Ecstasy and Agony

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 22, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 21 -- The U.S. women's soccer team beat Brazil, 1-0, in Thursday night's gold medal match, weathering nearly two hours of Brazilian mastery, going ahead on an overtime goal and surviving a series of cover-your-eyes near-misses that continued until seconds before the final whistle.

That's the simple version. Then the scriptwriters got their hands on it.

Add a new coach, Pia Sundhage, just nine months on the job, whose long-dominant team was humbled by Norway in her first Olympic game. Subtract an injured star, Abby Wambach, the team's most dangerous attacker, who was sidelined with a broken leg.

Mix in a convoluted story line centering on goalie Hope Solo, whose benching against Brazil a year ago (in China, no less) splintered the team during its spectacular World Cup flameout. Dream up a rematch with those Brazilians, who were starting eight of the same players. Toss in several remarkable saves from Solo, who spent months ostracized by her teammates after she sounded off about that benching. And top it off by awarding the game-winning goal to midfielder Carli Lloyd, the one American player who had stuck with Solo through her exile.

Hmmm. Nah. Too much drama.

"Surreal," defender Kate Markgraf said after the Americans had received their gold medals. "We won the gold medal and no one even knows half our names."

"I mean, I'm still kind of in shock right now," Lloyd said. "Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I'd score the goal to get us the Olympic gold."

"It's something you see in Hollywood and in these fairy tales and yet it was really playing out," said Solo, who punctuated the celebration by parading around the field with two oversize gold medals. "This was too perfect. I can't really swallow it right now."

That the players could feel such surprise was itself part of the story. The United States had long been the bully of the international women's game, playing in the first three Olympic finals and winning gold twice. But its superiority showed cracks in a shaky overtime win over Brazil in the 2004 Olympic final, cracks that widened in last year's 4-0 World Cup embarrassment.

Greg Ryan exited as the coach, replaced by Sundhage and her pledge to introduce a more flowing offensive style, but after the shutout loss to Norway the Americans were considered a gold medal afterthought. They made it past group play, where good fortune led to relatively easy quarterfinal and semifinal opponents in Canada and Japan, leaving plenty of questions entering Thursday's final.

The first 90 minutes did little to answer them. Brazil's sublime scoring duo of Marta and Cristiane couldn't beat Solo, but they shimmied through the U.S. midfield again and again, winning the crowd's support. Still, Solo and her defense were there when it mattered, with the goalie making the play of the tournament in the 72nd minute, a tremendous reflex save on Marta at close range. Gradually, the Brazilians began showing signs of frustration.

"When you get to a final of anything, it's not who can bend the ball perfectly or who's necessarily keeping more of the possession," Lloyd said. "It comes from your heart."

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