A last-minute goal by forward Alex Morgan earned the United States a 1-0 victory over host Italy on Saturday and put the team on the brink of qualifying for next summer's Women's World Cup in Germany.
Morgan's goal came in the fourth minute of injury time, when it appeared that the first game of the two-game playoff series would end in a tie.
Midfielder Carli Lloyd played a long ball deep into the Italian half, where forward Abby Wambach leaped to head the ball, flicking it into the path of Morgan.
The University of California striker from Diamond Bar sped past a defender, cut inside and fired a shot that beat former Pepperdine goalkeeper Anna Picarelli from close range.
It was the fourth goal in eight national team appearances for Morgan, who operates largely in the shadow of the vastly more experienced Wambach and former USC striker Amy Rodriguez, who made way for Morgan in the 85th minute.
The goal was the exclamation point on a period of intense and sustained pressure by the U.S. as it sought to find the game winner. The U.S. outshot Italy, 19-6, at the Stadio Euganeo in Padua, and had an 11-3 advantage in shots on target on a damp and overcast afternoon.
Despite the U.S. team's control of the game, goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart still had to make exceptional saves on shots by Alessia Tuttino and Patrizia Panico to earn the shutout.
But it was Morgan, the youngest player on the team at 21, who earned the plaudits. She was the U.S. hero of the Under-20 Women's World Cup final in Chile in 2008 when she scored the winning goal in the final against North Korea, and now she has another memorable strike to her name.
"For a 21-year-old to come on the field and make that kind of difference to give us the edge to potentially qualify for the World Cup, that's huge," Wambach said. "You can't put a word or an emotion to it. It's just the biggest goal of her career."
Said Morgan: "It feels amazing. We are one step closer to qualifying, and I'm just happy I can be a part of it."
The series concludes Saturday at Toyota Park in Bridgeview, Ill., where the U.S. needs only a tie to advance to the Cup, which will be played in nine German cities between June 26 and July 17.
Fourteen teams have qualified for the 16-team tournament. Host Germany, along with England, France, Norway and Sweden, will represent Europe. Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea have qualified from Africa.
Asia will be represented by Australia, Japan and North Korea. Canada and Mexico have clinched places from the North and Central American and Caribbean region, and New Zealand will represent Oceania.
Brazil secured its place in the tournament with a 5-0 victory over Colombia on Saturday to win the South American title and also qualify for the 2012 Olympics in London. Argentina, Chile and Colombia remain in contention for the continent's other Cup berth.
The final place will be determined in the U.S.-Italy game Saturday.
Jones reported from Los Angeles