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Nancy Armour AP National Writer
Published: 14 July 2011

MOENCHENGLADBACH, Germany (AP) -- Somehow, the Americans seem to find a way to win.

And more often than not, Abby Wambach has something to do with it.

With time running out and France giving the United States all it could handle and then some, Wambach's winner in the 79th minute put her teammates at ease and set off celebrations on two continents. The 3-1 victory Wednesday night has the Americans in the World Cup final for the first time since 1999, which also just happens to be the last time the United States won soccer's biggest prize.

"It it was a privilege to take the other side of the field against a great France team," Wambach said. "However, our team has the ability to fight through adversity. Our team has the ability to stick together when the going gets rough, and I couldn't be more excited and proud."

The Americans will face Japan on Sunday in Frankfurt. The U.S. beat Japan by 2-0 scores in a pair of warmup games a month before the World Cup, but don't make any assumptions off that. This World Cup has been anything but predictable, and it's not likely to stop until someone is holding that gold trophy.

Germany was the big favorite when the World Cup began, two-time defending champs and sure to get a boost from playing at home. Brazil had Marta, and was due for a good result after coming up just short in the last three major tournaments. Both teams were sent packing early, not even making it to the semifinals.

Instead it was France, which had made only other World Cup appearance, and Japan in the final four along with the Americans and Sweden. And the Japanese made surprisingly easy work of Sweden, the last unbeaten team in the tournament in the other semifinal Wednesday night.

"Tonight, the Japanese were a bit more eager to win," Sweden coach Thomas Dennerby said after Japan's 3-1 victory.

The Americans knew they had doubters when they arrived in Germany. They'd lost three games since November, an alarming "bad" streak for a team that can goes years without a loss, and needed to win a playoff just to get to the World Cup.

But the players were unshakable in their belief in themselves, and that will to win has won over the entire country. Even though the game started at noon EDT, people from coast to coast skipped work or took frequent "breaks" to watch the game. Bars opened early. Neighborhoods held watch parties. At the Phoenix airport, dozens of fans crowded around TVs to watch the game.

When the final whistle blew, Hollywood celebrities, pro athletes and ordinary folks who didn't know a free kick from a corner kick just a few days ago flooded Twitter with congratulations. "My heroes. Wambach. Boxx. Rapinoe. Solo. That TEAM! Our team!" actor Tom Hanks tweeted. Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers said, "Awesome job US Women, finish it off Sunday now."

"These wins, we can't do it alone. We know a whole nation is cheering us on," Wambach said. "We believe in ourselves and we're in the final. I couldn't be happier."

A little relieved, too.

Though not quite as flashy as Brazil, France plays with a flair and creativity that is impressive to behold. Louisa Necib runs France's offense, and rarely were her passes or ideas off the mark. Les Bleues were so cohesive that the midfield became a no man's land for the Americans; any ball that dared enter was soon in France's hands.

France was so dominant that, despite Lauren Cheney scoring in the ninth minute, the U.S. seemed to be playing from behind for most of the game.

"We didn't play well today," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "However, we find a way to win and that's a credit to the players' hearts. That's what makes it so wonderful to be coach of this team."

Sundhage finally replaced Carli Lloyd with sparkplug Megan Rapinoe in the 65th minute, shifting Cheney inside and letting Rapinoe run wild on the flanks.

Just like that, the Americans had regained control.

"We didn't want to do that whole 30 minutes of overtime and (penalty kick) thing again," Rapinoe said.

The Americans were able to push forward and began threatening French goalkeeper Berangere Sapowicz. Finally, in the 79th, Cheney won a corner kick.

"I told (Cheney) at halftime, 'Put the ball to the back post, and we're going to get a goal,'" Wambach said.

Cheney delivered the ball perfectly to the far post. Just as Wambach had predicted, the 5-foot-11 forward soared over the scrum and pushed the ball past Sapowicz.

"I knew Abby was going to beat her," Cheney said, referring to the French defender who practically mugged Wambach to try and contain her.

Asked how, Cheney said, "Because she's Abby Wambach."

It was Wambach's third goal of the tournament and 12th of her career, tying fellow American Michelle Akers for third on the all-time World Cup scoring list.

And the Americans weren't done yet. Rapinoe found a streaking Alex Morgan, who outraced four defenders, collected the ball and then threw Sapowicz off with a sweet stutter-step. The goal wide open, Morgan buried the ball to put the game out of reach.

"The priority is not to accept another goal," France coach Bruno Bini said through a translator. "When that happens, you've had it. We conceded another goal and that was it for us."

Despite the loss, the World Cup was a resounding success for the French. In addition to their first semifinal appearance, they qualified for the London Olympics, where the Americans will be two-time defending champions.

That, however, is next summer.

The Americans have another title to claim first.

"We've achieved part of our goal. We're in the final," Wambach said. "We want to complete it. We want to be world champs."

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