FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) - Japan has won the Women's World Cup, stunning the United States 3-1 in a penalty shootout Sunday night after coming from behind twice in a 2-2 tie.
Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath all failed to convert for the Americans, who squandered dozens of chances throughout the game and blew a lead just six minutes from winning their third World Cup title.
"This is obviously going to hurt for a while," said Abby Wambach, whose only hole in her glittering career is the World Cup title.
Japan had not beaten the Americans in their first 25 meetings, including a pair of 2-0 losses in warm-up games a month before the World Cup. But the Nadeshiko played inspired throughout the tournament, hoping their success could provide an emotional lift to their nation, still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
After being presented with the gold trophy, the players jumped up and down on the podium, then gathered behind a sign reading "Champions. World Champions."
"Not one of the players gave up," coach Norio Sasaki said. "The penalty kicks are always a 50-50 percent chance."
It's been 12 years since the United States has won the World Cup, and this team was certain they were the ones to break the drought. They'd needed to beat Italy in a two-game playoff just to get into the World Cup, then lost two games in a three-month span, an uncharacteristic "bad streak" for the U.S.
After easy wins in their first two games in Germany, the Americans lost to Sweden - their first loss ever in World Cup group play.
But they rallied with one of the most riveting finishes ever in a World Cup game - men's or women's - against Brazil in the quarterfinals. Down a player for almost an hour and on the verge of making their earliest exit ever from a major tournament, Abby Wambach's magnificent, leaping header in the 122nd minute tied the game.
The Americans beat Brazil in on penalty kicks and, just like that, a nation was hooked.
Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes, even folks who don't know a bicycle kick from a Schwinn were captivated by the U.S. women and charmed by their grit and can-do attitude that is uniquely - proudly - American. Even President Barack Obama was a fan, taking to Twitter himself on Sunday morning to wish the team well.
"Sorry I can't be there to see you play, but I'll be cheering you on from here. Let's go. - BO."
The White House later released a photo of Obama and his family watching the game.
But the Americans lost this game as much as Japan won it.
"Evidently, it wasn't meant to be," Wambach said.
They'd taken the lead in the 104th minute off a header by Wambach. Alex Morgan, who scored the first American goal, came up with a blocked cross and sent it to Wambach, who was camped in front of the goal on the 6-yard line. Standing a head taller - and then some - from defenders on either side of her, she needed only to nod the ball into the net.
But Sawa flicked in a corner kick in the 117th minute - earned after 36-year-old captain Christie Rampone raced to clear Yukari Kinga's chip over Hope Solo off the line.
The Americans got one last chance when Morgan was floored by Azusa Iwashimizu just outside the area in the 121st minute. Lloyd, Boxx and
Heather O'Reilly huddled behind the ball before O'Reilly tipped it to Lloyd. But Lloyd's shot was well wide, and Heath couldn't make anything happen with the rebound.
The United States had beaten Brazil on penalty kicks in a quarterfinal that was one of the most riveting games in the World Cup, men's or women's.
But the Americans didn't have the same touch Sunday.
"You don't; you can't," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said when asked to explain it. "Sometimes in, sometimes out."
Boxx went first, and her shot banged off Ayumi Kaihori's right leg. After
Aya Miyama made hers, wrong-footing Solo, Lloyd stepped up and sent her shot soaring over the crossbar. As the crowd gasped, Lloyd covered her mouth in dismay. Solo saved Japan's next shot, but Kaihori made an impressive two-handed save on Heath's shot.
Solo came up with a save, and Wambach buried hers. But Japan need to make just one more, and Kumagai did.