One by one, Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath stepped slowly to the penalty area, each with a look that they would have rather have been anywhere in the world but at that spot at that moment. Each missed.
On the other side: Aya Miyama, Yuki Nagasato, Mizuho Sakaguchi and Saki Kumagai strode to the penalty spot with confidence and self assurance. Three converted, one was denied only by the desperate efforts of U.S. keeper Hope Solo.
Japan had done the unthinkable. Three times. They had rallied back from down 1-0 in the 82nd minute with everyone already beginning to engrave the trophy for the Americans. Then, after Abby Wambach scored in extra time to put the US in front 2-1, the game appeared to be in the bag once again, but a series of mistakes and miscommunication led to a corner kick and the equalizer in the 118th minute.
It was every bit as demoralizing and soul crushing as it must have been for Brazil just a week earlier. But the penalty shootout still remained. Secure in the fact that they had already won a pressure-packed shootout once in this tournament, and with the top keeper in the world on their side, there was no way they'd fail in that moment.
But they did.
Yet to wake up this morning and read the papers and peruse the analysis online, you'd think the US simply lost an evenly played game against a team that was their equal and that the sport will now grow into the juggernaut it is internationally.
None of that is correct, and I'd love to know why it's being spun that way. They wilted under the pressure of a championship game on the sport's biggest stage, and yet, the narrative is that they played their hardest, they tried their best and came up just a little short in the end but a great time was had by all. How very elementary school of us.
Let's jump in a time machine for a moment and travel back to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Let's say (hypothetically) the men's team had advanced all the way to the World Cup Final and been within five minutes of defeating Spain for the crown but had lost the game in the same fashion the women did. Wuld they have been crowned as conquering heroes for trying their best?
Following the recently completed Gold Cup Tournament, the US men's team was roundly criticized for its tactics and substitutions as it blew a 2-0 lead in the championship game against Mexico. So, on a larger stage such as the World Cup, I'm going to bet the answer would be a resounding no.
They would have been criticized the same way we criticize all of our male athletes who don't come through in pressure situations. Most recently, Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo and Miami Heat forward LeBron James were crucified mercilessly for their inability to secure a championship for their respective teams.
Karl Malone, Dirk Nowitzki (until now), Scott Norwood, the 2001 St. Louis Rams, the 2007 New England Patriots, the list is almost infinite.
All of these teams and athletes failed in critical moments on the biggest stages and all were roundly criticized for it. Yet for some reason, the US women's national team is getting a free pass for a gaffe on the same level.
This isn't meant to be a column about equal rights, men vs. women, or sexism at all. It's simply an honest question. Are these athletes being treated differently in light of their gender? Maybe just a little bit.
Often times, I think there is still a cultural subconscious need to take it easier on women because of the ‘delicate' stigma that comes with it. So in some ways the coverage and analysis of yesterday's game might have been based on the gender of the athletes.
I think the heart of the reason lies with those (like me) who love soccer and want to see it grow in this country. There is a feeling that when an event like the Women's World Cup takes place that has such flare, drama and excitement, it will be the springboard event that pushes the sport into the cultural mainstream.
Therefore, in order to capitalize on the drama that just took place, we must build it up as this great ‘battle of the titans' and then talk about what a great effect it's going to have on the game for years to come. Meanwhile, we forget to analyze the actual event for what it was.
I'm all for promoting the sport. I want it to do well in this country and I want it to be able to carve out its own little niche in our sports fabric. But I'm not naïve. It's never going to replace any of the major sports here and it will certainly never attain the levels of popularity that it enjoys across the pond.
Just as it's important for men and women to be treated equally in all matters of the world, it's also important for soccer to be treated the same as the other major sports when it comes to analysis. A flurry of fluff is not required every time soccer briefly captures the imagination.
Call this game what it was. It was not some seminal moment where the sport will now become a permanent fixture on SportsCenter, it was a game played at the highest levels of the sport where the United States was clearly the superior team throughout, but wilted under the unyielding pressure of the moment and its opponent.
Analysis of the game, not of its impact on the sport, is what's important.