On the verge of missing the gold-medal game for the first time, the U.S. women's soccer team caught a break when the referee made a call rarely seen in the sport.
Then the Americans put together a final winning surge, inspired by the familiar — a pep talk from co-captain Abby Wambach.
"I know I've said this before," she said she told her teammates during extra time. "But it really does just take one moment and one chance, one moment of brilliance for somebody to do something individually spectacular."
The moment came beyond the 90 minutes of regular time, beyond the scheduled 30 minutes of extra time. In the third and final minute of injury time, with goalkeeper Hope Solo already 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 over Canada 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."
Next comes the game 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 London 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 Americans overcame three one-goal deficits, all due to Christine Sinclair goals in the 22nd, 67th and 73rd minutes. Megan Rapinoe scored in the 54th and 70th minutes, and Wambach in the 80th for the U.S., leaving Sinclair and Wambach tied at No. 2 with 143 international goals apiece, both chasing Mia Hamm's world record of 158.
It was the sequence that led to Wambach's tying goal that left the Canadians fuming. It started when goalkeeper Erin McLeod was whistled for holding the ball more than six seconds, a call even U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said she had never seen before.
That 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. Referee Christiana Pedersen of Norway then awarded the U.S. a penalty kick, which Wambach converted off the left post.
McLeod said she did not receive the usual warning from the referee about holding the ball too long, although she said the linesman had told her at the start of the second half not to slow down play.
"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."
Canada coach John Herdman said he felt the referee also missed a hand ball in front of the U.S. goal.
"The ref, she will have to sleep in bed tonight after watching the replays," Herdman said. "She's gonna have to live with that. We will move on from this. I wonder if she will be able to."
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.
The U.S. team has played in the title match in every Summer Games since women's soccer was introduced in Atlanta in 1996, winning the gold in 1996, 2004 and 2008, and the silver in 2000.
But in many ways this win was reminiscent of the landmark comeback victory against Brazil in last year's World Cup, when Wambach willed the team to a shootout win in the quarterfinals.
With that kind of history, she knew her teammates could rally against the Canadians.
"Even when they scored their third goal, there was something in me that knew that we had more, that we could give more," Wambach said.
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."
Certainly, Herdman's team gave one of its most spirited efforts on the biggest stage ever for a game between the rivals, scoring the most goals the U.S. has allowed since a 5-4 win over Australia in May 2008.
The Americans dominated possession in the early minutes, but then the U.S. defense did the unexplainable — it lost track of one of the best scorers in the game.
Taking a pass from Melissa Tancredi, Sinclair slalomed through the penalty area to beat Solo with a simple right-footer from 10 yards.
It was the first goal allowed by the U.S. in more than 360 minutes, since a pair of early scores by France in the Olympic opener two weeks ago. The U.S. also trailed at halftime for the first time in the tournament.
The Americans found an unconventional way to pull even early in the second half, with Rapinoe scoring directly on a corner kick. She curled the ball just inside the near post, glancing off the legs of defender Lauren Sesselmann and McLeod as it settled in the net.
Then came a dizzying sequence of three goals in six minutes. The Tancredi-Sinclair combo worked again, with Sinclair heading Tancredi's cross just inside the post to put Canada in front. Three minutes later, Rapinoe got her second, launching a right-footer from the edge of the area.
Then it was Sinclair again, leaping high to head in a corner kick, again just inside the post.
Wambach tied it with the controversial penalty kick, and the game became a battle of attrition in extra time, with the Americans having the better of the chances. Wambach put a header off the crossbar in the 119th minute.
The officials then declared there would be three minutes of injury time, just enough for Morgan to put one in and avoid the penalty kick shootout no one wanted to see.
"The team refuses to lose," Sundhage said. "There is something where they have an extra gear."