RICHMOND, Va. -- The United States eventually will have to overcome the collective brilliance of the sport's other powers to reclaim the World Cup title it surrendered on home turf in 2003. But for one day, overcoming the individual brilliance of a truly memorable performance by Iceland goalkeeper Thora Helgadottir was enough to prove that the summer of 2006 has been a step in the right direction.
Closing out its domestic schedule of international friendlies with a game against Iceland at the University of Richmond Stadium, the United States pulled out a surprisingly dramatic 2-1 win Sunday on the strength of Abby Wambach's goal in second-half stoppage time.
Wambach's second goal of the game followed a wild sequence in which Iceland tied the score on a penalty kick in the 89th minute after a questionable foul in the box against Heather Mitts. This was followed by Wambach narrowly avoiding her second yellow card after making contact with substitute keeper Gudbjorg Gunnarsdottir chasing down a ball minutes later in extra time.
The goal, which saved the United States from just its second tie against Iceland (the Americans haven't lost in nine games against Iceland), came on a typical power move from the big striker. Taking a pass from Stephanie Lopez, Wambach held off one defender before turning toward goal and stepping past another, giving herself just enough time to release the ball.
"With my right foot, I just toe-poked it, and it literally just rolled and rolled and rolled and rolled," Wambach said with a tired chuckle. "It was not the prettiest of goals, but some of them aren't. That's what true strikers do; they just score. It's not how, it's how many."
Wambach, who has 64 goals in 79 international games, is in one of the zones reserved for athletes who eventually will define a generation. Like others who reside at the top of their sport, from Tiger Woods to Roger Federer to Albert Pujols, she captivates by not only living up to increasingly daunting expectations but exceeding them on a regular basis.
"She's getting better," U.S. coach Greg Ryan said with some amazement after the game. "She's a true leader for the team up front, but she's constantly improving her game. Her technical level, bringing balls down out of the air, being able to finish from all sorts of angles, out of the air or on the ground. I keep seeing her add new things to her game."
It might have been a familiar final scene for the United States and its star, but it was a mildly jarring digression from the way the plot had developed in the first 90 minutes. Wambach provided the happy ending for the 4,083 fans on hand, but her coach was happy long before the ball bounced off the post and over the line.
From the opening whistle, the United States controlled every part of the field against Iceland, save for the small swath of grass in front of the net patrolled by Helgadottir. A week after pouring in 10 goals against an overmatched Chinese Taipei team, Ryan's team created chance after chance in a display of offensive possession that was at least as impressive as the gaudy goal totals of the previous week, given the opposition in each case.
"We created enough chances to win maybe five games," Ryan said. "But it was just one of those days where it was difficult to get a goal. Their goalkeeper stood on her head; she was fantastic and did a great job keeping them out."
By the end of the day, the United States had 26 shots, including 18 shots on goal. Helgadottir, who came out of the game to a loud and well-deserved ovation from the fans in 78th minute with the United States leading 1-0, finished with 14 saves. But for Ryan, the chances were solace enough.
"The main thing in soccer you want to do is create chances," Ryan said. "The finishing -- we play this same game tomorrow, maybe we get five, six, seven goals. So if we just keep working at the finishing, they'll go in when they go in. But I was happy; I thought the players took their chances well. You could tell they wanted to go to goal, they were aggressive going to goal, and that's the main thing."
Earlier in the week, Ryan talked about the potential frustration that can set in against a defensive-minded team like Iceland if early chances don't result in goals. With Canada, a stylistically similar team, likely looming in the Gold Cup -- a tournament that will determine World Cup qualifying -- it had to be gratifying to see his players continue linking together passes and creating chances instead of giving in to frustration and losing their poise.
One key in building play against a team that wasn't looking to press the attack was the play of outside backs Lori Chalupny and Heather Mitts in the first half and Chalupny and Lopez in the second half (when Mitts moved over to replace Kate Markgraf in the middle of the defense).
On Saturday, Mitts talked about the dual responsibilities the backs have in Ryan's 4-3-3 formation.
"Obviously, you want to play defense, but at the same time, you have to want to be able to get forward and help in the attack," Mitts said. "Playing with a four-back, it's a very defensive-minded defense, but at the same time, you have to have it in the back of your mind that you need to get forward as much as you possibly can without causing risks to your own team."
From Chalupny sending several crosses that nearly led to goals in the first half to Lopez getting forward to get the ball to Wambach on the final goal, all three players did just that Sunday.
"Fantastic job by them, and Lopez did well when she came on, as well," Ryan said of the starters and sub. "They're just doing a great job; they're making great decisions, they're serving good balls, and then they're getting themselves around the outside and getting some crosses in. I think it's one of the most improved areas of our team's game right now, what the wing backs are doing."
Almost as encouraging was the play of Carli Lloyd in midfield. With Lloyd seemingly firmly entrenched in the starting lineup, it's becoming easier to overlook the fact that she still is playing her first full year with the national team. Against Iceland, she was perhaps the most visible player on the field for long stretches. Not every move was perfect, for instance when she fired an ill-advised long ball instead of carrying the ball forward after wowing the crowd with two great moves on the ball to beat a pair of defenders. However, her potential continues to transform into production.
"Each game, I'm getting more comfortable playing with the team and coming in here in the midfield," Lloyd said. "I'm just trying to help everybody out, help the team out. The coaches have helped me become more comfortable, so it's just adapting and getting used to the play."
Ryan offered a similarly positive review of her progress, sounding like someone confident he has found a long-term solution.
"I think she was very aggressive, in terms of going forward," Ryan said. "I was really happy with that because that's her special quality is ability to attack with the ball at her feet, run at players, run by people. I think Carli is still getting the feel of what works at the international level. As she finds that, she's going to start scoring more goals and getting more assists. Today, there were a couple of times where she tried some stuff that worked, sometimes it didn't. Each time she steps on the field, she's going to get better at attacking in the final third."
That Ryan used just two of his six allotted substitutions spoke volumes about the overall level of play for the United States; the offense simply didn't need a spark, no matter what the scoreboard said. So although fans will remember the frantic final minutes, the opening 88 minutes are likely to have a more lasting impact for the team.
After routing Chinese Taipei with a performance that was less spectacular than the score, the Americans closed their summer schedule with an imperfect result from a perfect performance.
And since they won't have to worry about seeing Helgadottir in the World Cup, that will do just fine.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com