Why America's Never-Say-Die Attitude Has Electrified the World Cup

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Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images

U.S. striker Abby Wambach celebrates after scoring a goal during the quarterfinal Women's World Cup match against Brazil in Dresden, Germany, on July 10, 2011

In the world of soccer, the elite teams of Europe and South America have never disguised their contempt for the U.S. Not necessarily for our style of play — they simply dismiss that as rudimentary — but for our attitude. The constant hustle, the never-say-die approach that characterizes American athletes doesn't play well on the pitch in Europe. It's supposed to be another mark of our lack of soccer sophistication. Americans either don't know or don't accept when they're beaten. And let's face it, in the men's game, against Europe's best we are very often on the losing side.

Which is why the sensational win of the U.S. women's team over the samba soccer style of Brazil in the thrilling quarterfinal match of the Women's World Cup on Sunday was so sweet. An exquisite left-footed cross from Megan Rapinoe flew past Brazil's flailing keeper and was met by a perfect header at the back post from Abby Wambach for the tying goal — in the last minute of injury time in the last overtime period, the 122nd minute. Behind the inspired goalkeeping of Hope Solo, the Americans prevailed in the penalty shoot-out 5-3.

The win left the U.S. coach, Pia Sundhage, a Swede, awestruck by the relentless effort her team had put forth, especially in the game's last 30 minutes. "Somebody's writing this book, and it's something about the American attitude and find a way to win," she said shortly afterward. The game had the same drama as the thrill ride of the U.S. men's team against Algeria in the World Cup in South Africa last June, when Landon Donovan's last-gasp goal put the Americans into the second round. It was the only time I ever witnessed a foreign crowd rooting wildly for an American team at a soccer match — or any match for that matter.

The crowd at Rudolf-Harbig-Stadion in Dresden, Germany, was clearly pulling for the Yanks, especially after the U.S. was reduced to 10 players following a ridiculous red card and penalty kick called against U.S. defender Rachel Buehler in the 65th minute by Australian ref Jacqui Melksham, who had a bizarre game, to say the least. After Solo saved the ensuing penalty, Melksham awarded Brazil a rekick, ruling that Solo had moved too soon. Brazil's wonder woman, Marta, buried the second spot kick to knot the score.

When a team goes down one player in a 1-1 game in the knockout phase of the World Cup tournament, the basic strategy is to fall back on defense and try to win free kicks on offense. You have to play for a draw, which is what the U.S. tried to do. But that tactic went out the window in the second minute of the first overtime period, when Marta pulled yet another rabbit out of her copious hat to put Brazil ahead. The most skilled woman in soccer reached a boot out and flicked a cross to the near post past her marker, a shot so deftly taken that Solo didn't know where to go. And Brazil was left to defend a 2-1 lead with 28 minutes remaining. Against a team with as much skill as Brazil, most teams wouldn't have had a chance.

But when you combine the fitness level of the American women with their considerable talent — and then throw in the hustle that the elitists love to deride — magic can happen. After falling behind, the undermanned U.S. team swarmed, applying unnerving pressure until the Brazilian players, who clearly didn't relish a fitness contest, started flopping like fish on the floor of the stadium, trying to kill time. In the three minutes added on to compensate for their delaying tactics, Rapinoe and Wambach connected on one of the great clutch goals in U.S. history.

With Germany and now Brazil having been eliminated, the U.S. becomes the favorite to win the World Cup. That means first getting past France, who beat England on penalty kicks (doesn't everybody?) to get to the semis. The French are a solid team, but they had better be ready to run their derrieres off and defend deep in their penalty box. In all their games, the U.S. women have played relentless, high-pressure soccer. Even in losing to Sweden in group play, the U.S. dominated. No team has been able to outwork them in the second half. Maybe that's just an American thing. But it might help make them world champions again.