FRANKFURT, Germany — The Americans stood on the field, watching in stunned silence.
This, they were certain, was their Women's World Cup to win, and they never doubted they would emerge as champions.
But the resilience that had carried them so far and captivated their country disappeared when they needed it most Sunday.
Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath failed to convert penalty kicks, and sentimental favorite Japan stunned the Americans 3-1 in a shootout after the United States twice blew a lead.
"There are really no words," former Florida standout Abby Wambach said. "We were so close."
Minutes, in fact.
Wambach, whose clutch play against Brazil and France was the reason the Americans were in the final, scored on a header in the 104th minute. But in the 117th, five minutes before extra time was to expire, Homare Sawa flicked in a corner kick to tie the score 2-2 and send it to penalty kicks. It was the fifth goal of the tournament for the 32-year-old, playing in her fifth World Cup.
"We ran and ran," Sawa said. "We were exhausted, but we kept running."
The Americans had beaten Brazil on penalty kicks in a quarterfinal thriller, but they didn't have the same touch this time.
"It's hard to do two rounds of penalties," Wambach said. "The keeper, in a way, knows which way we're going to go."
And the star of the shootout was feisty Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who made two outstanding saves.
Boxx took the first U.S. shot, and it banged off Kaihori's right leg as she dived to her left. After Aya Miyama made her kick, Lloyd stepped up and sent her shot soaring over the crossbar. As the crowd gasped, Lloyd covered her mouth in dismay.
U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo saved Japan's next shot, but Kaihori made an impressive two-handed save on a shot by Heath.
"This is a team effort," Kaihori said. "In the penalty shootout, I just had to believe in myself, and I was very confident."
After Japan grabbed a 2-0 edge, Wambach buried her kick.
But Japan needed to make just one more, and Saki Kumagai did.
All tournament long, the Japanese reminded the world they were playing for their battered country, still reeling from the devastation of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
After their win, the Japanese held the trophy high as confetti swirled around the podium.
"We wanted to use this opportunity to thank the people back home for the support that has been given," Japan coach Norio Sasaki said.
This was Japan's first appearance in the final of a major tournament, and the nation had not beaten the Americans in their first 25 meetings.
The Americans finished the first half with a 12-5 shot advantage but had just one attempt on target. Lauren Cheney came up short three times, and Wambach shook the crossbar.
The Americans broke through in the second half, with Alex Morgan scoring her second goal of the tournament in the 69th minute.
But in the 81st minute, Rachel Buehler and Ali Krieger could not clear the ball, which allowed Miyama to chip it past Solo to tie the score 1-1.
"There is such a little difference between success and not success," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said.
Then, after Wambach got the go-ahead goal with her powerful header in the 104th minute, Sawa struck in the 117th minute to force the dramatic shootout.
"Deep down inside, I really thought it was our destiny to win it," Lloyd said. "But maybe it was Japan's."