VANCOUVER — When the final whistle sounded on the Women’s World Cup final Sunday, Carli Lloyd dropped to her knees near the sideline and looked to the open roof at BC Place, pumping her arms before teammate Heather O’Reilly embraced her.
Players and coaches penned in the bench area flooded the field like water released from a dam. Tears flowed. Flags snapped throughout stands filled with American supporters.
The 16-year wait was over: By virtue of a 5-2 victory over Japan, the U.S. women's national soccer team was world champion for a record third time.
“I envisioned winning the trophy,” said Coach Jill Ellis, a graduate of Robinson Secondary School and William and Mary in Virginia, “but five is a dream come true.”
With Vice President Biden among 53,341 in attendance, Lloyd gave one of the great performances in men’s or women’s tournament history, scoring three goals in the first 16 minutes, including a shot from the midfield line some 55 yards away.
Lloyd, who had beaten Japan for the 2012 Olympic gold medal with two goals, set championship marks for the fastest goal (three minutes) and first hat trick. She became the first American to score three times in a World Cup game since the inaugural event in 1991.
“She always does this to us,” Japan Coach Norio Sasaki said. “We are a bit embarrassed, but she is an excellent player and I admire her.”
After underperforming in the three-game group stage, the 32-year-old midfielder from Delran, N.J., and Rutgers University scored in four consecutive knockout rounds to claim a share of the scoring title with Germany's Celia Sasic (six goals).
Lloyd won the Golden Ball award as the tournament's most outstanding player. Hope Solo earned the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper.
During a break a few weeks before the tournament began, Lloyd was home in New Jersey, training on her own.
“Just my headphones, myself and I,” she said. “I just completely zoned out and dreamed of playing in a World Cup final and visualized scoring four goals. It sounds pretty funny, but you can be physically strong, but if your mental state isn’t good enough, you can’t bring yourself to bigger and better things.”
The outcome was sweet redemption for Lloyd and 13 other holdovers who not only had lost to Japan in the 2011 final, but, for four years, carried the burden of unfulfilled expectations dating back to the Rose Bowl party in 1999.
Reminders of the last championship tailed this squad for years. The narrative was inescapable and, with the title in reach, it crested ahead of the final. Several members of the last trophy-winning team were in the audience: Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry, Julie Foudy and Michelle Akers, among others.
Beyond the team feat, individuals embraced the moment. In her fourth and final tournament, Abby Wambach, the sport's highest international scorer regardless of gender, added a World Cup title to her substantial portfolio. As she entered in the 79th minute, Lloyd handed her the captain’s armband.
"I felt like I was in a dream sitting there on the bench watching Carli Lloyd go off," Wambach said of the early stages.
The triumph brought joy to Ellis, who has been on the job only since spring 2014. As the Americans stumbled through the early matches, Ellis was criticized by fans, media and former players, most notably Akers, for lineup choices and tactical decisions.
“It’s not vindication,” she said. “It just feels really good. I knew they had it in them. They knew they had it in them.”
She remained steadfast in her long-term approach to the month-long tournament, committed to the defensive plan and alternating attackers until ultimately reinforcing central midfield to free up Lloyd.
There was no reason for Ellis to alter the lineup Sunday.
Despite meeting in a final for the third straight major competition, there were no hints of animosity between the teams.
The Americans’ deference morphed into cold-hearted dominance.
In the third minute, as Megan Rapinoe served a low corner kick, Lloyd made a sharp run from outside the penalty area. She met the ball in stride and, using the outside of her left foot, stabbed a nine-yard shot into the lower left corner.
Two minutes passed. Another Lloyd goal.
From inside the penalty area, Julie Johnston flicked Lauren Holiday’s free kick. The ball caromed off the arm of a Japanese player and bounded into the six-yard box. Lloyd beat two defenders and poked it between defender Saki Kumugai’s legs.
Lloyd embarked on another celebratory sprint. From field level to the upper reaches of the Olympic arena, bedlam reigned.
There was more. In the 14th minute, Holiday rushed at Azusa Iwashimizu’s poorly headed clearance and volleyed a 12-yarder over goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori.
Then came one of the most implausible goals in men’s or women’s World Cup history, a shot that defied soccer convention in both audacity and execution. With the Americans breaking out of their own, Lloyd dodged a challenge in the center circle.
At this point, a player will accelerate into space or spray the ball wide to launch a counterattack. Lloyd looked up and saw Kaihori at the top of the penalty area.
Why not? The ball sailed. Kaihori backpedaled, stumbled and got a hand on it before watching the amazing strike touch the post and roll into the net.
“When you are feeling good, those plays are just instincts,” she said. “I feel like I blacked out for the first 30 minutes. It was crazy.”
Japan was deflated but not defeated. Yuki Ogimi fired past Solo in the 27th minute, ending the U.S. shutout streak at 540 minutes.
Seven minutes into the second half, Johnston contested a long free kick in the penalty area and headed the ball past Solo for an own goal.
Two minutes later, Tobin Heath restored order, smashing in Morgan Brian’s cross.
All that remained was the entrance of Wambach and Christie Rampone, a 40-year-old defender at her fifth World Cup.
For the first time since 1999, a trophy awaited.
“Those were the pioneers,” Lloyd said of the ’99 squad, “and now it’s our turn to keep the tradition going.”