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Aug 6, 2012 5:48 PM by

OLYMPIC ALERT: USA Women's soccer chases gold medal match

MANCHESTER, England - The U.S. women's soccer team is back in the Olympic gold medal match after a wild come-from-behind 4-3 win over Canada with a goal in the final minute of extra time.

Now the Americans will be out to avenge one of the most gut-wrenching losses in the program's history.

Alex Morgan gave the U.S. its first lead of the night in the third minute of injury time Monday, completing the win over Canada in the Olympic semifinals at Old Trafford.

Morgan's 6-yard header, on a long cross from Heather O'Reilly, looped high into the net over goalkeeper Erin McLeod for the winning goal. Megan Rapinoe scored in the 54th and 70th minutes, and Abby Wambach in the 80th for the U.S.

The Americans overcame a hat trick from Christine Sinclair, who scored in the 22nd, 67th and 73rd minutes for Canada.

Next comes the game the U.S. players have been eyeing for more than a year, a rematch with Japan on Thursday at Wembley Stadium with gold on the line. The top-ranked Americans lost to Japan on penalty kicks in the World Cup final last summer, a stunning blow that became a source of motivation as the players prepared for this year's Olympics.

The U.S. team has played in the title match in every Summer Games since women's soccer was introduced in Atlanta in 1996, winning the gold in 1996, 2004 and 2008 and the silver in 2000.

The Americans advanced by continuing its dominance of the neighbor to the north, extending its unbeaten streak against Canada to 27 games (23-0-4). The Americans lead the all-time series 44-3-5, the last loss coming at the Algarve Cup in 2001.

But it wasn't easy. Sinclair was an imposing force, scoring her 141st, 142nd and 143rd goals in international play. She's now even with Wambach for No. 2 on the all-time list, both chasing Mia Hamm's world record of 158.

Canada coach John Herdman said before the game that the run of futility against the Americans was on the minds of his players, and he addressed it with them in the run-up to the match. He also injected some pregame intrigue by accusing the Americans of using "highly illegal," overly physical tactics on free kicks and corner kicks.

Certainly, his team gave one of its most spirited efforts on the biggest stage ever for a game between the neighboring rivals, scoring the most goals the U.S. has allowed since a 5-4 win by the Americans over Australia in May 2008.

The game included a pair of goals resulting from moments rarely seen in soccer, including a corner kick that curled in for a goal and a goalkeeper whistled for holding the ball too long.

The Americans dominated possession in the early minutes, but then the U.S. defense did the unexplainable -- it lost track of one of the top goal-scorers of all time.

Marie-Eve Nault played a ball ahead to Melissa Tancredi, who tapped a pass over to Sinclair. Sinclair then slalomed through the penalty area, maneuvering around defender Kelley O'Hara to beat goalkeeper Hope Solo with simple right-footer from 10 yards.

It was the first goal allowed by the U.S. in more the 360 minutes, since a pair of early scores by France in the Olympic opener two weeks ago. The U.S. also trailed at halftime for the first time in this tournament.

The Americans found an unconventional way to pull even early in the second half, with Rapinoe scoring directly on a corner kick. She curled the ball just inside the near post, glancing off the legs of defender Lauren Sesselmann and goalkeeper McLeod as it settled in the net.

Then came a wild sequence of three goals in six minutes. The Tancredi-Sinclair combo worked again, with Sinclair heading Tancredi's cross just inside the post from 10 yards to put Canada ahead 2-1. Three minutes later, Rapinoe got her second, launching a right-footer from the edge of the area and off the post.

Then it was Tancredi again, leaping high to head in a corner kick, again just inside the post for goal No. 143, moving her temporarily ahead of Wambach.

Wambach got even with Sinclair -- and tied the game -- with a penalty kick resulting from an unusual call: McLeod was whistled for holding the ball more than six seconds, giving the Americans an indirect free kick inside the area. Rapinoe took the kick, and it glanced off the arm of Nault. The referee awarded the spot kick, which Wambach converted off the left post in the 80th minute.

The game became a battle of attrition in extra time, with the Americans having the better of the chances. Wambach put a header off the crossbar in the 119th minute. The officials then declared there would be three minutes of injury time, just enough for Morgan to put one in and avoid the penalty kick shootout.

Elsewhere, Jenn Suhr of the United States won the gold medal in the women's pole vault on Monday, ending Russian Yelena Isinbayeva's bid for a third straight Olympic title.

Suhr won after clearing 4.75 meters at her second attempt, and missed every attempt at 4.80.

Yarisley Silva also cleared 4.75 on her second attempt for a Cuban national record, but lost on a countback and took silver.

Isinbayeva finished with bronze at 4.70. She had been aiming to be the first woman in track and field to win the same individual event in three straight Olympics.And in gymnastics, Aliya Mustafina stood atop the podium, proudly cradling her medal and watching the Russian flag rise.

She dared not even imagine such a scene six months ago, her left knee aching and the ruthless brilliance that had made her the world's best gymnast no longer within her command. Yet she refused to give in, to the pain in her body or the doubts in her mind, and the reward now lay heavy upon her chest.

"I am very, very happy I've won gold," Mustafina said after winning the Olympic title on uneven bars Monday. "Every medal represents its own thing."

No one could appreciate that better than Beth Tweddle.

Tweddle has been at the forefront of the transformation in British gymnastics, winning every prize there is -- except an Olympic medal. She'd come oh, so close four years ago, missing the bronze by a mere 25-hundredths points, and the devastation almost drove her into retirement.

To finally win a bronze Monday in what is surely the 27-year-old's last Olympics, in front of an adoring British crowd, was all that mattered and not the color.

"I tried to say it didn't matter if I didn't medal, but I've got every other title to my name," Tweddle said. "I can now say I would have been devastated walking away with no medal. I am going to sleep easy tonight."

The medals handed out Monday were for the uneven bars, but they may as well have been for grit and determination. Reminders that talent is not always enough, and that the greatest triumphs are sometimes born out of the biggest disappointments.

All-around champion Gabby Douglas finished last on uneven bars.

Mustafina was so dominant at the 2010 world championships it seemed impossible she wouldn't overwhelm the field again in London. She left those worlds with a medal in all but one event, including the all-around gold, and her haughty attitude was as entertaining as her gymnastics skills.

Six months later, however, she blew out her left ACL at the European championships, putting her chances of simply competing in London in doubt.

"Sometimes I did," Mustafina said when someone asked if she ever considered quitting. "But these urges left me quickly."

She threw herself into her rehab, coming back so quickly she actually tried to convince her coach she could compete at the world championships last fall.

But there were only glimpses of her old self, and she was downright dismal at this year's Europeans.

"I did not believe I could do it," she acknowledged. "I was nowhere near in the shape I am now."

On this night, however, she was as brilliant as she's ever been.

Mustafina's uneven bars routine is packed with so many difficult skills it leaves her gasping for air by the time she's finished. But she makes them look easy, flipping and floating from one bar to another. Her execution is exquisite, her toes perfectly pointed, her legs razor straight.

When she landed, she threw up her hands in triumph and turned on a megawatt smile. When her score of 16.133 flashed, coach Evgeny Grebenkin picked her up in a bear hug, and chants of "ROSS-EE-YAH!" (Russia) rang out.

Only Douglas was left, and what slim chance the all-around champion had at a medal ended when she stalled on a handstand. The gold was Mustafina's, and the Russian could not stop staring at the scoreboard when the final results posted, a proud and satisfied smile on her face.

She now has a complete set of medals, following her silver from the team competition and bronze from the all-around.

"I was hoping very much I'd done everything I could to win it," Mustafina said. "It's the worth of all the hard work I've put in."

Tweddle might have given Mustafina a real run for the gold had she not landed low on her dismount, needing to take two steps back to steady herself. But after her disappointment four years ago, any medal was as good as gold for Tweddle.

"I saw myself in third and I thought: 'Please don't be fourth again,'" she said. "I just can't put into words what it means to me."

The British have become a surprise force in gymnastics -- they won four medals at these games -- and it was Tweddle who led the way. Her bronze at the 2003 world championships was the first world medal for a British woman, and she won Britain's first world title, on uneven bars, three years later. She has since added two more world titles, one on floor exercise in 2009 and another on bars in 2010.

"It's the best feeling in the world," Tweddle said after securing her bronze. "It's the one medal that was missing from my collection and I've always said I don't care what color it is."


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