"I kept saying, `All it takes is one chance. It takes one second to score a goal,"' Wambach said.
Regulation. Overtime. Stoppage time. Penalty kicks. Through it all, the Americans never lost faith they'd pull it out.
Did they ever.
The Americans advanced to the semifinals with one of the most riveting victories in the history of the World Cup - men's or women's - beating old foe Brazil 5-3 in penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie.
When Ali Krieger hammered the last penalty into the bottom left corner of the net, the Americans let loose with a raucous celebration that soon spread back to the United States. Highlights of the game even got time on the Jumbotron at Yankee Stadium.
"There's something to be said about this team. This American attitude of pulling everything together and bringing out the best performance in each other is contagious," said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, a Swede. "I am very, very proud, and I'm very, very happy to be the coach for the U.S. team."
For Brazil, it is yet another disappointment at a major tournament. And this one is sure to sting more than any others because Marta had it won for the Brazilians, scoring her second goal of the game in the second minute of overtime for the 2-1 lead.
Wambach scored in the 122nd minute - about 90 seconds before the Americans were to make their earliest exit ever from the tournament they've won twice - and Hope Solo continued her mastery of the Brazilians in the penalty shootout by batting down an attempt by Daiane.
"Everything seemed to be on the safe side, but it wasn't," Brazil coach Kleiton Lima said. "Unfortunately there was the goal."
The U.S. victory comes exactly 12 years to the day the Americans beat China in a penalty-kick shootout at the Rose Bowl to win their second World Cup title, a watershed moment for the U.S. team and women's sports in general. This, the Americans insist, is another special group.
With two-time defending champion Germany and Brazil gone, the Americans figure to be favorites to win their third title. They play France in Wednesday night's semifinal, and would face either Japan or Sweden in next Sunday's final. Sweden beat the United States 2-1 in the final group stage game, its second victory this year over the Americans.
"We're just fighting for each other out there," said captain Christie Rampone, the last player left from the 1999 squad. "We were totally believing the whole time."
Marta and the Brazilians, meanwhile, watched in stunned silence as the Americans celebrated, and Cristiane had to wipe away tears several times during postgame interviews. Despite a star-filled roster led by Marta, the FIFA player of the year five times running, Brazil has never won a major tournament. It lost to the Americans in the last two Olympic gold-medal games, and to Germany in the 2007 World Cup final.
The U.S. has eliminated Brazil at five of the last seven major tournaments. The Americans also have won their last five meetings against Brazil, which entered with a 19-game, two-year unbeaten streak.
No victory, however, was more memorable than this.
"They fought, they did everything," Lima said. "They threw their hearts into it."
The lone consolation was that Marta's goals, the 13th and 14th of her career, tied her with Birgit Prinz atop the World Cup career scoring list.
"We will leave with our heads high," Marta said.
The Americans have been questioned and doubted after uncharacteristic inconsistency over the past year. After going more than two years without a loss, they've dropped four just since November. And they squandered the early lead gifted to them by Daiane, who botched a clearance on a Shannon Boxx cross in the second minute, knocking the ball into her own net.
But the players insisted they would be fine when it mattered most, and they proved it in the most dramatic of fashions.
With about a minute left in stoppage time of the final overtime period and down a player since Rachel Buehler's ejection in the 65th, Megan Rapinoe blasted a left-footed cross from 30 yards out on the left side that Andreia didn't come close to getting her hands on. Wambach, one of the best players in the world in the air, made contact and with one furious whip of her head, buried it in the near side of the net from about 5 yards.
"I don't think I've ever hit a cross like that with my left foot," Rapinoe said. "The best header in the world went and got it. Then, I don't know. I think I blacked out."
Wambach let out a primal scream and slid into the corner, pumping her fists and quickly mobbed by teammates. No goal had ever been scored that deep into a World Cup game.
"I'm at a loss and I literally cannot believe what just happened," Wambach said.
The Americans, shooting first, made their three penalty kicks only to have Cristiane and Marta easily match them. But then it was Daiane's turn. She took a hard shot, but Solo dove and batted the ball out of harm's way.
It was four years ago that Solo touched off a firestorm, blasting then-coach Greg Ryan's decision to bench her for the semifinals, a 4-0 loss that was the worst defeat in U.S. history. Any hard feelings her teammates had were erased when Solo led them to the Olympic gold medal in 2008, and everyone else's memories of those dark days get a little dimmer with every game.
"Hope, amazing. She's the best goalkeeper in the world," Rampone said. "We kept saying, `Hope's gonna get one. Hope's gonna get one. We just have to finish them off'."
The dramatic finish overshadowed a brilliant effort by Marta.
She made a dangerous run into the box in the 65th, beating two U.S. defenders and coming practically nose to nose with Solo before Buehler tracked back and dragged her down. Australian referee Jacqui Melksham not only ruled it a penalty but a red card as well. Cristiane, who already scored one goal off a penalty, took the kick. Solo made a perfect read and smacked it away, pumping her fists as Lloyd ran toward her to grab her in a bearhug.
But Melksham ordered the penalty retaken - and gave Solo a yellow card, ruling the American left her line or a teammate encroached the penalty area before the kick was taken. Replays clearly showed Solo was on her line.
"I have no idea," Solo said. "It is what it is."
As the crowd jeered, Marta stepped up for the retake, staring down her old foe. Solo cost Marta and the Brazilians the gold medal in Beijing, stopping a point-blank blast from Marta in the 72nd minute of the Olympic final. This time, however, Marta got the best of the 'keeper, burying the ball to pull the Brazilians even.
Marta seemed to put the game out of reach with another goal in the 92nd minute - though replays seemed to show that Maurine, the player who fed her the ball, was offside.
But Erika stalled when she went down on a tackle, and the delay contributed to the 3 minutes of stoppage time added to the end game - extra seconds that would prove crucial.
"That is a perfect example of what this country is about. What the history of this team has always been," Wambach said. "We never give up."