LONDON — They’d had a year to ponder what happened to them the last time they were on the global stage, when they’d led the Japanese twice with the clock running down and lost the World Cup in a penalty shootout. “They snatched our dream,” said midfielder Megan Rapinoe. So the US women’s soccer team got redemption on Thursday night where they always get it — at Olympus, this time before a record crowd of 80,203 at Wembley Stadium.
“We weren’t coming home without a gold medal,” proclaimed midfielder Carli Lloyd after her two goals and a bit of two-fisted goalkeeping from Hope Solo had assured the Americans of their third straight gold medal with a 2-1 victory over their newest nemesis. “We all said that.”
The Lloyd-Solo combination busted the Brazilians in Beijing four years ago and it worked again as the Yanks went with the same unconventional script that had produced for them three times before — lose the Cup, win the Games. As usual the US, which has won four of the five titles since the sport was added to the program in 1996, earned this one the hard way.
They’d been life-and-death with the Canadians in their semifinal, falling behind three times before Abby Wambach equalized on a penalty kick and Alex Morgan produced a 4-3 victory just seconds before the match would have gone to a shootout.
This time, after Lloyd scored in the eighth minute the Americans nearly gave back the lead multiple times before intermission as their back line did a Keystone Kops routine. Then they had to sweat out the final half-hour after Lloyd had given them a 2-0 cushion in the 54th. Yuki Ogimi knocked home a loose ball nine minutes later after captain Christie Rampone had made the save with Solo off her line.
That’s how the nightmare began last year when Homare Sawa scored three minutes from the end of overtime after Wambach had notched the go-ahead goal in the 104th. “Of course it creeps in your brain — is this going to really happen? Are they going to tie this up?” said Wambach. “But we fought, we dug deep. We were screaming at each other: ‘We cannot let them back in this game.’ ”
The Japanese came scarily close in the 83d minute when they dashed in two-on-one after a turnover. But Solo blocked Mana Iwabuchi’s shot and the global champs never got another chance. It was a bitter loss for a squad that had finished fourth last time and was hoping that its first Olympic medal would be gold. “When the game ended I was sad,” said captain Aya Miyama. “But we did well and we did everything we could, so it’s OK.”
Winning in regulation was a delightful novelty for a US bunch that had made a habit of working overtime in the Olympic final. In 2000 in Sydney, they’d had lost in the 102d minute to the Norwegians. In Athens in 2004 it took a header by Wambach to subdue the Brazilians in the 112th. In Beijing, where Wambach was missing with a broken leg, Lloyd stepped up and won it in the 96th.
Lloyd was on the verge of being a spare part this time as coach Pia Sundhage was looking elsewhere for a puzzle piece. But when Lloyd’s chances came, she buried them. “From being out of the team she came in and made the difference and she proved that I was wrong before the Olympics,” acknowledged Sundhage, who came leaping joyfully out of the stands when Lloyd scored her first goal. “And I am really happy that she is more clever than I am.”
Lloyd’s header off Alex Morgan’s cross, just as Wambach was swinging her leg, was a bold move that put the Japanese back on their heels and forced them to alter their customary patience-and-precision style and chase the game. They came relentlessly and nearly scored three times — in the 17th minute on Nahomi Kawasumi’s shot with Solo down, in the 18th when Solo tipped Ogimi’s header off the crossbar, and in the 33d when Miyama hit the crossbar.
Had German referee Bibiana Steinhaus called a penalty on what appeared to be an obvious hand ball on midfielder Tobin Heath on Miyama’s free kick in the 26th minute, the Japanese likely would have drawn even. “I wondered about the judgment,” said coach Norio Sasaki, “but I have to pay respect to the referee anyway.”
The Japanese, who were worried about stopping Wambach and Morgan, the US top guns, needed to pay more respect to Lloyd, whom they let dribble her way into scoring range and unleash a blast that had keeper Miho Fukumoto grabbing at air. “I have waited my whole life for something this big,” said Lloyd, who’d missed a shootout kick in the Cup final.
What may have made the difference is that the Japanese didn’t know what it took to win at the Games and the Americans did. Eleven of them had won gold medals in Beijing and five in Athens. As far as they were concerned, what happened in Frankfurt stayed in Frankfurt.
‘”This wasn’t revenge,” concluded Rapinoe after she and her teammates had pulled on “Greatness Has Been Found” T-shirts and draped themselves in star-spangled banners. “But I guess after we had our dreams snatched away from us last year we’ve snatched their dreams away from them this year, so it evens itself out.”John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.