So against Japan, in front of a packed house at historic Wembley Stadium, a player who might have been discarded two weeks ago found the way. Carli Lloyd headed home one goal in the first half, then booted home another in the second, the tallies that beat Japan, 2-1, for the Americans’ fourth gold medal in five Olympic tournaments.
That it was Lloyd who became a star in front of 80,203 fans — more than have ever seen a women’s soccer game in England — fit the American team like a Speedo. When the United States opened this tournament July 25, Lloyd was on the bench. At 30, a veteran of two Olympics and two Women’s World Cups, this was not a position to which she was accustomed, nor one she embraced.
“If somebody tells me I’m not good enough to start,” Lloyd said Thursday, “I’m going to prove them wrong.”
When veteran midfielder Shannon Boxx strained a hamstring in the opener against France, Lloyd was on. From there, she was a force. “I probably was the most consistent player all tournament,” she said. Only Wambach scored more than Lloyd’s four goals in the tournament, an indication that contributions can, and do, come from any source with this group.
“We felt like a team,” Solo said. “Carli gets benched, she comes back, and she has the game of her life. Everybody felt like they could contribute. Everybody. . . . Honestly, it’s the first time in my athletic career that I felt like it was a true team.”
It had to be against Japan, the relentless, possession-oriented unit that beat the United States a year ago in the final of the Women’s World Cup. When Morgan beat a defender deep on the left side, and got her foot on a cross that looked sure to be headed to Wambach – until Lloyd came zipping through to put her head on it – the Americans were up 1-0. Not eight minutes had run off the clock.
But the United States felt as if it were back-pedaling much of the remainder of the first half, so persistent were the Japanese. In stepped Solo, the goalkeeper who has that I’ll-be-in-the-center-of-it-all aura. In the semifinals, Solo and the U.S. defense allowed three goals to Canada, more than they had allowed in four years.
“She definitely took that personally,” Wambach said. “She wanted to make a difference.”
In the 17th minute, she made what amounted to a point-blank save on Nahomi Kawasumi, and the Americans cleared the ball after it pinballed off defender Christie Rampone. In the 18th minute, she leapt to get her left hand on Yuki Ogimi’s rope of a shot, deflecting it off the crossbar.
“She’s the best goalkeeper ever, I think, on the planet,” Lloyd said. “Huge saves. And that’s what she does. She comes up big in big moments.”
There were more big moments to come. In the 54th minute, Lloyd was “just kind of doing what I do best,” dribbling directly at defenders and then creating space for herself. The rocket she unleashed from just outside the penalty area gave Japanese goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto no chance, and the Americans led 2-0.
This was, in effect, Lloyd’s moment to say to U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage, “How the heck did you bench me – ever?” But in the celebration, there was none of that.
“Didn’t pout about it,” Wambach said of Lloyd’s reaction two weeks ago. “Was a great teammate. Was a professional.”
There were nervous moments to come, because in the 63rd minute, Ogimi pulled Japan within 2-1. And with roughly seven minutes remaining, Japan stripped Rampone of the ball just outside the U.S. penalty area. Mana Iwabuchi bore in on Solo, solo herself.
“I knew I had to make the save,” Solo said. “That was my only thought.”
She could go about it, though, because she knew Sauerbrunn, a reserve defender, would have Japan’s other offensive options marked behind her. Solo and Sauerbrunn had talked about such a moment, and the goalkeeper had faith that the defender would do her job.
“That’s this team,” Solo said. Iwabuchi fired. Solo lunged. And the ball deflected away.
“At that point,” Wambach said, “I just kept pounding my chest saying, ‘Guys, this is only about heart!’ ”
When the referee finally, mercifully, blew the last whistle, the U.S. team split into two separate, bouncing huddles. Several Japanese players fell immediately to the turf, and their distress lasted throughout the American celebration. By the time the United States came together as one group – Megan Rapinoe jumping on one back, then another, then another – the Japanese gathered in an orderly circle, sharing their misery by themselves. And with that, Queen’s “We Are the Champions” rang through Wembley as if Freddie Mercury was belting it out live.
The respect that these two teams had for each other was apparent in the days leading up to the rematch, and when Japan formed a straight line to face the crowd – even as Iwabuchi still buried her face in her shirt, trying to dry the tears – the crowd applauded enthusiastically.
But when the flags were raised, and the “Star-Spangled Banner” played, each and every U.S. player sang it out. They sang it together, because at the end of a tumultuous year and a long Olympic tournament, it’s the only way they knew how.