MANCHESTER, England -- Amid the chaos at the bottom of a mound of joy that formed after Alex Morgan's goal in the 123rd minute gave the U.S. women's soccer team an epic 4-3 Olympic semifinal victory Monday night over Canada at Old Trafford, Abby Wambach found clarity.
"I told her in the dog pile after the match, 'I love you (and) I think I'm in love with you in this moment because you just sent us to the gold-medal match,' " Wambach said.
Morgan made America fall just as hard for her by converting a perfect cross from Heather O'Reilly with a midair header just under the crossbar for the game-winner. Watch Morgan's trademark pink headbands fly off the shelves now. Move over, Hope Solo and Wambach. Team USA's new "It" girl just arrived.
The shot that led every highlight show back home gave Team USA's youngest starter a goal for the ages and sent the Americans into Thursday's final against Japan.
Morgan, a former Cal star and the emerging fresh face of U.S. women's soccer at 23, managed a relieved smile while finally walking out of the locker room 75 minutes after the game because of drug testing. Asked to explain the final sequence, Morgan looked as dumbfounded as everyone who watched a game that lived up to the tradition of 102 years of play in the Yankee Stadium of soccer.
"I don't remember what happened before Heather got the ball, but I knew she'd get that ball into the box and I just tried to get my head on it," Morgan said. "Then I remember wanting to laugh and cry at the same time and just being so proud of the team coming back so many times."
In the place where Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson became a legend, another Alex enhanced her growing reputation as one of the world's elite goal-scorers.
"Some players have a gift (for) scoring goals when it's most needed," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "She continues to bring her game to every single game."
Morgan brought it in the clutch to help Team USA avoid a nightmare in the stadium they call the Theatre of Dreams. Canada had no business taking the gold-medal favorites into overtime; it now has played the U.S. 27 times since 2001 without winning. The U.S. leads the series 44-3-5. Olympic historians would have called a Canadian win the Miracle on Grass.
While every high-profile U.S. Olympic team faces much pressure to win gold in these Games, none put as much on itself as this bunch. If goalie Solo wasn't acting like a spoiled diva ripping analyst Brandi Chastain on Twitter, her teammates were annoying opponents by showboating with preplanned goal-scoring celebrations. The contempt building outside the NBC audience showed when Canada coach John Herdman made headlines before the semifinal by accusing the Americans of "highly illegal" tactics.
Yet it was Canada that played the part of goon, playing especially rough with Morgan.
"A lot of the Canadian players were taking us down and getting a couple yellow cards, and I don't blame them," Morgan said. "I don't think they were as fit as we were, and I saw them on the ground a lot more tackling than we were."
The strategy nearly worked. Each of Christine Sinclair's three goals gave Canada a lead, and until 10 minutes remained, it looked as if this would be the night the 2012 Olympics said, "Hope, so long." Then came a questionable sequence that gave international conspiracy theorists fodder.
The referee penalized Canadian goalie Erin McLeod for delay of game after she held the ball too long, a penalty Solo said surprised even her. It was like calling traveling in an NBA finals game during the final possession, technically a right call at the wrong time. The ensuing shot off the indirect kick awarded to Team USA inadvertently hit a Canadian defender's elbow. The hand-ball call set up a penalty kick Wambach drilled to tie the score at 3.
"We feel like we didn't lose, we feel it was taken from us," Sinclair said. "It's a shame, in a game like that, that the ref decided the result before the game started."
Indeed, this was Team USA surviving sloppy defense and benefiting from a generous judgment call. This was an escape, a team that can't seem to get enough drama creating more of it.
This was a young player seizing the day, her day.
"Pia came up to me before the game and said, 'Promise yourself one thing: Enjoy the moment' ... and that's what I did today," Morgan said. "I can't remember ever feeling this way after a goal."
She can thank a goal nobody will soon forget.