MANCHESTER, England -- She was still shaking in the chilly night outside one of the most famous stadiums in world soccer. Maybe it was due to the cold, or maybe it was just the emotional overload, "wanting to laugh and cry at the same time," as she put it. Alex Morgan had just scored one of the most famous goals in U.S. soccer history -- a 123rd-minute game-winning header to beat Canada 4-3 and send the U.S. to the Olympic final -- and if she was having a hard time coming to grips with the enormity of the occasion, well, there haven't been many like it.
"I can't remember ever feeling this way after scoring a goal," Morgan said. "It's just so exhilarating."
At the age of 23, Morgan has scored 20 goals in 2012, becoming only the sixth U.S. player to do so in a single year. But for all her talents -- including blazing speed and a ruthless left foot -- Morgan has been a project for coach Pia Sundhage when it comes to heading the ball. "Heading is something that Pia has always said is one of my weakest points," says Morgan, "which is probably a true statement."
In the final minute of a game filled with a bit of everything -- goals galore, unexpected comebacks and never-before-seen officiating calls -- it seemed like the U.S. and Canada were on the way toward a penalty-kick shootout. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo stood in her penalty box and got ready mentally for spot kicks. "In my head I had decided on a plan of attack," she said. On the sideline, Sundhage met with her assistants and started putting together a list of penalty-takers.
During the break before extra-time, U.S. forward Abby Wambach had brought her teammates together and delivered a familiar speech: "It really does just take one moment, one chance, one moment of brilliance," she told them.
There had been so many moments like that already on this remarkable night -- and now there would be one more. With the seconds ticking, Wambach pushed the ball out to Heather O'Reilly on the right flank. "It was a little bit heavy of a pass, so I had to get there in a hurry," said O'Reilly. "Abby's one of the most prolific goal-scorers with her head in the world, so usually when you put things in the mixer good things happen. And this time there was Alex Morgan to get her head on it."
Morgan had been a frustrated striker, going four games without scoring, but she put just enough on her header to direct it over Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod into the net. Bedlam. In the U.S. dogpile afterward, Wambach located Morgan and screamed into her ear: "I love you! You just sent us to the gold-medal match!"
The U.S. women's soccer team has a way of doing this to you: Making you think it's over, that there's no way these women could possibly find a way to rescue victory from defeat. It happened last year in the World Cup against Brazil, when they galvanized a nation by somehow scoring with a man down on a Hail Mary in extra time. And it happened again here at Old Trafford on Monday. All the U.S. did was come from behind three times in the second half, erasing an epic hat-trick performance by Canada's Christine Sinclair.
One moment, one chance, one piece of brilliance. All of Sinclair's goals qualified: her first-half stunner, in which she knifed through the center of the U.S. defense, and her second-half headers, perfect examples of power and placement. The U.S. isn't used to giving up three goals, and the Americans had gone 26 games and 11 years since their last defeat to Canada. Sinclair put the Canadians ahead three separate times.
But the U.S. had its own remarkable moments, none more so than the two goals of Megan Rapinoe. The U.S.'s sparkplug during the Olympics, Rapinoe tied the game at 1-1 on one of the rarest goals in soccer: An *Olímpico*, in which a player scores directly from a corner kick.
When was the last time she had done that? "Probably when I was 12 and the corner kicks were like five yards from the goal," Rapinoe said. "I wish I could say I meant to do that. Bit of a mistake on my part." But Canada's defenders on the near post weren't ready, and Rapinoe's mistake curled straight into the goal. Can you imagine: an *Olímpico* during the Olympics?
But Rapinoe wasn't done. After Sinclair had put Canada up 2-1, Rapinoe fired a right-footed missile from the edge of the box off the left post and in for 2-2. It was a masterly example of the technique, creativity and raw chutzpah that makes Rapinoe the most inventive player on the U.S. team.
"Probably the goal of my life," she said.
Sinclair's third goal, in the 73rd minute, gave Canada a 3-2 lead and set the stage for the most controversial moment U.S. Soccer has seen in a long time. Seven minutes later, Canadian goalkeeper McLeod leaped to make a save and came to the ground with the ball. She carried the ball around her box, waved her teammates downfield and ... waited. The whistle blew. Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen ruled that McLeod had violated Law 12, which awards an indirect free kick if the goalkeeper "takes more than six seconds while controlling the ball with her hands before releasing it from her possession."
It's exceedingly rare for the violation to be called at the elite level. The only previous incident I could track down took place in the Premier League in 2002, when referee David Elleray blew his whistle on Bolton's Jussi Jaaskelainen against Newcastle United. (Alan Shearer tied the game on the ensuing free kick sequence.)
Indirect free kicks in the box aren't something you see every day. They require that the kicking team touch the ball to a teammate, who then is free to shoot. But there are so many players in such a tight area that it's tough to score. Sometimes the best thing to hope for is a penalty, and that's exactly what happened, with Rapinoe's shot striking the arm of Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault. That's what Pedersen ruled, anyway. The Canadians didn't agree on the penalty call or the free-kick ruling in the first place.
"The ref said I had the ball for 10 seconds," said McLeod, who disagreed with that assessment, though the replay showed 10 seconds did pass from the time she gained possession until the time of the whistle. The other question was whether McLeod was warned about it beforehand. She said an assistant referee had said, "Make sure you don't slow the play too much" heading into the second half. "But it wasn't a real warning," added McLeod, who presumably thought a "real" one would be coming from the head referee.
"We feel like we didn't lose, we feel like it was taken from us," said Sinclair afterward in a particularly bitter moment. "It's a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started."
Sinclair had a terrific game. It was unfortunate that she decided to lash out afterward.
The penalty call set up another moment: Abby Wambach's penalty kick. Earlier in the day, France's Elise Bussaglia had faced a similar situation, a late penalty that would have tied the other Olympic semifinal against Japan. But Bussaglia missed the frame entirely, shooting wide right. Given her own chance, Wambach fired the spot kick home with confidence, tying the game at 3-3.
All that was left was for Morgan to win the game in the 123rd minute.
One moment, one chance, one piece of brilliance. On a night to remember in Manchester, we saw a half-dozen of them.