The U.S. Women’s National Team avenged their heartbreaking loss to Japan in last year’s World Cup Final with a 2-1 victory over that same Japanese team to capture Gold for the third straight time in the Olympic Games.
It wasn’t the dramatic overtime, penalty-shootout finish that defined their end in Germany last summer. No, this time the U.S. held onto a one-goal lead to do what they didn’t a year ago – finish.
Carli Lloyd put the U.S. on the board in the 8th minute with a diving header off an Alex Morgan cross from the end line that just missed the left foot of Abby Wambach. In the 54th minute, Lloyd added an insurance goal, taking the ball up the middle and then stunning the defense with a wonder strike from 20 yards out.
Despite the lead, this was no cakewalk for the red, white and blue, and everyone knew it wouldn’t be easy. Japan dominated the run of play for much of the match, drawing fouls and getting multiple set piece opportunities that kept tremendous pressure on the U.S. defense. But this time, it was the Japanese who couldn’t finish most of their chances, knocking shots off the crossbar and getting denied by the No. 1 goalkeeper in the world, Hope Solo, who was tested repeatedly and came up with one of the biggest performances of her career.
Even the lone Japanese goal took multiple attempts to finish off, as an Ohno shot was cleared at the goal line by Christie Rampone before Ogimi rebounded the clearance and took advantage. But even with the lead cut in half and Japan looking like they’d tie it up at any moment with under 20 minutes left to play, the defense refused to break.
The headlines will talk about redemption. Redemption for Lloyd, who went from scoring the game-winning goal in the 2008 Beijing Games Final to starting every match in the 2011 World Cup, only to find herself out of the starting eleven for the London Games. Redemption for Abby Wambach, who missed the 2008 Games with a broken leg. Redemption for a team that failed to close a year ago, letting two leads slip away before making only one of five penalty shots on international soccer’s biggest stage.
But this match, and this tournament, was about more than redemption. It wasn’t just about defeating a team that had shattered their World Cup dreams. And it wasn’t about individual agendas. It was about coming together as a team, taking on new roles, and letting no single performance outshine another that led to the U.S. wearing gold medals around their necks today.
After scoring in the first five matches of the Olympics, Abby Wambach didn’t score for the U.S. today. But she was able to move throughout the field, helping create opportunities that she wouldn’t have been able to last year when she was the lone striker.
Neither did the team’s leading scorer, Alex Morgan, who sent the U.S. to the final with her 122nd minute, game-winning header against Canada. Instead, Alex used her patented speed and footwork to move through the penalty area, evade defenders and get the ball in a better position where she could set up a perfect cross for Lloyd to finish in front of the goal.
Earlier in the tournament Megan Rapinoe, whose bread and butter had been pinpoint crosses that led to goal-scoring opportunities, took on the role of goal-scorer herself. From her game-winning strike against Colombia in group stage, to the game-tying corner kick she curled in herself against Canada in the semifinal, Rapinoe took on multiple roles when needed, and came up big when the spotlight shone brightest. But when she had the opportunity to celebrate one of her biggest goals, she took herself out of the limelight and used it to pay tribute to another teammate.
Like Lloyd, reliable right winger Heather O’Reilly found herself out of the starting lineup and in a substitute role before the Olympics began. But when it mattered most, O’Reilly embraced the role fully, coming on late in the semifinal match against Canada and delivering the go-ahead assist to Morgan.
When she found out she wouldn’t be among the starting lineup in the Olympics, Lloyd nearly doubted her abilities. But instead, she turned it into motivation to prove that she deserved to be there. And when Shannon Boxx came out with an injury fifteen minutes into the opener, Lloyd was back on the pitch, albeit in a less familar, defensive role in the back of the midfield.
Today she was back to her usual attacking center midfielder role, as Boxx returned for the final match, and with both skills in her toolbox, Lloyd became one of the most valuable players in the tournament. Not only did she capitalize on goal-scoring opportunities, scoring the game-winner against France in the opener and finishing with two today, but she created multiple turnovers in the midfield that interrupted Japan’s usually clinical possession-oriented passing game.
Can you really pick out a single player who was the star of the tournament? Some might say Lloyd or Rapinoe. Others Morgan or Wambach. But there really is no one star. Each contributed individually in key moments, but those individual performances never defined the tournament as a whole. In the end, who started and who subbed wasn’t as important as how each player embraced her role and supported each other – no matter what it was. And in the end, the reward was golden.