
“You kind of wonder how these things are possible,” says Lloyd. “But with this team anything is possible.”
The U.S. players started hearing from friends back home about the mainstream excitement, the kind that brought back memories of the 1999 World Cup triumph. Now a new generation had its own breakthrough moment. On the day after the game, U.S. coach Pia Sundhage met with the players and simply asked them to share all their stories. “Tell me everything that’s happened from the moment that whistle blew until now,” she told them. It was the perfect way to commemorate the moment, Wambach says, and then they started preparing for the semifinals against France.
But something more happened that day than coming from behind to win a game. Wambach’s goal helped reignite the sport of women’s soccer in the United States. In the days after the goal, dozens of U.S. media flew over to Germany ahead of the final. “Winning always is a recipe for getting people to pay attention,” says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. “Winning in a game like that when you’re down a goal against Brazil, down a player, that late in the game and have a one of the best players in the world score on a dramatic goal? It was water-cooler talk, is the best way to put it, for the next day and for a few days afterward. So many people talked about the resiliency of the American players and all of those things, but in addition to all that it was a fantastic soccer play.”
The U.S. did not end up winning the 2011 Women’s World Cup, of course. Japan came from behind twice in a memorable final and won on penalties in the same way the U.S. had used its momentum to dispatch Brazil in their shootout a week earlier. For Wambach, nothing could replace the missed opportunity, the chance to win her first World Cup. But she knows her goal against Brazil vaulted her team back into the public eye in a way it hadn’t been for years. Since that 2011 World Cup, the U.S. women have averaged 16,214 fans at home games. Wambach, Solo and Alex Morgan have become bonafide breakout stars.
“The power of that goal is amazing,” Wambach says. “People tell me all the time how they remember where they were when that happened. It’s cool that I was a part of it, but I think it’s more cool to kind of look at it from an evolutionary aspect, to see where the game was and where the game has gone. That’s kind of the pivotal turning point. Not to take anything away from our Olympic gold medal in 2012, but we really felt there was a huge shift in the popularity of women’s soccer in 2011.”
Let’s be honest: After Wambach’s goal, women’s soccer is in a better place these days. A new pro league has started with a realistic business plan. Wambach has surpassed Hamm as the greatest international goal-scorer of all time. And, not least, the Americans are among the favorites to win next year’s World Cup in Canada. Unlike at the start of the 2011 tournament, they won’t have to worry about drawing an audience this time.