The United States is in the Women's World Cup final for the first time since it last won the title in 1999, and once again, it was Abby Wambach coming up big in a 3-1 victory over France on Wednesday in Germany.
Wambach broke a 1-1 deadlock with a strong header from Lauren Cheney's corner kick in the 79th minute. Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post, and Wambach jumped over the scrum and pushed the ball past French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz. She let out a scream and did a sliding sprint into the corner, where she was mobbed by her teammates.
"We've achieved part of our goal. We're in the final," Wambach said. "We want to complete it. We want to be world champs."
It was Wambach's third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, tying her with fellow American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.
Alex Morgan added an insurance goal in the 82nd, the first for the World Cup rookie. When the final whistle sounded, the Americans rushed onto the field. Wambach found U.S. coach Pia Sundhage and gave her a bearhug as the pro-American crowd of 25,676 in Moenchengladbach serenaded the team with chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A."
"Abby, she's just the best," Sundhage said. "I'm very happy to have her in our team. Great."
Despite the loss, the World Cup was a resounding success for the French, who made their first appearance in the semifinals and qualified for next summer's London Olympics.
Though the Americans are two-time World Cup champions, they haven't made the final since Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain won it all in 1999. The Americans will now play either Japan or Sweden in Sunday's final in Frankfurt.
The Americans had only two days' rest following its dramatic shootout win over Brazil in the quarter-finals, their quickest turnaround of the tournament, and there had been concern that fatigue or emotions might get the best of them. But Wambach, who has been playing with an Achilles' tendon so sore it often keeps her out of practice, dismissed that idea.
And she sure didn't look hobbled.
Lauren Cheney, who'd given the Americans an early lead with her goal in the ninth minute, took a corner kick in the 79th and immediately looked for Wambach.
"I knew Abby was going to beat her," Cheney said.
Asked how, Cheney said, "Because she's Abby Wambach."
Fed by second-half sparkplug Megan Rapinoe, Morgan then added the insurance by outracing four defenders up the left side before stutter-stepping to throw Sapowicz off before taking her shot.
"The priority is not to accept another goal," France coach Bruno Bini said through a translator. "When that happens, you've had it. We conceded another goal and that was it for us."
With the silky smooth Louisa Necib calling the shots, France dominated for most of the game, finishing with a whopping 25-11 advantage in shots. They missed two great chances in the first half, with goalkeeper Hope Solo having to tip Gaetane Thiney's shot away in the 30th and Sonia Bompastor rattling the crossbar two minutes later.
Finally, in the 55th, France got its equalizer. Bompastor floated in a cross from about 30 yards and, with the dangerous Gaetane Thiney right in front of her, Solo had little opportunity to move. The ball flew right past her.
But just as they did Sunday against Brazil, the Americans got stronger and stronger as the game went on before Wambach came through.
"In the end, we're in the finals," Wambach said, "and that's all that matters."