After an epic, come-from-behind quarterfinals victory over Brazil, and a challenging semifinals win against France, the U.S. women's soccer team is facing off with Japan in the World Cup finals Sunday. A victory would make this squad the first U.S. team to bring home the World Cup trophy since 1999's legendary roster finished on top. What's the secret to this group's success? Here, seven theories:
1. Coach Pia Sundhage is a master
Much of the credit goes to "the Swedish coach who sings folk songs to her players to keep them loose, and knows the game as a world-level player might," says George Vecsey in The New York Times. "She was absolutely the best choice the United States Soccer Federation could have made after the sour 2007 Women’s World Cup." France outplayed the U.S. in the first half of the semifinals match, says Robert Wagman at Soccer Times, but then, as top coaches do, Sundhage made several smart substitutions that helped turn the game around.
2. They've got heart
"When athletes talk about 'belief' and commitment and all those noble intangibles, many roll their eyes," says Brian Straus at Aol SportingNews. With this team, though, the cliche rings true. The U.S. "clearly lacked the individual technique and creativity of its past two opponents," but "it willed its way to late victories." Yes, "this team's heart and resilience when things look grim should be bottled and sold," says Stacy Title at ESPN.
3. Hope Solo is a brick wall
The team's too-perfectly-named goalie, considered by many to be the best women's keeper in the game, kept her composure when the now legendary quarterfinals game against Brazil went into a penalty kick shootout; she successfully blocked one of the five kicks to secure the win. "Having Hope Solo and her unshakable confidence at the back has been such a tremendous advantage in recent matches, as both Brazil and France have suffered with subpar goalkeeping performances," says John McGregor at Soccer365. Solo's performance in this World Cup is a redemption story: She was benched in the 2007 World Cup, then ostracized by her teammates when she said she could have stopped some goals that her replacement didn't.
4. They've found their own identity, at last
These "gorgeous toughies" have finally "forged their own identity," says Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post. They've long lived in the great shadow on the 1999 USA squad, which won the World Cup in front of a sold-out Rose Bowl crowd, took home a "fistful of Olympic medals," made Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain household names, and helped make soccer the "fastest growing sport for girls" around the world. Today's U.S. team had long "struggled with the inheritance, occasionally with visible irritation," and the fact that Hamm and Chastain are offering commentary from the ESPN anchor desk hasn't helped matters. But, "in the last two games the distinct outline of their character has emerged."
5. Abby Wambach is a clutch performer
The 31-year-old team captain, who teammate Megan Rapinoe describes as "beast in the air," saved the quarterfinals match against Brazil when she headed in a goal in the final minutes of the game. Then, in the semifinals, "the Americans got past France partially because of Abby Wambach's size, strength and experience," says Vecsey in The New York Times. At five-foot-eleven, she's "as solid as telephone pole," and having grown up playing basketball and driveway hockey with her four brothers, she's tough and fearless.
6. They're in the best shape
"In the final analysis," the U.S. prevailed over France "because of its superior conditioning and perseverance," says Wagman at Soccer Times. The team had just two days to recover from an epic game against Brazil before facing France, who'd had an extra day off. Midfielder Heather O'Reilly says the Americans have focused on "recovery strategies" to keep their legs fresh. Fitness coach Dawn Scott has made ice baths, massages, and wearing "very, very, very tight compression pants" a regular routine. "It's part of our culture now," says O'Reilly, as quoted by the Associated Press. "As a group, they are demonstrably the strongest, fittest team in the world," says Jenkins in The Washington Post.
7. They're humble
The women make a fraction of what most professional athletes make, giving "their quest an amateur glow," says Matthew Futterman in The Wall Street Journal. "The whole team seems to exist in a kind of bizarro sports universe, a world of low dollars and high humility," and, as such, they "play like scrappy underdogs who, having been given nothing, work harder than everyone else."
Editor's Note: This article originally misstated how many shots on goal Solo blocked during penalty kicks in the match against Brazil. It has since been revised. We regret the error.