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U.S. women know July 10 is their day

DRESDEN, Germany — It did not look hopeful.

It did not look possible.

It did not look, even a little, like the U.S. women's soccer team, playing with 10 players instead of 11 because of a controversial red card, could defeat the world's best female soccer player and her Brazilian teammates in their quarterfinal match of the World Cup tournament.

But it was July 10 — and this day belongs to U.S. women's soccer.

The U.S. women's soccer team claimed the day in 1999 when it defeated China in a dramatic shootout victory at the Rose Bowl in California to claim the World Cup.

Sunday, in Dresden, Germany, the U.S. team ripped its day from a talented Brazilian squad and five-time FIFA player of the year Marta in what was an even more dramatic victory to advance to Wednesday's semifinal match against France.

"It started to look grim," said goalkeeper Hope Solo. "But we fought… I knew Abby (Wambach) would come up big. Whether she scores two goals or 10 goals, when it counts, she comes up big."

It would be difficult to come up any bigger than Wambach did on Sunday.

She provided the miracle moment after the U.S. fell behind 2-1 in the first 15-minute overtime. The U.S. did not score in the second 15-minute overtime, but the decision of a Brazilian defender to waste a few minutes feigning an injury, prompted officials to tack on an extra three minutes of stoppage time.

It was then that Wambach performed her miracle — with some help from her equally determined teammates, of course.

Less than a minute from elimination, Megan Rapinoe booted the perfect pass across the field to veteran team leader Wambach, who used her head to score the game-tying goal in the 122nd minute of the match. It was the latest goal ever scored in women's World Cup history.

"I can't believe that just happened," Wambach said after the U.S. defeated Brazil on penalty kicks that highlighted embattled goalie Hope Solo's tremendous talent. "I really don't know what to say. This is a perfect example of what this country is about. It is the history of this team, what we're about. We never gave up."

Battling back may be what this particular U.S. team does best.

And while there are a number of women wearing those black jerseys who illustrate that fighting spirit we love in American sports stories, there is one woman who's life and career epitomize the energy exhibited by the U.S. team on Sunday — goalkeeper Hope Solo.

Her father taught her to play soccer, but the damage done to him by the Vietnam war took him from her childhood. Instead of helping her navigate life, he spent 12 years homeless in Seattle, Washington. He attended every one of her college games at the University of Washington while living in a tent a few miles from the campus.

Some children would have asked for more. But for Solo, his affection was enough.

She understood that the demons he battled had nothing to do with her, and she credits him with instilling in her "an athlete's mentality."

That is, she said, that there are no excuses. While some may have found his life a tragedy of missed opportunities, she saw something else.

Solo told ESPN on the eve of the game that she "looked at him as someone who struggled through life, who had hardships, but found a way through everything. He found peace and happiness in everything."

He died of a heart attack in 2007 — just two months before she and her U.S. teammates played for the World Cup. Devastated that he never saw her represent her country, she dedicated the season to him.

She even spread his ashes in the goal before each game. And then, without an explanation and after three years as the U.S. team's starting goalie, U.S. head coach Greg Ryan pulled her from the starting line up for the quarterfinal match against Brazil.

Angry, confused and disappointed, she watched as her team lost a game, 4-0, she'd dedicated to her father.

Afterward, she criticized her coach's decision.

"It was the wrong decision," she said in 2007. "There is no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves."

She said her words were meant for one person — Ryan. But others interpreted it as boastful, arrogant and critical of an American soccer hero, Briana Scurry, who replaced her in the goal against Brazil. It was Scurry, after all, who made that game-winning save against China in 1999.

Solo was kicked off the team by Ryan and shunned by her teammates. She said in that interview with ESPN that it would have been easy to walk away from the game, away from the pain.

Instead, she did what great athletes do — she showed up and worked hard. She mended fences with teammates, and when Ryan was replaced with Pia Sundhage a few months later, she earned back her position.

In 2008, she helped the U.S. to an Olympic gold medal in soccer. And then, on Sunday, against the very team that eliminated the U.S. in the season she'd dedicated to her father, Solo found redemption again.

After playing a fantastic game, she was the picture of calm as she and her teammates won the game-deciding shootout. Her teammates had to make every goal, and she had to earn a save.

She did just that against Daiane, the third Brazilian to shoot. (Incidentally, it was the third shot that Scurry saved in 1999.)

What the U.S. women showed wasn't just great athleticism or superior strategy. They offered another example of why in sports, and more importantly in life, one should never give up. You never know when a miracle will result from that perseverance.

"I have no words," said Sundhage moments after the win. "The goal… Somebody's writing this book, and it's about the American attitude and finding a way to win."