MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The U.S. women's soccer team has another come-from-behind, last-minute thriller to add to its legacy. The Americans won't have much time to celebrate it: It's time to focus on winning it all.
This is the moment the U.S. players have been eyeing for more than a year, a rematch with Japan on Thursday at Wembley Stadium with gold on the line. The top-ranked Americans lost to Japan on penalty kicks in the World Cup final last summer, a stunning blow that became a source of motivation as the players prepared for the Olympics.
"This is redemption for us," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "We know how hard it was for us after that game. It hurt us for a really long time."
The U.S. team was ten minutes away from another devastating loss in the Olympic semifinals Monday night when it caught a break. Canada goalkeeper Erin McLeod was whistled for holding the ball too long, a violation often committed but rarely enforced. The dominoes fell in quick succession: an indirect kick, a hand ball, a penalty kick. Score tied.
"We feel like it was taken away from us," Canada forward Christine Sinclair said. "It's a shame in a game like that, which is so important, that the ref decided the result before the game started."
The Americans then put together a final winning surge. In the third and final minute of injury time that had been added on to extra time — with goalkeeper Hope Solo mentally preparing for a penalty kick shootout — Alex Morgan looped in a 6-yard header on a long cross from Heather O'Reilly, giving the U.S. a 4-3 win in the Olympic semifinals at Old Trafford.
"I don't have much to say because I need to wrap my head around what just happened," Solo said. "And that's the truth of the matter. We tend to keep things interesting."
Canada, seeking the country's first Summer Games medal in a traditional team sport since 1936, will play France for the bronze on Thursday at Coventry, but it will take a while to get over this one. Canada's coach felt cheated, and lashed out with criticism of Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen.
"The ref, she will have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replays," said Canada coach John Herdman, who also felt that Pedersen missed a hand ball in front of the U.S. goal. "She's gonna have to live with that. We will move on from this. I wonder if she will be able to."
Pedersen cited McLeod was for holding the ball more than six seconds. McLeod said she did not receive the customary warning from the referee beforehand, although she did say the linesman had told her at the start of the second half not to slow down play.
The violation gave the Americans an indirect free kick inside the area. Rapinoe took the kick and rammed it into the Canadian wall, the ball glancing off the arm of Marie-Eve Nault. Pedersen then awarded the U.S. a penalty kick, which co-captain Abby Wambach converted off the left post.
"I think the referee was very one-sided," McLeod said. "It was an interesting sequence of events. I think we outplayed the Americans the entire game. I think it's unfortunate the calls went the way that they did. Of course, the Americans are a great soccer team, and today we were better, and the luck went their way."
The Americans had little sympathy for McLeod's complaints.
"There were a few other times throughout the game that she held it for 18 seconds, for 10 seconds," Wambach said. "You can't blame something on the referee."
The Americans overcame three one-goal deficits, all due to goals from Sinclair in the 22nd, 67th and 73rd minutes. Megan Rapinoe scored in the 54th and 70th minutes, and Wambach converted the penalty kick in the 80th for the U.S.
Sinclair and Wambach are now tied for second all-time with 143 international goals apiece, both chasing Mia Hamm's world record of 158.
In many ways this match was reminiscent of the comeback against Brazil in last year's World Cup, when Wambach scored in the waning seconds of extra time in a shootout win in the quarterfinals.
The result maintains the Americans' dominance of their neighbor to the north, extending their unbeaten streak against Canada to 27 games (23-0-4). The U.S. leads the series 44-3-5, the last loss coming at the Algarve Cup in 2001.
Herdman said before the game that the run of futility against the Americans was on the minds of his players, and he addressed it with them in the run-up to the match. He also injected some pregame intrigue by accusing the Americans of using "highly illegal," overly physical tactics on free kicks and corner kicks.
"Their coach prepared them very well," Wambach said. "He had a very good tactic yesterday, by making it a media (event) to say that we do illegal stuff. I give him credit for that because it's something that he was trying to do to rally his team around him."
But the Americans had the final word, with Morgan's goal avoiding the penalty kick shootout no one wanted to see.
"The team refuses to lose," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "There is something where they have an extra gear."
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