Ending The Drought: What did the USWNT Learn From 2011 World Cup Loss?

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Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach both scored in the final, but Japan twice rallied to force penalty kicks.

Editor's note: Sixteen years have passed since the American women last won the World Cup. They lost in the semifinals in 2003 and 2007 and in the 2011 championship game. In Part III of our three-part series, we continue to dissect the last three World Cup disappointments and what the U.S. women learned to help them end the drought in Canada.

The power of one moment. That is what that stands out most from the 2011 World Cup. The United States was just a few seconds away from the worst finish for an American squad at a Women's World Cup. A few seconds away from a world of criticism and blame. A few seconds away from obscurity. Then one moment -- one goal -- changed everything. And can we just let out a long, slow hallelujah for that moment, when Abby Wambach headed home a unbelievable cross from Megan Rapinoe in stoppage time in the quarterfinals.

The United States fell in love with the U.S. women's national team's never-say-die mentality four years ago, and we witnessed the emergence of Alex Morgan. As many U.S. team members will tell you, the casual observer often forgets that the Americans did not win the World Cup in 2011. The excitement -- even after the loss to Japan in penalty kicks in the championship game -- was so palpable. But the players know. They remember. And like the disappointment of falling short in 2003 and 2007, there is plenty to learn from that special 2011 World Cup in Germany.

2011 flashback

Result: Second place. Lost to Japan in a penalty kick shootout in the championship. Beat France 3-1 in the semifinals after defeating Brazil in a penalty kick shootout in the quarters; went 2-1-0 in group play (beat North Korea and Colombia and then lost to Sweden).

What went wrong

First, let's be clear. Unlike our dissections of the 2003 and 2007 World Cups, a lot went right in 2011 for the United States. So consider our cup half full -- and we're going to instead look at the positives.

The will: When you ask U.S. players past and present about the Brazil quarterfinal, they all talk of an unshakeable belief -- even after they went down a goal just two minutes into the first overtime period, and despite playing with 10 players after Rachel Buehler was red-carded in the 65th minute. But didn't some doubt creep in during the closing minute when the team was down a player and a goal?

"No, not at all," Shannon Boxx, a midfielder who will play in her fourth World Cup in Canada, recalled. " When we went down to 10 players, we just got stronger. We started playing better with 10 because we had no choice. We were more driven. The confidence just kept building."

That was in stark contrast to the 2007 World Cup, when the U.S. women found themselves in an eerily similar position -- against the same team. "The last time we played down a man [against Brazil], we collapsed," U.S. captain Christie Rampone said. "This time we figured it out, and actually felt like we were [playing] a man up. We rose to the occasion."

Added Abby Wambach: "We knew that all we needed was ONE CHANCE, that is all it takes. We kept saying that to each other during the game."

And as we all know, that one chance arrived in the 122nd minute. With incredible precision and focus, Wambach headed a gorgeous cross from Rapinoe into the back of Brazil's net (and trust us when we say we'll be talking about that goal a lot more in the weeks to come ... check back!). And the U.S. team had life again. Wambach's equalizer is the latest goal ever scored at a World Cup, for men or women.

Mia Hamm, in Germany as an analyst for ESPN in 2011, has no problem recalling that moment.

"You just felt it. You felt that something was going to happen. It was such a courageous goal," Hamm said. "To be running that fast to a ball that has to travel that distance. The chances are that you're going to get clocked by the goalkeeper. [Abby] didn't blink, she didn't take her eye off ball. The service was perfect. And I mean, that's who she is right there as a player."

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Shannon Boxx made her penalty kick against Brazil a week earlier, and tried to go the same way against Japan, but it was saved. "I agonized over that for months," she said.

The calm: Unlike the 2007 matchup against Brazil (a 4-0 loss for the United States), the U.S. women felt fairly calm. Well, everyone except Wambach.

"After I scored that goal, we were in the huddle going into penalty kicks and I started screaming, 'EVERYONE JUST NEEDS TO RELAX,'" Wambach recalled, already laughing at the punch line to come. "And everyone looked at me and said, 'YOU JUST NEED TO RELAX.'"

Heading into penalty kicks, Rampone said everything felt right.

"We believed we were going to win," she said. "I remember watching Brazil on the ground and they looked so fatigued and exhausted. We felt empowered as we were standing up."

The U.S. team went on to make every single penalty kick and win 5-3 on penalties in what I think ranks as the most pivotal match in U.S. women's national team history.

The craziness: That moment changed everything. Similar to the interest and passion stirred in 1999, this team had captured the nation. And this time, they knew it.

"We didn't have social media before. We didn't have Twitter," Boxx said. "People you would never think would tweet at you saying good job ... like President Obama tweeting the whole team. Tom Hanks tweeted. Gabrielle Union. The everyday fans. It was just so cool. In the past you never realized how much people were watching and how into it they were."

The final

No one predicted Japan and the United States to meet in the championship game, but the Japanese team was playing for something bigger. Just four months earlier, a devastating earthquake and tsunami had ravaged Japan, and the country was still reeling from tragedy.

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Japan slotted three penalty kicks past Hope Solo. "On that day they were better penalty kick takers," Christie Rampone said. "They buried every one of them."

History was not on Japan's side -- it had never beaten the U.S. women in 25 attempts, going 0-22-3 -- but destiny was. Or at least, in hindsight, that's how it felt. Wambach put the United States up in the 104th minute, but Homare Sawa flicked in a corner kick in the 117th minute as Japan rallied from behind for the second time.

"She side volleyed the ball with the outside of her foot, over my right shoulder -- it brushed my shoulder," Wambach recalled. "My reaction was obviously, OK, we have to recalibrate and restructure and deal with it. Let's push for a goal or we are going to win it in PKs. That's what my mind went to."

The U.S. team, as it had proved all tournament, felt as though it was still in the game.

"Even when it went to penalty kicks," Boxx said, "I was still thinking, 'We just did this, and we can do this again.'"

Boxx had scored the first penalty kick versus Brazil -- just seven days earlier -- and stepped up again to take the first shot against Japan. She went the same way as she did against Brazil; Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made the save.

"Should I have gone the other way? Because I can. But I chose not to," Boxx recalled. "I agonized over that for months. I finally said to myself, 'You have to get that out of your head. You can't go back.'"

Wambach agreed that a repeat of penalty kicks so soon played a huge role. "That is why we didn't use the same five players in penalty kicks. We knew that they knew where we were going," she said. "It's the mind games that you play. I didn't change and I think I was the only one that scored."

Added Rampone: "We did everything we could have possibly done in those circumstances. Their goals were ridiculous goals. You say great job. On that day they were better penalty kick takers. They buried every one of them."

Lessons learned

The No. 1 rule in soccer: That would be to finish your chances.

"I remember we got a few really good chances early on which we didn't convert. That hurt us," Wambach recalled with a sigh. "Obviously as the game goes on, the tensions rise, the pressure rises, and we all end up playing more safe."

These are the moments that haunt you as a player. You replay them in your head. You wonder if it could have gone differently by just one early break.

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Alex Morgan has scored 51 goals in 84 caps for the U.S. women's national team.

The next generation emerges: Morgan didn't earn her first cap until March 2010, and she was the youngest player on the United States' 2011 World Cup team. She came off the bench to score her first World Cup goal against France in the semifinals, then became the first women's player to tally a goal and an assist in a World Cup final.

Her impact was immediate.

"That was the year Alex was our sub," Wambach said. "I remember feeling like when she got on the field, she would make something happen."

The U.S. team in the 2015 World Cup also is going to need the next generation to emerge. With Morgan being sidelined the past two months with a bone bruise in her knee, she cannot carry the same load. And asking 35-year-old Wambach to do all the heavy lifting is not realistic. So who will it be for the United States this World Cup? The list of options, thankfully, is long.

A lesson to the world on how to handle loss: I will never forget just how well the U.S. team handled this devastating loss, especially after being so close to World Cup victory. In the emotion of that moment, the last thing you want to do is turn and watch your opponent celebrate on stage under the confetti. Yet this team handled it all with such class and grace.

When I asked the players about this they spoke of their respect and admiration for Japan.

"When Japan comes out and flashes a big sign saying, 'To our friends around the world -- thank you for your support,' you are like, Oh gosh, how can you be upset at them? And we were so devastated by all the country had been through," Boxx said.

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Many U.S. players were friends with Homare Sawa, who captained Japan to the 2011 World Cup title.

They also spoke of their love and respect for Sawa, who had played many years in the United States. A glimpse into her personality: After Japan's semifinal win over Sweden in 2011, when Sawa, still in uniform, went to the postgame news conference, she remained standing. When asked if she wanted to sit down, Sawa declined and said that her uniform was so sweaty that if she sat down, she would ruin the chair. She stood for the entire news conference.

Maybe you just can't fight fate: Look at the seemingly insurmountable: Japan never had beaten Germany or Sweden, its quarterfinal and semifinal matchups. Japan never had beaten the United States in 25 tries. Japan had gotten beyond the group stage only once in a World Cup (to lose in the quarterfinals). The Japanese were one of the smallest teams at the World Cup. An Asian team had never won a World Cup. And the Japanese team was still dealing with what history will record as among the world's worst natural disasters. Throughout the World Cup, Japan vowed to do whatever it could to bring joy to its country. The Japanese players not only brought home joy, they brought confidence -- confidence that the country would rise above.

All U.S. players we spoke to felt that Japan was destined to achieve this victory. Boxx wrapped it up best.

"Something higher up wanted Japan to win. I always think about it that way," she said. "We had it and it slipped away. We could have won that World Cup, but I feel there was something higher up involved. Something driving the Japanese team ... with all that happened to their country."

And then she finished with the perfectly fitting line: "And they were good, they were so dang good."

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