A massive crack appeared in the glass ceiling against which the Football Ferns have been relentlessly pounding in recent times on February 11, 2012, as the pride of New Zealand women’s football came within minutes of beating the world’s number one-ranked side, Team USA, on American soil.
A brace of late goals from teenage sensation Alex Morgan - one of which was highly dubious, to put it mildly - earned the USA a come-from-behind 2-1 victory over a Football Ferns combination which produced a simply immense display in front of a sell-out 20,677-strong crowd at the FC Dallas Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
In near-freezing temperatures, the visitors found themselves on the back foot for much of the first half, and could have fallen behind on the scoreboard in the ninth minute when Abby Wambach combined with the pacy Morgan on the left.
Ali Riley raced across as Morgan dashed into the penalty area, where she was caught by the retreating fullback, who could very easily have been sent off for a professional foul by local referee Moo Hackett.
Instead, she considered the penalty sufficient punishment for the offence, only for Wambach - with 132 goals second only to the legendary Mia Hamm as the most prolific markswoman in US history - to hit the post with her spot-kick, despite sending Jenny Bindon the wrong way.
Let-offs of that nature do wonders for the hopes of the underdogs, and within three minutes the Football Ferns came close to punishing their opponents’ penalty-taking profligacy.
Kirsty Yallop flighted a delightfully weighted ball over an American rearguard missing the redoubtable Heather Mitts for Hannah Wilkinson to latch onto. She raced into the penalty area before lashing a shot over the advancing figure of Hope Solo from the edge of the goal area, only to groan in despair as the ball cleared the crossbar as well.
Against teams of the calibre of the reigning Olympic champions, such chances can ill afford to be spurned, so infrequently do they materialise. Sure enough, the USA went about the task of making amends for this scare with a vengeance, with the Football Ferns rarely getting out of their own half during the opening forty-five minutes.
Jenny Bindon was soon in action, the Football Ferns’ custodian turning a Wambach drive round her near post before being fouled as she leapt to catch Shannon Boxx’s header from Lauren Cheney’s resulting corner to the far post.
The offence wasn’t spotted, however, with Wilkinson forced into a panicked goal-line clearance as a result. The ball ricocheted off Rachel Buehler and flew over the crossbar from point-blank range.
A Kiwi raid which foundered on Amy LePeiblet’s tackle dispossessing Yallop in mid-turn allowed the USA to produce a seventeenth minute counter-attack which saw Wambach switch play to Morgan, roaming down the left.
She got in between Abby Erceg and Rebecca Smith before seeing her low eighteen-yard drive parried to safety by Bindon, who had to race out of goal ten minutes later to thwart Wambach as she pursued a back-pass from Smith which had just enough on it to reach her goalkeeping team-mate.
In between times, Hayley Moorwood tracked back well to head clear from Wambach as Morgan scooted to the right-hand by-line and whipped in a cross. It was the first time the USA had seen this area of the pitch, because Ali Riley was policing it magnificently.
The ever-dangerous Heather O’Reilly didn’t get a sniff of an opening in the first spell thanks to the fullback’s efforts, which forced the Americans to withdraw her from the fray at half-time and revise their tactics.
Just after the half-hour, Cheney pinged in a free-kick which Buehler headed past the far post, while the provider turned executioner ten minutes before half-time when Katie Hoyle gifted possession to Boxx, who swiftly linked with O’Reilly to play Cheney in twenty yards out from goal.
The ball fizzed over the bar, a feat Cheney repeated in the final minute of the half as she latched onto a clearance from Riley. The move was sparked by Carli Lloyd’s inch-perfect cross-field ball which released Cheney down the left, from where she delivered a cross which Smith headed beyond the approaching Bindon in order to direct it away from the predatory figure of Wambach.
Morgan was lurking on the far post, however, only for Riley to strip her of possession and clear her lines. Cheney had arrived on the scene to support her team-mates, though, but her finish ensured the first half would conclude without a goal having been scored.
That nearly wasn’t the case, however. Two minutes before the interval, the Football Ferns ventured forth again, Yallop, Moorwood and Amber Hearn - on her fiftieth appearance for her country - combining for the benefit of Wilkinson, only for USA captain Christie Rampone - on her 250th appearance for her country - to head clear.
Moorwood had been tripped just outside the area in the build-up to this attack, but play had continued. Nonetheless, the Football Ferns’ most experienced operator was full of running once more when she chased after a ball Kelley O’Hara was always the favourite to win four minutes into the second half.
What O’Hara did next wasn’t so clever - a no-look pass back towards half-time goalkeeping substitute Nicole Barnhart which went nowhere near the newcomer. Instead, it arrived in the stride of the on-rushing figure of Wilkinson, whose anticipation was rewarded by the opportunity to lob the stranded ‘keeper, Barnhart’s first task of the match being to pick the ball out of her net.
USA 0, New Zealand 1 - a scoreline witnessed only once before, when Ali Grant’s 37th minute goal was the difference between these proud women’s footballing nations at the World Women’s Invitational Tournament in Taiwan on 15 December 1987.
Could history possibly be repeated, on the occasion of the coaching debut of the Football Ferns’ new gaffer, Tony Readings? What a fillip this would be
on his coaching resume - played one, won one, against the world number one … it certainly reads nicely, and in the end was just five minutes away from becoming reality. Even a draw was still possible with less than ninety seconds left on the clock.
But until they played their get out of jail cards, the USA were well contained by a defiant New Zealand combination, whose desire and defensive wherewithal was occasionally supplemented by the threat of a second goal from the colonial upstarts.
O’Reilly’s replacement, Amy Rodriguez, fashioned a 57th minute opening which found Le Peilbet arriving late on the scene. Her cross picked out Wambach, who directed a header straight at Bindon, four minutes before Morgan shot straight at the Kiwi ‘keeper following a Cheney-led raid.
In between times, a superbly timed tackle by O’Hara - eager to make amends for her glaring error - thwarted Sarah Gregorius’ progress in the penalty area, while the speedster combined with substitute Betsy Hassett in the 66th minute, the newcomer making a bee-line for the by-line from where she whipped in a cross intended for Wilkinson. Rampone read the danger and averted it adeptly.
Seconds prior to this, Hassett, who was still coming to terms with the pace of the game after replacing Moorwood, was turned by Morgan as she came short for a corner from Cheney. The striker dashed across the by-line before driving a low cross into the goalmouth, where the ball ricocheted off Erceg straight to the grateful figure of Bindon.
The ‘keeper saved at the feet of Buehler soon after as substitute Megan Rapinoe headed goalwards following a Cheney 68th minute. This was the USA’s last genuine threat for a good fifteen minutes, during which time the Football Ferns visibly grew in confidence as they realised they were on the verge of recording a stunning upset.
That the USA were becoming frustrated at their inability to break down their doughty opponents was evidenced by Boxx’s late lunge at Hoyle which left the midfielder in need of treatment twelve minutes from time, and prompted referee Hackett to brandish the yellow card for the only time in the match.
The respite allowed the home team to regroup, and, urged on by the vocal local crowd, they threw everything but the kitchen sink at their rivals in the remaining minutes. But when Rodriguez scooted past the ever-industrious Ria Percival and whipped in a cross which ricocheted off Smith straight to Bindon, you began to feel that the prospect of a women’s footballing shock of near-seismic proportions was very real indeed.
Rapinoe drove an 87th minute free-kick goalwards which Bindon gleefully smothered. Her resulting clearance very soon returned possession to the USA, and from a right-win throw-in Rapinoe stole a yard on the right before firing in a wicked cross which arced beyond Bindon towards Morgan on the far post.
The young striker, who is set to feature as one of the three body-painted athletes in this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit edition, directed her header towards the target, only to see the ball hit the inside of the near post.
Bindon, by now back beneath her crossbar, quickly flicked the ricochet out, but not quickly enough in the eyes of referee’s assistant Jennifer Jones. Despite her doubtful positioning, and the fact she was looking into the setting sun, she signalled a goal which referee Hackett awarded, the official instantly finding herself surrounded by black-clad Kiwis as their white-clad American rivals engulfed the jubilant Morgan.
Having known some of these players for over a decade, this writer has no hesitation in saying they are, to a woman, as honest as the day is long, and that they only get as upset as this when they’re in no doubt they’ve been done an injustice.
Seeing so many of them immediately converging on the referee … replays were inconclusive, but the idea that the Football Ferns were done out of a famous victory by a dubious decision is decidedly disappointing.
Nonetheless, the decision stood - 1-1, and the USA now had their tails up at a time when the Football Ferns were unnerved for the first time in the match. Bindon saved at the feet of substitute Sydney Leroux before a jinking run by Morgan - Erceg, Yallop and Hearn were unable to contain her - culminated in a rasping drive from the edge of the penalty area which fizzed a yard wide as the game entered stoppage time.
A minimum of three minutes had been signalled by the fourth official, three minutes for the Football Ferns to hang on for a famous draw. The USA came again, Wambach turning Erceg in the area before seeing her cross headed out by Smith to Boxx. The midfielder’s looping header, from the edge of the area, clipped the top of the crossbar.
A genuine let-off, but with time up, one last attacking thrust by the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup runners-up broke Kiwi hearts. Buehler picked out Wambach with a cross which saw the striker head the ball into the penalty area.
Smith was favourite to prevail, but Morgan’s desperation to win the ball saw her climb over the Football Ferns captain to head the ball wide of Bindon and in via the far post - 2-1 USA, a blow from which their gallant opponents never had a chance to recover, with the final whistle being blown mere seconds after the restarting of play.
The Football Ferns were so close to achieving the breakthrough victory they seek that their despair was tangible - and shared - 12,000 kilometres away back home. That their time is nigh is evidenced by their having been within minutes of scoring the biggest upset in women’s football for many a year, and as their reaction to snatching victory from defeat suggests, the USA knew it.
Team USA: Solo (Barnhart, 46); LePeilbet, Buehler, Rampone, O’Hara (Leroux, 81); O’Reilly (Rodriguez, 46), Lloyd (Rapinoe, 62), Boxx (booked, 78), Cheney (Lindsey, 81); Morgan, Wambach
F’ball Ferns: Bindon; Percival, Smith, Erceg, Riley; Moorwood (Hassett, 61), Hoyle, Hearn, Yallop; Wilkinson (White, 74), Gregorius
Referee: Moo Hackett (USA)