The Header Heard Round The World

Abby Wambach has scored more goals in international competition than anyone in the world, man or woman. But there's no debate over which of her 182 goals stands out the most.

Her header in stoppage time four years ago in the 2011 Women's World Cup quarterfinals in Germany ranks as one of the top all-time goals. In fact, Wambach's header in the 122nd minute to level the score against Brazil and force a shootout was voted earlier this month as the best moment in Women's World Cup history. And 18 months ago, it also topped the list for the best strike in U.S. Soccer history (yes, even beating out Landon Donovan's game-winning goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup).

So how did the goal come about? How did the United States overcome playing more than 50 minutes with 10 players? And how on earth did Megan Rapinoe precisely place a 45-yard cross to set it all up?

"Everything had to perfectly work out," Wambach said recently.

With the Women's World Cup in full swing in Canada and teams taking a shot at their place in history, espnW takes a look back at the header that still rocks our world.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

But first, a recap of what went down in the first 121 minutes of that game on July 10, 2011: The United States took the lead just two minutes into the game on an own goal from Brazil's Daiane and was up 1-0 at halftime. But in the 68th minute, U.S. defender Rachel Buehler was whistled for bringing down Marta in the 18-yard box. Brazil was awarded a penalty kick and Buehler was red-carded, leaving the United States with only 10 players the rest of the way. Hope Solo saved Cristiane's penalty, but the ref awarded a retake and Marta coolly converted the second attempt.

After a 1-1 draw through regulation, Marta put Brazil up 2-1 two minutes into overtime, flicking a cross to the far post. The U.S. women continued to press, even with just 10 players -- which they also had to do against Brazil in the 2007 World Cup, but that ended in a 4-0 Brazil win.

"The last time we played down a man [against Brazil], we collapsed," Christie Rampone told espnW's Julie Foudy last month. "This time, we figured it out and actually felt like we were [playing] a man up. We rose to the occasion."

Before the teams took the field for the overtime periods, Rampone thought the U.S. women had the advantage.

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

Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images

With the lead in hand and seemingly only seconds left, Brazil started stalling. But Wambach and Rapinoe said it ended up working against Brazil.

"They're wasting as much time as possible, which came back to bite them because the referee gave us an extra couple of minutes in the overtime, which is very rare," Wambach told Bill Simmons in a BS Report podcast earlier this year.

Rapinoe said it cost Brazil the crowd.

"We had a lot of fans there [in Germany] but it wasn't a totally pro-American crowd," Rapinoe told ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle. "But then [Brazil] started wasting time; they were falling down. I think the final moment of when [the fans] totally turned was when Erika went down in the box on some phantom thing and got up and sprinted to the sideline and came back.

"The crowd was like, 'That's it.' I think that's why we got the extra stoppage time, too."

As Wambach said: "Everything had to perfectly work out. Pinoe sends a bomb into the box, and all I kept doing was hoping it would get over the defender and goalkeeper's hands."

ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images

For as much as fans remember Wambach's header, Rapinoe's cross is equally etched in history. Alex Morgan estimates it at 50 yards; when Rapinoe discusses it, she says 45.

"The pass is probably more difficult than the actual finish," Wambach said.

Rapinoe was on the bench when the game started. She entered in the 55th minute, subbing in for Lauren Holiday.

Then-U.S. coach Pia Sundhage also subbed in Morgan (72nd minute) and Tobin Heath (108th) after halftime. "At one point, Pia was even thinking about taking me out, a sub for a sub, which is not ideal," Rapinoe said recently with a laugh. "Somehow I redeemed myself."

AP Images/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Brazil turned over the ball deep in U.S. territory. Carli Lloyd recovered it and quickly found Rapinoe with room to run on the left flank. Rapinoe let the ball roll across her body, touched it once with her left foot, put her head down and launched a pinpoint cross.

"I saw it the whole way," Wambach said, "and I know Pinoe maybe knew that I was in there."

Actually . . . 

"I didn't see [Wambach]. I don't even think I looked up," Rapinoe said. "I took a touch and thought, 'She better frickin' be in there.'

"I knew she would be in and around there somewhere, but I just thought, 'I have to get this off my foot as soon as possible because [the whistle] could go at any minute.' And I just hit it as far as I could. And Abby did it."

Robert Michael/AFP/Getty Images

Wambach was frickin' there. And trying not to freak out.

"It was kind of one of those Hail Mary pass sort of moments, but I just kept thinking, 'Don't mess this up,' " Wambach said. "Because if it goes over [Brazil's defender and goalie], I'm wide open and all I need to do is basically tap it in."

Right before Rapinoe struck the serve, Wambach held up her right hand in that trademark way forwards do when they want the ball. Then she waited as it sailed toward the far post, past the outstretched arms of Brazil keeper Andreia and over the head of defender Daiane.

Wambach jumped with both feet right at the 6-yard line and redirected the ball with her head. Nothing but net. Bring on penalty kicks.

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Julie Foudy, who was calling the game for ESPN, had this to say as the goal was immediately replayed in slow motion: "I can't believe it. What a ball that was by Megan Rapinoe. Look at Brazil, shell-shocked. Look at this ball, back-side. Andreia comes, misses, second minute into extended time. Abby, without flinching, Wambach -- bam! What a goal. Oh my goodness."

The U.S. women went on to win 5-3 in penalty kicks, with Wambach and Rapinoe converting their shots. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was named the FIFA player of the match, saved Daiane's PK, which paved the way for Ali Krieger's shot to seal the victory.

Martin Rose/Getty Images

Mia Hamm, who retired in 2004 and was the world's all-time leading goal scorer before Wambach broke her record in June 2013, was a spectator in 2011 -- but "felt that something was going to happen."

"Abby is just one of those players that can put a team on her back," Hamm told Foudy recently.

Hamm called Wambach a courageous player and said it was a courageous goal.

"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," Hamm said. "To be that locked in on the ball and on your technique with the keeper coming out is so courageous. She 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."

Martin Rose/Getty Images

Once the ball hit the back of the net, chaos ensued. And a celebrating Wambach peeled off and sprinted to the corner, sliding into the grass, where her teammates -- including some on the bench -- finally caught up with her.

Except for Rapinoe, who was on the opposite side of the field and had a lot of ground to cover before she could join in the celebration.

After the goal, Rapinoe said she "just freaked out. Just like, 'Yeaaaaah!' I ran halfway, stopped and celebrated a little, and then sprinted right to Abby.

"It was far! I was way further than anyone. ... It was a good amount of running."

ROBERT MICHAEL/AFP/Getty Images

A week later, after beating France 3-1 in the semifinals, the United States played to a 2-2 tie after 120 minutes in the final, going to overtime and a penalty kick shootout again. This time, however, Japan was the winner. And this time, the United States was the team giving up a goal late in the game (117th minute). Japan edged the U.S. women 3-1 in the shootout to win its first World Cup title, just four months after the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. "It was almost fated for them to win," Wambach said.

Even though we still didn't win the World Cup ... we grew the game, which for me is what it's all about.
Abby Wambach

Even though the United States fell short in a third consecutive World Cup, Wambach's goal inspired a nation. When the U.S. women's national team returned home, "there were thousands of people waiting for us outside the hotel," Wambach recalled. "They know we didn't win, right? It was all the buzz from that Brazil game."

The U.S. women are in Canada trying to end a 16-year drought and win their first Women's World Cup since 1999. Wambach's goal four years ago might just be an important step in attaining that bigger goal.

"That header, it was kind of a defining moment, not just to myself and my career, but a defining moment for the specific team," Wambach told Dan Thomas during a segment on ESPN FC's Women's World Cup preview show. "We've been in the shadow of this '99 World Cup team. ... That 2011 moment against Brazil put women's soccer back on the map in the United States. It gave us self-confidence, a sense of ourselves that we now no longer are being compared to this '99 World Cup-winning championship team.

"Even though we still didn't win the World Cup," she continued, "I think we gained our own footing in terms of women's soccer and we grew the game, which for me is what it's all about."

Julie Foudy of espnW and Jeff Carlisle, who covers MLS and the U.S. national teams for ESPN FC, contributed to this report.

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