Believe ... and believe again

LONDON -- I am coming to the Olympic women's soccer final Thursday night with an oxygen tank strapped to my back. Truly, I think that is the safest, most responsible way I can manage to get through these soccer games.

Having lived through last summer's Women's World Cup quarterfinal match (yes, the one against Brazil in which Abby Wambach scored in the 122nd minute to send the game to penalty kicks after the U.S. was down a player for half the game), I really didn't think another game could rival that excitement and drama for a long time. I was so very wrong.

Let's recap Monday night's epic United States-Canada semifinal:

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Abby Wambach's penalty kick tied the score at 3 for the Americans.

• Canada takes the lead three separate times, and all thanks in large part (read: very large) to the brilliance of its world-class striker, Christine Sinclair.

• The U.S. comes back three separate times. Megan Rapinoe, who had an excellent game, scores the first two goals. Wambach gets the late equalizer in the 80th minute courtesy of a penalty kick, taken as calmly as if it was Sunday soccer with your local club team at the park fields (more on the PK later).

• Alex Morgan scores the game winner in the 123rd minute, the latest goal in Olympic history (men or women), on a header that now will surely spur 100 new Twitter handles about Alex's cranium.

• The U.S. wins 4-3 against a Canadian team that looked like it had undergone a complete facelift, tuck, lift, mani and pedi.

I've never seen a Canadian women's soccer team play this well before. Canada has had some good moments in World Cups (2003 comes to mind) and Olympics, but this team seemed different. The Canadians were organized, patient, disciplined, confident and, most impressively, were all those things consistently for 123 minutes. Canadian teams of the past would have looked solid for half the game or in spurts; but not this group -- these players were on a mission.

They were knocking the ball around like they had been doing it for decades. I kept murmuring to the TV ... I don't even know you anymore, Canada.

A huge congratulations to the Canadian players on a courageous game and new coach John Herdman on turning a team that finished dead last in the Women's World Cup last summer into a strong contender at these Olympics.

As for the penalty kick given to the U.S. in the 80th minute, there has been much discussion in Twitterworld about whether the Americans were resilient or just fortunate.

A six-second violation called on Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod led to an indirect free kick, which then resulted in a handball call against Canada. That set the stage for Wambach's penalty kick. The six-second violation call is one the referees rarely make, so rare my immediate reaction was, "Did McLeod receive a warning for delay of game being that Canada was up 3-2 at the time and we all just missed the verbal exchange on the world television feed?"

Initial reaction (from Twitter) said McLeod was indeed warned by a second referee as the half started. McLeod told reporters after the game she did not receive a warning; but, according to The Associated Press, a linesman did warn her not to slow down play at the start of the second half.

For the United States, I just keep shaking my head in awe at its unwillingness to give up. What a wonderful lesson for all of us, in sports and life.

Believe.

Believe again.

And hell, why not just keep on believing? It surely beats the alternative.

I knew the U.S. team was in a good place when I saw Alex Morgan smiling at around the 85th minute during a close-up shot during Monday's broadcast. The team was not panicking; its positive body language said it all (as if to joke, "You at home are clearly not fine, but we are fine"). That smile defines a team in moments of adversity, and the Americans faced adversity tonight, in double-decker bus loads.

The script is now written, and the U.S. has the rematch it wanted against Japan. One year after losing to the Japanese in the Women's World Cup final, the Americans have a shot at redemption. Tired, emotionally exhausted, physically aching, tactically lacking in some areas ... it doesn't matter at the moment. Tuesday is rest. Wednesday is regroup. Thursday is a chance for the U.S. to take back its world tiara. A win would give the U.S. its third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Forget the tank. On second thought, a full oxygen body suit might actually be needed for this one.

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