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USWNT downs France 3-1; headed to the World Cup Final

Hopefully we see a goal celebration like this (or two) Sunday.
Hopefully we see a goal celebration like this (or two) Sunday.

The USWNT weathered quite the storm but ended up prevailing in the end to punch their ticket into the FIFA World Cup Final.  It is magnificent to hear the words US and World Cup Final in the same sentence.  The Americans were set to play the winner of Japan/Sweden and Japan won 3-1.  No matter who the US would have faced, there would have been intrigue.  Sweden had taken down the US twice this year, including in group play of this very World Cup.  The US has beaten Japan 2-0 in two friendlies before the World Cup.  Follow me after the break for a recap and analysis.

USA vs. France 3-1 All goals & Highlights Women World Cup 2011 (via Servuce3)

The US will play for the World Cup trophy for the 1st time since it's memorable 1999 triumph in PK's.  The Americans will look to become the team with the most Women's World Cup victories by capturing a 3rd trophy (they also won in 1991).  Germany has two, but fell to a surprising Japan team earlier in the tournament.  I think it's safe to say that the US clearly has the better team than Japan.  What remains to be seen is whether they can put together one more solid, skillful performance to hoist the Cup.

This France match was a bit weird because for large parts of it, the Americans looked vulnerable and out of sync.  Other than later on in the game after Megan Rapinoe entered as a sub, the US was attacked relentlessly by an aggressive French side.  Although the US struck first in the 9th minute, it felt a bit odd because it was against the run of play.  It was a nice surprise for US fans when Heather O'Reilly's cross found Lauren Cheney in the box, who deftly re-directed the ball under the French keeper for a beautiful goal and early lead.  Many, including myself, were scared for a hangover after the drama and long game vs. Brazil.  The US men seemed to suffer from this after the Algeria match in their loss to Ghana in the 2010 World Cup.  The early goal was a sign that the US didn't suffer that same letdown.  However, this did not deter the French, as they controlled the midfield and prevented the US for doing much of anything for the entire first half after that goal.

Luckily, the US defense would stand tall and proud, turning away opportunity after opportunity.  Rachel Buehler was forced to miss the match due to her red card vs. Brazil.  Many were nervous to see how Becky Sauerbrunn would do in Buehler's place.  Other than a bad pass or two, she did extremely well.  I would expect to see Rachel in the final, but it's always nice to get a boost off the bench like Sauerbrunn provided.  The US turned away opportunity after opportunity to maintain a 1-0 lead at the half but they knew they couldn't keep living like that if they wanted to emerge victorious.

France would come out to more of the same in the second half of play.  They controlled possession and continued to put constant stress on the American defense.  With pressure like that, almost every viewer had to feel like an equalizer was just a matter of time unless the Americans could get in gear.  And that's just what France did in the 55th minute.  France's Sonia Bombpastor sent in a cross to the middle of the box, hoping to hit the head of a streaking Gaetane Thiney.  The cross just missed Thiney's head, but bounced off the wet pitch and past a diving Hope Solo just inside the right post to tie the match at 1 all.  It was a tough play for any goalkeeper, even Hope Solo.  She had to choose whether to stay on her line as the ball seemed like it was going to be headed on frame or leave her line and leave the goal wide open for a potential Thiney header.  Hope held her ground, but when the cross sailed over the intended target, Hope was a bit out of position and nothing could be done.  I don't put that goal on Hope at all.  It was simply a great cross that may not have been a goal had the pitch been dry.

At this point I, along with many US fans, were getting very worried.  France clearly had the momentum, and I wasn't sure the US could get to extra time with the pressure France was applying.  A winner also didn't seem possible because the US couldn't even possess the ball in France's half, let alone create good opportunities.  Fortunately, US coach Pia Sundhage had some brilliant substitution choices.  Alex Morgan would be brought on just after France's goal to try to create some attack up top.  While this helped a bit, France was still pushing the issue.  The fateful choice came in the 65th minute, as Megan Rapinoe came on for Carli Lloyd.  This completely changed the dynamic of the game.  Rapinoe seems to have found a niche as a super-sub type that can come on and wreak havoc.

The US began to control the ball in midfield, and then began attacking France after what seemed like an eternity.  Rapinoe's insertion into the game spurred the American possession and attack.  Apart from the US's early goal, it was really the first time the Americans controlled play and looked dangerous for an entire game.  The US would once again dig deep and produce a big moment at the right time.  Lauren Cheney took a corner kick from the right in the 79th minute.  She hit it true and placed it on the back posted perfectly for Abby Wambach.  Wambach just completely dominated on this play, towering over everyone and dropping her mark like a bad habit for a powerful header into the back of the net.  Abby once again provided a vital goal when the US needed it the most, especially after being quiet for the most part since the US could not get her the ball previously.

After this goal, the feeling changed dramatically for me.  The US was up 2-1, they had France on their heels and were attacking, and the match only had another 10 minutes left plus stoppage.  Fortunately, young Alex Morgan would provide the proverbial dagger (or surrender flag if you will since they were playing France).  Alex did great to control a ball and advance it into the left side of the box.  She took a couple of small touches, and then expertly waited until the goalkeeper began to slide for the ball before chipping in over the keeper into the back of the net.  It was a splendid bit of skill and iced the game.  At this point, it was the 82nd minute, and the US had an insurmountable 3-1 lead. 

The US would have one more great chance, as Abby Wambach headed a ball into the box in the path of a sprinting Alex Morgan.  She fired a shot at the left corner of the net, but the France keeper did just enough to deflect it for a corner kick.  And that would be that as the final whistle was blown for a US 3-1 victory.  Despite looking shaky in a loss to Sweden and looking done for against Brazil, the US continued to fight and come out on top, even on weary legs against a dangerous French side that controlled possession for large amounts of the match.  They will now play for the chance to be crowned the best soccer team in the world.

Japan has never beaten the US in 24 tries, courtesy of Grant Wahl's Twitter feed.  Obviously, the US can't go into this game thinking they have already won or they will be in for a rude awakening.  Fortunately, I can't see this team or Pia allowing that to happen.  While Japan is dangerous and quick, I see a 2-0 US win.  Abby is big and physical and I think she will tally a goal.  I will say that Lauren Cheney nets the other US goal.  One thing to keep in mind when looking at the Japan/Sweden match is goalkeeping.  We have the best keeper in the world and I think, with Solo in net, she would have prevented 2, if not all 3 Japan goals vs. Sweden.  Again, this is not something we can take for granted, we will still need to bring our A game no matter what.  But, if the Americans play like they know how, and Solo is in her normal form, that cuts down A LOT of opportunities for Japan that they would have versus other teams and goalkeepers.  The US need to treat this game seriously and play harder than they have ever played until the final whistle sounds.  And I know that's exactly what they will do.  Japan must be given credit for all they have overcome and played through, especially with all of the disasters they have faced, but I don't think they can beat the US.

I remember the 1999 World Cup and the famous PK/Brandi Chastain sequence.  It was an awesome match and moment to watch.  If you didn't see it or didn't care, you missed out.  Here is your chance to redeem that.  It doesn't matter where or how you watch, whether it is alone, with friends, or at a bar/watch party.  Just find a way to experience this game live.  As a soccer fan, we should all be supporting the USWNT Sunday, even if you don't follow the USMNT/USWNT regularly.   Think of it as your civic duty as an American.  It's USA.  In the World Cup Final.  With a chance to make history.  Yeah, it's must see tv.  Matches like this are what will help soccer continue to grow and become main stream in America.  A US victory Sunday will make it all the better.  Catch the match at 1PM CST Sunday on ESPN, ESPN2, and Galavision.