Japan's Homare Sawa scored the equalizer late in extra time and the United States failed to convert its first three penalty kicks as it finished second in the World Cup in Germany
Despite dominating throughout and taking the lead twice, the U.S women's team could not overcome a persistent Japanese side as it missed its first three penalty kicks following a 2-2 draw after an action-packed 120 minutes at Commerzbank Arena.
“We won a silver medal. I hope I can feel that after a couple of weeks,” said U.S. coach Pia Sunhage, whose team entered the tournament ranked No. 1 in the world.
Japan, which played with a heavy heart following the devastating earthquake and tsunami just four months ago, beat the United States for the first time in history dating back to 1986.
Japan's Homare Sawa was the hero in her nation's first final appearance by scoring the equalizer off a corner kick in the 116th minute after Abby Wambach gave the U.S. the lead moments before the first half of extra time came to a close.
"Unbelievable," Sawa said. "We never gave up so we found this result. I ran until the end of the game and played with all my might."
Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori stopped two U.S. penalty attempts and watched another sail over the crossbar. U.S. keeper Hope Solo was only able to stop one of Japan's attempts as the favorites were unable to win their third World Cup.
Alex Morgan gave the U.S. the initial lead in the 68th minute, while Aya Miyama scored Japan's first goal in the 80th minute.
"It's hard that we lost the game," Solo said. "It was heartbreaking."
The Americans came out firing early on, recording eight of their 31 total shots in the first 20 minutes, but couldn't get one past the goal line despite several chances.
The U.S. came out of halftime with a new frontline as Morgan replaced Lauren Cheney, who sat on the sideline for the remainder of the game with ice on an injured right foot. Morgan made an impact moments later as she hit the post, the third time the U.S. hit the woodwork in the game.
Morgan finally put the Americans on the scoreboard when she blew past Saki Kumagai and hit a perfect shot to the lower right of the net. Midfielder Megan Rapinoe delivered a great cross to the speedy Morgan, who went to the far post for her second goal in as many games.
That's when Japan put on the pressure.
Following a cross into the box by Sawa, U.S. defenders Rachel Buehler and Alex Krieger missed two opportunities to clear the ball. Miyama, who was parked in front of the net, snuck one past Solo to the left.
Morgan set up the United States' second go-ahead goal as she dribbled to the end line and delivered a perfectly placed cross to Wambach, who headed it into the net for her fourth goal in the last four games in the 104th minute.
Wambach, who ranks third all time in U.S history in goals, moved into first place in U.S. women's history with 13 World Cup goals, including a historic goal in extra time against Brazil in the quarterfinals.
Sawa, however, ended the United States' magical run to the championship.
The midfielder scored for the fifth time in six games when she hit a corner off Wambach and into the net, securing a chance to win the game on penalty kicks.
"I give credit to the players for playing good soccer,” Sundhage said. “They kept possession better than in the other games we played. But we couldn’t put away our chances. We created a lot of good chances in the first half. It’s a final. There is a small difference between winning and losing.”
It was all Japan during penalty kicks.
Kaihori made a beautiful kick save on the United States' first attempt, which was taken by Shannon Boxx. After Miyama scored on Japan's first shot, U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd chipped her shot over the net.
Solo saved the ensuing attempt by Japan's Yuki Nagasato to give the Americans hope, but Tobin Heath made the U.S. 0-3 during the penaly session.
Mizuho Sakaguchi and Saki Kumagai ended things for the U.S. and the party began for the sentimental favorites of the World Cup.
"Yes, we had luck in the penalty shootout and I definitely got some help from my football god," Japan coach Norio Sasaki said.