This was the game…against the team…that the United States Women’s National Soccer Team had been waiting and wanting for 389 days. It was that length of time ago that Team USA stood on a podium in Germany tearfully resigning themselves to a 2nd place finish in the 2011 Women’s World Cup, vanquished by a Japanese team that lifted the spirits of their tsunami stricken homeland with their triumphant play. For some, they can live with silver. For players like Abby Wambach, Carli Lloyd and Hope Solo, it’s only gold that glitters. With a 2-1 victory over Japan in the gold medal match of the 2012 London Olympics, the American team will bathe in the glow of redemption.
The USA had many stars step up along the journey back to the top of the world of women’s soccer. Today, it was Carli Lloyd, who scored the winning goal against Brazil in the gold medal game of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. During the 8th minute, Alex Morgan left-footed a centering pass which seemed headed for Abby Wambach. As Abby lifted her leg to kick, a swoosh of blue blew by her foot. It was Carli Lloyd sprinting through to head the ball in for the first goal of the game. Carli slid to her knees in jubilation, soon to be engulfed, disappearing under a pile of overjoyed teammates.
Each team had multiple chances to score more goals than they ultimately ended with, especially a few (almost) golden opportunities for Japan. In the 17th minute Nohomi Kawasumi flew down the left side and crossed a shot that had American goalkeeper Hope Solo beaten. But this is a team sport, and teammate Christie Rampone was there behind Solo to kick the shot harmlessly away. Still, Hope had her moment to shine in the very next minute as Homare Sawa crossed a pass into Yuki Ogimi right in front of the goalkeeper’s box. Ogimi was a half step behind the defense with a clear shot at Solo. Ogimi’s shot was headed to the top net when Hope made a dazzling save, leaping and just getting enough of her fingertips on the ball to deflect it away. There was another chance for Japan when a shot hit the top crossbar. However, if one looks at the replay, Solo’s hand was right under the crossbar, so even had the ball been a length lower, it just would have hit her hand instead of the top of the goalpost.
Carli Lloyd’s heroics were not over yet. In the 54th minute, she ran through the defense and blasted a shot into the far left net past goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto. Carli had an open Alex Morgan to her far left in scoring position, but today Lloyd had the magic and took the shot herself. She reminded me of LeBron James or Kobe Bryant streaking to the basket past teammates and opponents alike with a single minded purpose to throw it down. And that she did. It was a good thing too for Team USA as Yuki Ogimi, who earlier was stymied by a sensational save by Solo, beat the American goalkeeper with a goal in the 63rd minute as the ball ricocheted around in front of the US net before finally being put in. With the score cut to 2-1, one could be forgiven for thinking this might end up like the Women’s World Cup match between these two titans of women’s soccer.
Not this day. Although Japan did have chances. Most notably, in the 83rd minute as Christie Rampone had her pocket picked by Mana Iwabuchi who then was all alone staring Hope Solo in the eye. It was a big mistake by Rampone, and one that for a second or two looked like it would prove costly. But remember that earlier Rampone had bailed out Hope when she was beaten on a play. This time, Hope bailed out Christie on a mistake. Cheating to the near post, Solo baited Iwabuchi into trying for the far post. Hope made another terrific save, diving and knocking the ball away. Except for Christine Sinclair having a game for the ages in the semifinals, Hope Solo hasn’t had much to do these Olympics. But in the gold medal game when it counted, she came up big and helped the Americans hold on for the win.
One of the beautiful things about the run to the gold was that it filled with so many different players stepping up. It wasn’t Alex Morgan or Abby Wambach every game. It wasn’t Hope Solo making every save. Of course, all three had their moments to shine, but so did Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe and Sydney Leroux. There were plays that don’t show up in a stat sheet, like when Rampone bailed out Solo early in the game. They played and won as a team. And make no mistake, while a gold medal was their ultimate goal no matter who they played, you know they wanted Team Japan in the worst way. They got ‘em and they beat ‘em. And with the win, they completed their own personal road to redemption.
ALL PICS ENLARGE BY CLICKING