MANCHESTER, England - On the verge of missing the gold-medal game for the first time, the U.S. women's soccer team caught a break when the referee made a call rarely seen in the sport.
Then the Americans put together a final winning surge, inspired by the familiar - a pep talk from co-captain Abby Wambach.
"I know I've said this before," she said she told her teammates during extra time. "But it really does just take one moment and one chance, one moment of brilliance for somebody to do something individually spectacular."
The moment came beyond the 30 minutes of extra time. With 30 seconds left in injury time - and U.S. goalie Hope Solo preparing for a penalty shootout - Alex Morgan looped in a 6-yard header on a long cross from Heather O'Reilly, giving the U.S. a 4-3 win over Canada in the Olympic semifinals.
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 blow that became a source of motivation as the players prepared for the London Olympics. Japan advanced Monday with a 2-1 win over France in London.
"This is redemption for us. We know how hard it was for us after that game," U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "It hurt us for a long time."
The Americans overcame three one-goal deficits Monday, all due to Christine Sinclair goals in the 22nd, 67th and 73rd minutes. Megan Rapinoe scored in the 54th and 70th minutes, and Wambach in the 80th for the U.S., leaving Sinclair and Wambach tied at No. 2 with 143 international goals apiece, both chasing Mia Hamm's world record of 158.
It was the sequence that led to Wambach's tying goal that left the Canadians fuming. It started when goalkeeper Erin McLeod was whistled for holding the ball more than six seconds, a call even U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said she had never seen before.
That gave the U.S. an indirect free kick inside the penalty area. Rapinoe rammed it into the Canadian wall, the ball glancing off the arm of Marie-Eve Nault. Referee Christiana Pedersen of Norway then awarded the U.S. a penalty kick, which Wambach converted off the left post.
McLeod said she did not receive the usual warning from the referee about holding the ball too long, although she said the linesman had told her at the start of the second half not to slow down play.
"I think the referee was very one-sided," said McLeod, whose Canadian team will face France for the bronze on Thursday. "It was an interesting sequence of events. I think we outplayed the Americans the entire game."
But in the end, it was O'Reilly, a substitute who came on in the 102nd minute, who used her fresh legs to send a lofty cross to Morgan for the winner.
Wambach is usually the heading specialist. This time, it was Morgan, the player known as Baby Horse for her age (23) and her gallop, delivering in the clutch. At the bottom of the U.S. pile-up, Wambach grabbed Morgan in a fierce embrace.
"I love you," she recalled screaming at Morgan.
Local athletes IN London
How they fared Monday
• Track & field: Wildcat Georganne Moline earned a spot in the 400-meter hurdles finals on Wednesday with a time of 54.74. In the women's shot put, UA assistant coach Jill Camarena-Williams was hampered by a back injury and did not advance, and Wildcat Julie Labonte did not advance, finishing 23rd overall.
• Basketball: Andre Iguodala played 20 minutes for the U.S. and had 13 points.
• 2:45 a.m.: 5,000-meter prelims, Bernard Lagat, USA
• 12:45 p.m.: 400 hurdles final, Georganne Moline, USA
• 2:15 p.m.: Basketball, Iguodala, USA