FRANKFURT, Germany (CNN) -- The U.S. women's soccer team netted a go-ahead goal in overtime Sunday night, giving it the advantage with just minutes remaining in its World Cup final showdown with Japan.
U.S. forward Abby Wambach headed a pass from Alex Morgan into the back of the net, giving her team a 2-1 lead with 17 minutes to go in extra time.
Her score came about 12 minutes after Morgan herself scored, giving the Americans the advantage after they'd controlled much of the early action but couldn't capitalize.
With the score tied through regulation, the teams headed into 30 minutes of extra time. If the game is still even after that, it will be decided by penalty kicks.
In the first-half alone, a U.S. player hit a goal-post, and on another occasion, Wambach rattled the crossbar. Japan also had its own point-blank chance about 30 minutes into the game; that was saved by U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo.
It was more of the same in the second half, with Morgan ringing a ball off the post from several feet away just three minutes in. Then, Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori tapped a Wambach header just over the crossbar 15 minutes later.
The game began at 8:45 p.m. (2:45 p.m. ET) in Frankfurt, Germany, capping an eventful tournament that saw a number of favorites like Brazil, Sweden and the host nation of Germany fall by the wayside.
The U.S. team, meanwhile, needed last-minute heroics to advance. Team USA is trying to become the first squad to win the women's World Cup three times, having also captured the title in 1991 and 1999.
While the U.S. team is playing for bragging rights and to boost the sport's profile in their home country, Japanese players are hoping to give their citizens something to smile about after a March 11 earthquake that triggered a devastating tsunami and a nuclear crisis.
"To be in the final is, to be honest, like a dream," Japanese player Homare Sawa told FIFA, adding that her teammates plan to capitalize on any weaknesses. "We know USA are a great and strong team, but they have weak points, too, and there's always a chance to score."
The Japanese players have won their share of fans, with Solo of the U.S. team calling them "the sentimental favorites" for helping to lift the spirits of their devastated nation.
"They're playing for something bigger and better than the game," the American goalkeeper said in a conference call prior to the match. "When you are playing with so much heart, that's hard to play against."
The U.S. team has captured the hearts of Americans for its creativity, dazzling plays and free spirit. Their white-knuckle wins have kept fans engrossed and revamped interest years after the team's last win in 1999, before a packed house at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke by phone with the U.S. team Sunday before the game, wishing the players good luck and telling them that America is proud of how well they've done.
"I just got the highest hopes that this great team, which has shown such resilience, will be coming back and winning for the U.S.," Clinton told reporters, adding that she plans to watch the game from Greece.
In one of their most thrilling wins, the team came from behind to beat Brazil in the quarter-finals on July 10. On Wednesday, the United States advanced by beating France by a 3-1 score.
Their energy is evident in the locker room, where the players are known to sing and dance.
On the field, Swedish-born head coach Pia Sundhage said she has trained them to play with verve and openness.
"I guess there's a reason they hired me from a foreign country," Sundhage said. "They wanted change. It was risky to make too big of a change because then (the team) would lose a lot of confidence."
A delegation that includes Jill Biden, wife of the U.S. vice president, and former first daughter Chelsea Clinton are in the stands Sunday in Germany, cheering on the U.S. squad.
The team faces a Japanese squad that is faster and more tactical, some American players said.
"They are the biggest surprise in the tournament," U.S. defender Ali Krieger said of her opponents. "The game is going to be quicker, and it's going to be a passing game."
Just as the 1999 team inspired a generation of young girls, the women are doing the same today.
"Respect has to be given to the women that came before," Wambach said before the game. "People are saying, 'Are you getting tired of the '99 story?' And if I say yes, it would be definitely slapping the face of the women who came before us, and I wouldn't do that."
However, they said, it is their era now, their legacy.
"We are a different team, and we are a different generation, and we are in a different time," Krieger said. "We're trying to write our own story and make this a new story for women's soccer and women's football around the world to enjoy."
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