Photo by Marcio Jose Sanchez
FRANKFURT, Germany -- The bumpy, windy road got the Americans right where they wanted to go all along.
Eight months after having to win a playoff just to get to Germany, the Americans face Japan in the Women's World Cup final on Sunday. A win would be the ultimate finish to their improbable journey, making the United States the first three-time champions and delighting a country of newfound fans.
"I believe all the way we'll find a way," Carli Lloyd said Saturday after the team's last training session. "It's going to be a tough match like every other match has been, but I believe that we will find a way and it's our destiny to get it done."
For a long time, the Americans were about the only ones who believed that.
The U.S. is the No. 1-ranked team in the world and defending Olympic champion, and the Americans have dominated the women's game for the better part of two decades now. But they arrived at the World Cup looking, well, kind of average. They were stunned in regional qualifying in November in Mexico, a team that hadn't managed a win in its first 25 tries against its neighbor to the north, and had to beat Italy in a two-game playoff for the very last spot in the World Cup.
They opened the year with a loss to Sweden, then fell to England for the first time in 22 years -- so long ago Alex Morgan hadn't even been born yet. Then, after easy wins in their first two games in Germany, the Americans lost to Sweden again, their first loss ever in World Cup group play.
"In the past, we'd always won everything," captain Christie Rampone said. "Those losses made our team what it is today. We need each other and you feel that, from the locker room to the time we step on the field."
Never was that faith in each other more evident than in their quarterfinal against Brazil. Down a player for almost an hour and on the verge of making their earliest exit ever from a major tournament, Abby Wambach's magnificent, leaping header in the 122nd minute tied the game and sparked one of the most riveting finishes ever in a World Cup game -- men's or women's.
The Americans beat Brazil in a penalty shootout and, just like that, the folks back home were hooked.
Hollywood celebrities, fellow pro athletes and people who don't care about any sport, let alone soccer, have adopted the players. The Brazil match drew the third-highest ratings ever for a Women's World Cup game, and Wednesday's semifinal victory over France did almost as well -- despite being played in the middle of the workday back home.
The Empire State Building is lit with the red, white and blue this weekend, along with Japan's colors. And the White House is sending an official delegation led by Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, and Chelsea Clinton, who just happened to be part of that massive Rose Bowl crowd 12 years ago, the last time the Americans won the title.
"We've proved everyone wrong," Lloyd said. "Now I think everyone is starting to believe in us. We've won everybody over, which is tremendous because the support back home has been unbelievable."
While part of the U.S. appeal is its success here, it's the team's spunk that has really charmed fans, a can-do attitude uniquely -- proudly -- American.
This might not be the best team the U.S. has ever had, but none will try harder.
"We are disappointed in the kind of soccer we played in last few games. It's just not the kind of soccer we want to play," Wambach said. "Sometimes games turn into what games turn into and you have to deal with what you've got and somehow find a way and figure it out. And that's what we did and that's something to be proud of and that's what we take away from it.
"But against Japan, we want to do and play the way we've been training. We don't want it just to be a dogfight. We want it to be a game people can watch and be excited about."
Japan will have something to say about that, of course.
The Nadeshiko have never beaten the Americans -- draws in 2000, 2003 and 2004 are the best they've managed in 25 games -- and have been outscored a whopping 77-13. They have three losses this year alone to the U.S., including a pair of 2-0 defeats in warmup games a month before the World Cup began. This also is Japan's first final at a major tournament, having lost to the U.S. in the semifinals at the Beijing Olympics.
"Of course it's something I bring up," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "We've been there before, we've done it before."
But Japan is a far better team than the one the Americans saw in May, having upset pre-tournament favorite Germany in the quarterfinals and Sweden in the semifinals. The Nadeshiko's ball-handling skills are exquisite, drawing comparisons to Barcelona for their lightning quick passes and slick combination play, and they dominate possession as if it's a game of keepaway.
They've shown a nice scoring touch, too, their 10 goals at the World Cup second only to the 11 scored by the U.S. The ageless Homare Sawa has been a marvel, sharing top-scoring honors with Marta with four goals.
"Why shouldn't we be confident?" Sawa asked.
Japan also has powerful motivation, knowing it has provided some emotional relief for a nation still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The team displays a banner reading "To our Friends Around the World -- Thank You for Your Support," after every game, and coach Norio Sasaki inspired his players before the quarterfinal by showing them pictures of the devastation.
But the Americans remain confident, just as they were through every pothole and dip in their bumpy road.
"Nothing worries me right now," Sundhage said. "You have to enjoy the moment. Look at the road we've taken. If I get worried, I just have to look back at that road."