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."
So by the end of regulation, the Americans appeared to be the more confident side. "We got this," reserve Lauren Cheney yelled to her teammates, as the entire Brazilian team collapsed to the ground, with their trainers rubbing legs and massaging backs and waving towels. A few yards away, the Americans stood in a group and smiled.
"I was not tired one bit," captain Christie Rampone said later.
Within minutes the Americans would capitalize, when Lloyd gave the ball to Amy Rodriguez inside the penalty area, got it back, and skidded a left-footed shot past Brazilian keeper Barbara. After several more stops by Solo during a frantic finish, the Americans -- in the strange position of underdog, with a new coach, a new style and a once-rejected goalie -- were champions again.
As they rejoiced, it was easy to focus on Solo, whose past 18 months included not just the World Cup drama but also the death of her father. Within minutes of the win she used a cellphone to call her brother, and she celebrated with all the verve of her teammates, but she declined to describe this victory as redemption.
"It was hell, I went through hell," she said. "I think if one gold medal takes away all the pain in the world, then that's fake. . . . I got rid of that pain on my own, with my family and friends, not because of the gold medal."
This game, too, won't solve every American soccer woe. Players acknowledged that they were dominated in possession, that their newfound style had vanished on the biggest stage and that this game was only a "steppingstone," as Markgraf put it. Still, for one night, it seemed pretty close to perfect.
"I mean, honestly, it was unreal to me," Solo said. "You hear those words all the time, but I really couldn't fathom it. I mean, it's like a storybook ending."