In one of the more amazing soccer matches in recent memory, the U.S. Women's National Team came back from the dead to defeat Brazil on penalty kicks in their Women's World Cup quarterfinal matchup in Dresden, Germany on Sunday.
But it seemed like the U.S. was competing against more than just Marta and the stellar Brazilian squad.
After an own goal that put the USA up 1-0 just 74 seconds into the match, the refereeing crew, led by Austrian Jacqui Melksham, made life more difficult for the Americans than they deserved.
A comedy of error-plagued decisions put the U.S. even with Brazil—and down a player—in the 68th minute.
Later, two minutes into extra time, another mistake allowed Brazil to take a 2-1 lead, a lead that—it appeared—would put them through to the semifinals on Wednesday against France.
But, "No!" said the U.S. women.
Abby Wambach scored with seconds to play to tie the match, and Hope Solo made a fabulous right-handed save on a penalty kick to lift the Americans past Brazil.
Still with the cards stacked against them, it wasn't easy for Pia Sundhage's squad. Here's why.
After the U.S. scored early on an own goal against Brazil's Daiane, both sides had some chances.
But 20 minutes into the second half, Brazilian superstar Marta had the ball played to her feet in the U.S. penalty area. She flicked the ball over her head and over that of the U.S. defenders marking her.
Marta and American defender Rachel Buehler both turned and lunged for the ball as they sprinted toward the U.S. net. Both players went down.
Referee Melksham immediately blew her whistle and pointed to the spot: penalty kick.
It was a 50-50 ball in the penalty box, and there's no disputing Marta's skill. But both Marta and Buehler had their arms up, and both were going for the ball.
It should have been a non-call.
To insert herself into the match by dialing up a game-changing penalty, Melksham was wrong to call the PK in first place.
It was bad enough that Melksham called the foul and the penalty.
But a completely undeserved red card for Rachel Buehler?
Yes, it was a scoring opportunity for Marta in the penalty area. (Isn't every possession in the penalty box a scoring opportunity?) But the penalty call was 50-50 at best, and to say Buehler actively took Marta down to prevent a clear-cut scoring chance is completely bogus.
Regardless, Buehler was sent off, and the U.S. women would be down to 10 players for the rest of the match.
They ended up playing a man down for 55-plus minutes.
So after the bogus penalty call and the ridiculous red card, how would the contentious penalty kick go?
On the attempt from Christiane, Hope Solo dove to her left to make an amazing, potentially game-altering save.
Go, go, USA...right?
Not so fast, my friends.
Melksham—living up to the second syllable of her last name—ordered a re-kick.
Did Solo move early off her line? It didn't appear so.
Did an American defender encroach on the penalty box before the kick was taken? Probably, yes.
But I've literally never seen that called in a game before. So it's hard to understand exactly what Melksham was thinking.
Brazil would get a second opportunity at the penalty stripe. Marta took the PK and scored easily.
You couldn't write this baloney if you tried.
Despite the adversity of playing a man down over the final 25 minutes of regular time, the U.S. defense held strong, and the match went to extra time.
And two minutes into the first extra period, Marta scored on an impressive left-footed flick to give Brazil a commanding 2-1 lead.
All credit is due to Marta. She's probably the best, most creative and most skilled player in the world.
She's a five-time FIFA Women's Player of the Year.
She's 25. She's amazing. Fine.
And this was an amazing finish.
But hold your horses there, Sheriff.
Replays showed that the ball in to the corner to Erika, who subsequently played the ball into the middle to Marta for the goal, was offside.
No call from Melksham or her misplaced line judge.
But the ball into Erika was offside, no ifs, ands or buts about it.
Another injustice for the U.S. women to overcome.
Not only was Erika offside prior to her assist on Marta's go-ahead goal, but as time ticked down in the second 15 minutes of extra time, there was plenty of so-called "gamesmanship" from the Brazilian side.
I don't begrudge them this, as it's a part of the game.
But Erika took her injury-faking and time-wasting to a new level.
Having gone down after a tame challenge from an American and rolled around as if she'd had her leg cut off at the knee, the referees signaled for a stretcher to take her off the pitch.
But after waiting a minute-plus for the stretcher to get her off the field and cart her off, the second the stretcher got across the end line Erika hopped off as if nothing had happened and ran around to her bench, immediately requesting the referee to allow her back onto the field.
A classy display by the Brazilian.
As the Americans were set to take their last drink at the Last-Chance Cafe, second-half substitute Megan Rapinoe made this beautiful left-footed cross to Abby Wambach in the Brazil box.
Brazilian goaltender Andreia and her defender both jumped and missed the ball, and Wambach hammered home a perfect header to tie the match in the 122nd minute, the latest goal ever in a Women's World Cup Game.
The U.S. tied the score at 2.
Not only was the goal amazing in that it came at the game's death knell, but what made it that much more astounding was the fact that the U.S. had overcome so much adversity to even get to that point, much less tie the match in the 122nd minute.
After Wambach's 11th-hour goal, the match went to penalties.
Veteran defensive midfielder Shannon Boxx stepped up to take the first PK for the U.S. against Andreia. She booted the ball to the keeper's left, and Andreia made a great diving save.
But perhaps there is some karma at work after all, as the referee whistled again for a re-take. This time, it appeared clear that not only had Andreia moved early, but she had stepped several feet off her line prior to the kick being taken in an attempt to cut down the angle on Boxx.
It's still not a call you ever see—and certainly not in a match of this magnitude—but at least Melksham did, to a certain extent, made up for her earlier call on Hope Solo.
When Solo saved the third Brazilian penalty (check out the video at left) and Ali Krieger slotted home the U.S.'s fifth penalty, the U.S. had survived.
As ESPN match commentator Ian Darke said following the questionable red card, Brazil is tough enough to play 11-on-11. Of course, they proved to be even tougher 10-on-11.
But with the ridiculous refereeing on Sunday, it was as if Marta and the upstart Samba Queens had a 12th player on their side.
What made the U.S. performance so impressive was that the team was able to deal with the adversity and overcome increasingly difficult obstacles.
It takes gutsy performances like this to win a World Cup, and as Wambach, Solo, Sundhage and the rest of the squad prepares for its semi against France on Wednesday, they'll no doubt have more obstacles to overcome as they set their sights on raising that trophy in Frankfurt next Sunday.