Manchester , United Kingdom; USA forward (14) Abby Wambach celebrates with her teammates after her goal on a penalty kick in the second half against Canada in the semi finals during the London 2012 Olympic Games at Old Trafford. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY
MANCHESTER, England - They talked about redemption for months on end, and now it's here, the pending denouement of a script fit for Hollywood.
With a 4-3 semifinal victory against Canada late in the second period of extra time Monday, the U.S. women's soccer team advanced to play Japan for Olympic gold. The Americans also get a shot at payback for the island nation's victory on penalty kicks in the World Cup last summer.
Contrary to the Americans' recent history with Canada, it wasn't easy. Christine Sinclair turned in a Herculean effort: three goals that put her team in the lead each time. The U.S. women clawed back, matching every pot raise, before Alex Morgan punched home the game-winner with her forehead in the 123rd minute.
"We were unwilling to give up, and that says a lot about who we are as a team, what our goals are," said Abby Wambach, who scored on a penalty kick in the 80th minute to tie the score 3-3. "Even when Canada scored their third goal, there was something in me that knew we had more, that we could give more."
Added Morgan: "It was a crazy battle. Coming back and back and back. I'm still in shock."
In five Olympic games, the USA has yet to play in London. That will change this week as the Americans punched their ticket to iconic Wembley Stadium with Monday's win. Morgan, the 23-year-old striker who came off the bench to star in that failed Cup bid, will lead them there.
She showed off her skills Monday at storied Old Trafford, rising for that uncharacteristic pivotal header. Nicknamed "Baby Horse" for her world-class speed, Morgan has been working on headers in practice with coach Pia Sundhage's encouragement.
"It's not what you would expect, but that's what this game was all about, the unexpected," Wambach said of Morgan's goal.
Wambach, the 32-year-old striker renowned for headers, is No. 2 on the all-time list for international goals after scoring her 143rd on a penalty kick in the second half. In extra time, she was inches behind Morgan as they both rose for Heather O'Reilly's crossing pass.
While Wambach leads the team with five goals in this tournament, Morgan had struggled to find the back of the net since notching two in the opener against France.
"I don't care who scores as long as we score, and that's all that matters," said Morgan, who walked away from the net with a relieved grin on her face as teammates swarmed her. "I didn't even see it go in."
Morgan, Wambach and the Americans next face a Japanese team that won its semifinal with France 2-1 on Monday and is unbeaten in this tournament with two draws.
Overwhelmed by one of the greatest games she'd ever seen, Sundhage wasn't ready Monday to look ahead. "I'm trying to live in the moment," she said. "I haven't even thought about Japan yet."
The USA can expect an equally robust crowd in London compared to the one at Old Trafford on Monday. For the France-Japan semifinal, 61,482 were in attendance, compared to 26,630 in Manchester for the U.S.-Canada game.
The Americans still face many questions heading into the final. Chief among them: How did one player score three goals on the No. 1 ranked team in the world?
The consensus among American players was that Sinclair had the game of her life.
"Christine Sinclair is unbelievable," U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. "She's definitely one of the best players in the world, one of the best players ever."
It was Rapinoe who answered the first two goals of her fellow University of Portland alum. Her first goal, which tied the score at 1-1 in the first half, was a rare "Olympic goal" - a corner kick that goes untouched into the net.
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, meanwhile, said she was preparing for penalty kicks when Morgan drove home the winner.
Offering no explanations, no complaints and no predictions, Solo was initially speechless, for a change.
"I don't have much to say," she said. "I still need to wrap my head around what happened."