U.S. women’s soccer team sought glory and found it

Sally Jenkins
Columnist August 9, 2012

The U.S. women’s soccer team members are not only fabulous drama queens, they also are a lusty singing group judging by the way they fairly shouted the national anthem that has become their personal soundtrack. These stagey, showy glory-seekers finally got what they wanted: their own place on one of the largest stages in the history of their sport. The camera flashes sparkled and lit up sold-out Wembley Stadium with brilliance, and standing in that shower of light, the Americans unabashedly donned white T-shirts with gold letters that said, “Greatness Has Been Found.” And it had.

By the final whistle of a hard-charging 2-1 victory over Japan, goalie Hope Solo had lived up to every ounce of hype and earned every inch of her towering stardom, and so had the rest of them, led by their previously unsung midfielder, Carli Lloyd.

Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

“We make it exciting,” Lloyd said. “And people like exciting.”

It was absolutely typical of this team that the game was dominated by a player who craved greater notice. Lloyd is a eight-year veteran, a workaday midfielder, a position “often overlooked,” she said. “I’m the engine, and I do the dirty work.”

She often felt limited in her role and overshadowed by the huge starpower of teammates such as Solo and Abby Wambach. “I wanted to prove everybody wrong, that I’m a special player,” she said.

So she played the scene-stealer, practically robbing her own teammate of the ball in a lunge for attention.

They were chippy, edgy, and longed for renown. They were sick of the deference paid to their elders. There was palpable tension between them and their legendarily beloved predecessors: the group led by Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Brandi Chastain, who literally founded world-class women’s soccer in America with their splendid run of championships from 1987 to 2004, winning two gold medals and two World Cup titles.

This group was still seeking a larger identity. The London Games opened with a testy exchange between Solo and Chastain over Chastain’s gently scolding comment on NBC that the Americans needed to work on their defense. It was time to promote this team and quit living in the past, Solo suggested. That was some big talk to live up to, especially from a team that, while plenty accomplished, hadn’t quite achieved greatness. Although they won a gold medal four years ago in Beijing, they hankered for something more, something that justified their billing and popularity. And they were still scalded over their loss to Japan in the World Cup a year ago in a penalty-kick shootout.

What did they want? They wanted renown. “My point to this group is, you’ve got to win to become legends,” Wambach said.

There was the lingering question of what they craved more, victory or attention. Although they were huge and powerful, they lived on the edge and seemed to squander opportunities. Desperation became part of their identity, dramatic stomach-clenching victories. It didn’t seem to bother them, because they assumed they could create enough scoring chances to overcome anything. They shrugged off the close call of their 4-3 comeback victory over Canada in the semifinals, in which they gave up three goals but won in extra time.

“We don’t care how we got here,” Wambach said Wednesday. “It’s not a false sense of self. We have proven that if we do get down a goal we can still fight back.”

While experiences like that bred the belief that they were never out of a game, it also gave other teams hope. And not everyone on the squad was always happy about it.

“The journey has been exciting, and unpredictable to a certain extent,” U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage said dryly.

Defender Christie Rampone was more explicit: “I want the drama to be over,” she said. “I want it to be exciting but not that exciting.”

It wasn’t — thanks to Lloyd. She came out of nowhere and practically knocked Wambach over when she saw Alex Morgan make a short cross 8 minutes 54 seconds into the first half. She sprinted in to cut off the pass with a head-banging goal.

“Flew by Abby, flew by everybody,” Lloyd said. “I was just determined to get the goal in.”

Most of the U.S. team thought it was Wambach who scored, but she pointed to Lloyd and they collapsed on her. It was a pure love-in.

For the rest of the game they were a screaming, hard-charging, ripping downfield mob. Even as time wound down they refused to hold the ball, still pushing. They didn’t know how to play conservatively.

Japan kept on coming, too, and that might have left Solo exposed. She was the team’s largest personality and most frequent magazine cover, and its biggest, baddest mouth. But she proved that she is 100 percent the real deal. She was a diving and deflecting demon, a one-woman highlight film and forever justified her outsized reputation. When Mana Iwabuchi took a direct shot from close range at the 82:33 mark, Solo went parallel. She batted it with both hands — and a legend was made.

Afterward they emerged from their showers with American flags wrapped around their shoulders like shawls and twined around their necks like scarfs, signaling a new sense of possession. The U.S. team now has won four gold medals in the past five Olympics — and the last two belong to this team, which has taken its place as one of the greats.

Said Wambach: “At the end of the day we wanted to make sure people were talking about us for what we were doing on the field.”

For Sally Jenkins’s previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.

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