Since the day Brandi Chastain took off her shirt 16 years ago, America has clothed its women's national soccer team with the sort of crazy unconditional love that somehow survived bad losses, lineup controversy, and the legal dossier of Hope Solo.
On Tuesday night, America was reminded why.
Megan Rapinoe flying, Alex Morgan dancing, Ali Krieger battering, Morgan Brian head-banging, Carli Lloyd creating, everyone screaming and flexing and surprising.
For all their flaws, this legacy-rich group of athletes still knows how to soar when the lights are brightest, dig deep when the stakes are highest, and sweatily survive when its demise appears imminent.
This time it was the 2015 Women's World Cup semifinal in Montreal against No. 1-ranked Germany, a game where the U.S. team, those nutty kids, followed five yawning games with one absolutely brilliant one.
None of the remaining four World Cup teams had scored fewer goals, yet the Americans scored twice. Nobody in the World Cup had scored more goals than Germany, yet the American shut the Germans out.
It was a bloody, battering, lucky, loony, distinctly American 2-0 victory.
"It was guts," said Coach Jill Ellis into televisions watched by millions.
"This is blood, sweat and tears," said hero Lloyd a few minutes later.
Those are cliché quotes from most athletes, but on Tuesday they made sense from a team that, once again, in a big moment, gave America the shirts off their backs. And now they're back where they should be, in the finals of a World Cup that they amazingly have not won since Chastain's penalty kick against China in a sold-out Rose Bowl in 1999.
This, of course, is where it gets tricky. This is where they coughed it up four years ago, blowing two leads to Japan to lose on penalty kicks in the finals. Much like this World Cup, the Americans advanced to the 2011 finals after a dramatic elimination game, a penalty-kick victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals after Abby Wambach's header tied the score in the final seconds of overtime.
America went nuts over Wambach's goal, and later properly both mourned and ripped the meltdown against Japan. Now that the first part of that equation has been repeated — and with Japan favored to beat England in Wednesday's other semifinal — the Americans understand how the ending has to be different.
"A lot of people are saying this is the final," Wambach told reporters, speaking of Tuesday's victory, frowning in protest. "We still have one game left. We're pretty aware of that, especially the way things went down last time around."
Tuesday wasn't the final, but this great American team sort of appeared out of nowhere to play like it. Against the bigger, strong Germans, Ellis devised a new attacking formation that swarmed, stifled and eventually stunned. They had five times as many shots on goal, which wasn't difficult considering the Germans had just one. They had a dozen more tackles. They seemingly won every big encounter.
Rapinoe was everywhere. Julie Johnston led a back line that allowed Germany to go nowhere, with the Americans now having pitched a shutout for 513 consecutive minutes, or nearly six full games. Lloyd was the scoring star with a penalty-kick goal and a perfect assist, while sub Kelley O'Hara finished it off with an unlikely goal from a player who had just one start all season before the World Cup.
Yes, the Americans got lucky, very lucky, three times to be exact. The Germans should have taken the lead in the 59th minute, but Celia Sasic botched the first missed penalty kick in the German women's World Cup history. Johnston should have been thrown out of the game when she caused that penalty by tackling Alexandra Popp in the box. And, later, the penalty kick from Lloyd that gave them the lead in the 67th minute never should have been a penalty kick because the foul occurred outside the box.
But afterward, nobody could reasonably complain that the Germans were jobbed, because the Americans dominated far beyond the luck, out of reach of any doubt, the clear winners in the one game few thought they could win. Even on the missed penalty kick, the Americans did everything right, as Solo walked away just before Sasic approached the ball, effectively icing her.
Now, what do you know, they are again blaring on their nation's radar, important not only for their achievement but for their empowerment, a living reminder of how 43-year-old Title IX created the most powerful women's sports machine in the world. Nowhere was the symbolism of what these women have done for athletics in America more obvious Tuesday than with Alex Morgan.
Before the game, in a story about her that appears on the FIFA website, Morgan was insulted by a soccer governing body that has continually proven it is as blatantly sexist as it is allegedly crooked. In the second sentence of the article, the author wrote of Morgan, "A talented goal scorer with a style that is very easy on the eye and good looks to match."
Good looks to match? Anyone think they would write that about a man? This was almost as bad as the time FIFA boss Sepp Blatter said, "Let the women play in more feminine clothes — tighter shorts."
So what does Morgan do? She comes out as if she's lost, blowing a one-on-one chance with a poorly placed kick and twice kicking it wide of the goal when a pass could have resulted in a goal. Yet instead of retreating, she continued to attack, and guess who earned the American's penalty kick, however undeserved, when her charge was stopped by Annike Krahn just outside the penalty box?
"I feel like I was creating a lot of chances, and once they missed the penalty ... I felt ... the wind shift," said Morgan to reporters afterward.
That wind now shifts to the finals, and with it, the attention of a nation that once again can't take its eyes off this stuff. July Fourth weekend awaits. America's team is back.
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