LONDON--When the final whistle blew, they came together on hallowed soccer ground, Wembley Stadium, with the cheers of more than 80,000 fans thundering in their ears. The gold medalists of the U.S. women's soccer team had achieved a feat that consumed their thoughts for every day of the past year. And this time, when victory came, they did not split in different directions to celebrate. Everyone -- the 11 players on the field, the seven more on the bench and the coaching staff -- met as one in the center of the field.
United States 2, Japan 1. For the fourth time in five Olympics, the U.S. had won the gold medal. And by beating Japan, the team that snatched their World Cup dream last year, the Americans got a measure of redemption against their worthy and respected rivals. If the past two major tournaments were the start of an epic sporting rivalry, please bring us more in the years to come.
If you were watching from the upper reaches of Wembley with the Olympic-record crowd for women's soccer, all you saw was a single mass of U.S. players celebrating on the field. But eventually you could pick out the individual players, each one of whom played a role in earning the medal that would soon be around their necks.
There was Carli Lloyd, the New Jersey-bred midfielder, who scored both U.S. goals: One on a daring run into the box, throwing her head onto Alex Morgan's first-half cross, and the other on a blistering shot from distance in the second half. Lloyd, 30, has a habit of coming up big in the Olympic final, having scored the game-winner against Brazil in Beijing four years ago, but her journey in this tournament was harder than it had been in that one.
Just before the Olympics, Lloyd had lost her starting central-midfield job to Lauren Cheney. It was a blow, to say the least. Lloyd had started in all the major tournaments going back to the 2007 World Cup. But she didn't complain, didn't sulk. "When someone tells me I'm not good enough to start, I'm going to prove them wrong," she said after the game.
And so she did. In the first game of the Olympics, midfielder Shannon Boxx went down with an injury early on against France. Lloyd came onto the field, and she never left for the rest of the tournament. Four goals and six victories later, she did indeed prove her coach, Pia Sundhage, wrong. How do we know this? Because the ego-free Sundhage said so.
"She proved that I was wrong before the Olympics," Sundhage said, a wide smile on her face, "and I'm really happy that she's more clever than I am." Give the coach some credit, though: By inserting Boxx back into the lineup for the gold-medal game in place of Cheney (who had a slight knock and hadn't been very effective), Sundhage gave Lloyd more ability to push forward and score twice.
There alongside Lloyd was Hope Solo, the world's top goalkeeper, the player who'd been frustrated to give up three goals to Canada and two to France in this tournament. With the pressure at its highest in the final, Solo pulled out her best performance in the Olympics, making two sensational saves to rescue the Americans. One came in the first half, when Solo somehow exploded from her stance to push Yuki Ogimi's shot off the crossbar and out of danger. The second unfolded in the 83rd minute, when Solo faced down Japan's Mana Iwabuchi in a one-on-one encounter in the box.
Four years ago in the Olympic final, Solo had stoned Brazil's Marta in the late stages of regulation, rescuing the game for the Americans. With Iwabuchi in front of her, Solo somehow felt a calmness inside, as if she knew her time had come again. "I knew I had to find a way to make the save," Solo said afterward. "I was pretty confident in the angle of the approach I took. But to make sure even more, I took another two yards off my line to make sure I kept the angle."
Five years ago, after the World Cup drama that divided the team and made Solo an outcast, one U.S. player had crossed the chasm to prevent Solo from being torn from the team forever: Carli Lloyd. During a tension-filled team tour stop in St. Louis, Solo hadn't been allowed to play or train with the team. But Lloyd broke ranks to sit next to Solo on the bench, visit her in her room and join her for meals. "I just knew she was a great person and a phenomenal goalkeeper, and we need her on this team," Lloyd said at the time.
She was right. Solo proved it in 2008, just as she has every year since. Over the years, Solo hasn't changed in many ways. She's still fiery, still a loose cannon, and yet the scars from 2007 have healed.
"This was the first time in my athletic career -- and I've been through a couple major tournaments now -- that it really feels like a team through and through, from player number one through the alternates," Solo said after the game. "We knew anybody could step up and make a difference on this team, whether it's a young player like Kelley O'Hara for the first time in the defense or Tobin Heath or Carli Lloyd."
This was a different team. A special team.
There was Abby Wambach, the fearless, hard-driving forward who'd scored in every Olympic game before finally being shut out in the final. If Wambach had found the net on Thursday, she would have joined Brazil's Jairzinho (World Cup 1970) and France's Just Fontaine (World Cup 1958) as the only players ever, men or women, to have scored in every game of an Olympics or World Cup (minimum six games). But Wambach didn't care. All that mattered to her was the gold medal around her neck, the gold medals around everyone's necks.
That first U.S. goal? Wambach took a swing with her leg and likely would have scored herself, had Lloyd not reached it with her head a split second earlier. "I was ready to volley that right in," Wambach said, "and Carli came straight through with her head. Thankfully, because you know what? Maybe it goes off my foot the wrong way. If you've got a header and got a bead on it, I'll take Carli scoring with her head any day over me with my foot. Because that's what it's about for this team. It's not about who scores, it's about how many goals we have as a team."
You can make the argument that Wambach is the best scorer in women's soccer history. With her five Olympic goals, she now has 143 career international goals in 188 games (a remarkable 0.761 per game) and has scored 11 goals in 15 career knockout games in the Olympics and World Cup. Not even the legendary Mia Hamm can match that strike rate. (Hamm averaged 0.575 goals a game and scored twice in 19 Olympic and World Cup knockout games.)
With its victory on Thursday, the U.S. did more than win the gold medal plus a $1.5 million team bonus and $25,000 per player from the U.S. Olympic Committee. It also guaranteed there would be a 10-game victory tour in the U.S. -- enough games for Wambach to start chipping away at the 16 goals she needs to break Hamm's all-time record of 158 international goals.
There was Christie Rampone, the 37-year-old U.S. captain and mother of two, who's still the fittest player on the team despite dealing with Lyme disease. Rampone had played every minute of every game on the way to winning her third Olympic gold medal along with U.S. teammates Boxx, Heather Mitts and Heather O'Reilly. No other soccer players in history, men's or women's, can make that claim.
Rampone is the last link to the 1999 World Cup winners -- and, as such, the best authority on what has made each U.S. team different, unique. What was special about the 2012 Olympic winners?
"We've been so committed to each other from the loss of the World Cup," she said on Thursday, her gold medal gleaming in front of her. "With something that emotional, you build a stronger awareness of each other and respect each other and build confidence. It's just something with this team. We never give up. We keep fighting, and we enjoy it. That's been the difference. There's been no stress, no pressure. We know we're going to score lots of goals, and we're going to give up some, because we're flying forward and we give up something on the defensive side. But at the same time we're playing good soccer, and it's fun."
Fun. That's what soccer is supposed to be, right? The U.S. won by scores of 4-2, 4-3 and 2-1 in this Olympic tournament. The Americans were not a defensive fortress. But they were entertaining as hell, banging in goals, coming from behind, playing with a reckless abandon that's a little reminiscent of what used to make the Brazilian men so much fun to watch. Go ahead, score three goals. We'll score four.
Everywhere you looked at Wembley, there was another crucial piece to the U.S.'s triumph.
There was Megan Rapinoe, the U.S.'s most inventive player, the midfield creator who had scored three Olympic goals, including two in the epic 4-3 extra-time victory in the semifinals over Canada. Rapinoe didn't have her best game in the final against Japan, finding fewer openings than she wanted, and yet she started every match in the 2012 Olympics, proving her importance to a team that needed her spark and vision. If she didn't put the team on her back in the second half against Canada, there wouldn't have been a gold-medal game at Wembley.
And there was Alex Morgan. The 23-year-old forward took another big step in this Olympics, scoring three times -- including the game-winner in the last minute of extra-time against Canada -- and serving up a team-leading five assists. None was better than her cross for Lloyd's first goal on Thursday. After Morgan had gathered the ball in the box, the play seemed to be broken. But she rescued it. "I'm left-footed, so I can twist my body to get my left foot on that ball," Morgan said. "I knew I wanted to get it away from the keeper enough so she wouldn't come and punch it out."
It worked perfectly, and Lloyd scored. When Japan went on to outplay the U.S. in the first half, that early goal would only become more and more important.
There are those who might say the Americans got lucky in this Olympics, that they took advantage of an almost never-before-seen call against Canada, that they should have been whistled for a penalty when Tobin Heath handled a free kick in the box against Japan. But every team needs some luck to win a tournament. There are also a million things you can control -- that the U.S. did control -- to make the most of all the other moments when the referee isn't making a decision.
The U.S. won the gold medal on hallowed ground, Wembley Stadium, due to those moments, due to all the players who, in ways large and small, contributed to an Olympic championship.