MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany – The U.S. kept its fans breathless again. And just like last time, Abby Wambach -- who else -- came up big.
Wambach broke a tense tie with a thunderous header in the 79th minute, and the U.S. earned its first trip to the World Cup final since winning it in 1999 with a 3-1 victory over France on Wednesday.
"We've achieved part of our goal. We're in the final," Wambach said. "We want to complete it. We want to be world champs."
Lauren Cheney and Alex Morgan also scored for the Americans, who will play Japan -- 3-1 winners over Sweden -- on Sunday in Frankfurt. If the U.S. wins, it would be the first team to claim three World Cup titles.
When the final whistle sounded, the Americans rushed onto the field. Wambach found U.S. coach Pia Sundhage and gave her a bearhug as the pro-American crowd of 25,676 serenaded the team with chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and the party quickly spread across the Atlantic. A thrilling win over Brazil in the quarterfinals captivated fans back home, and a little thing called the workday wasn't enough to deter them.
Dozens of fans crowded around TVs in the Phoenix airport to watch the game, and less than an hour after it ended, "World Cup Finals" was trending on Twitter. "My heroes. Wambach. Boxx. Rapinoe. Solo. That TEAM! Our team!" actor Tom Hanks tweeted. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers said, "Awesome job US Women, finish it off Sunday now."
Wambach and company were glad to share the moment.
"These wins, we can't do it alone. We know a whole nation is cheering us on," Wambach said. "We believe in ourselves and we're in the final. I couldn't be happier."
The Americans had only two days' rest following the Brazil game, their quickest turnaround of the tournament, and there had been concern that fatigue or emotions might get the best of them. But Wambach, who has been playing with an Achilles' tendon so sore it often keeps her out of practice, dismissed that idea.
And she sure didn't look hobbled.
Lauren Cheney, who'd staked the Americans to an early lead with her goal in the ninth minute, took a corner kick in the 79th and immediately looked for the star forward. Wambach is one of the world's best in the air, and France was guarding her tightly. But Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post, and the 5-foot-11 Wambach soared over the scrum, pushing the ball past French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz.
"I knew Abby was going to beat her," Cheney said.
Asked how, Cheney said, "Because she's Abby Wambach."
Wambach let out a scream and did a sliding sprint into the corner, where she was mobbed by her teammates. It was her third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, tying fellow American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.
Alex Morgan added an insurance goal in the 82nd, the first for the World Cup rookie. Fed by second-half sparkplug Megan Rapinoe, Morgan outraced four defenders up the left side before stutter-stepping to throw Sapowicz off before taking her shot.
"The priority is not to accept another goal," France coach Bruno Bini said through a translator. "When that happens, you've had it. We conceded another goal and that was it for us."
Despite the loss, the World Cup was a resounding success for the French, who made their first appearance in the semifinals and qualified for next summer's London Olympics.
The U.S. was staked to an early lead by Cheney's goal in the ninth minute. But with the silky smooth Louisa Necib calling the shots, France dominated for most of the game, finishing with a whopping 25-11 advantage in shots. The French missed two great chances in the first half, with goalkeeper Hope Solo having to tip a Gaetane Thiney shot away in the 30th and Sonia Bompastor rattling the crossbar two minutes later.
Finally, in the 55th, France got its equalizer. Bompastor floated in a cross from about 30 yards and, with the dangerous Gaetane Thiney right in front of her, Solo had little opportunity to move. The ball flew right past her.
But just as they did Sunday against Brazil, the Americans got stronger and stronger as the game went on before Wambach -- who scored a critical goal in the waning moments against the Brazilians -- came through.
"In the end, we're in the finals," Wambach said, "and that's all that matters."