“Fans deserve a great final,” Abby Wambach said before the U.S. women’s soccer team’s gold-medal match against Japan, “and this match is going to be nothing short of that.”
As she usually does for the U.S., Wambach once again delivered on a promise, but it was her teammates Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd who made the game great for the U.S. Lloyd scored in the eighth and 54th minute, and Solo preserved the win with sensational saves in both halves to clinch a fourth gold medal for the U.S. women’s team. The game, played in Wembley Stadium before a crowd of 80,203, broke the attendance record set in Atlanta in 1996 — a game that NBC didn’t even deem worthy of airing. The win avenges the Americans’ loss in last year’s World Cup final to the same Japanese team. “Man, I can’t put this into words,” says midfielder Megan Rapinoe. “This is such an incredible feeling. This is not quite redemption for what happened in the World Cup to Japan, but it’s a great feeling.”
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Japan coach Norio Sasaki made no secret of his desire to keep the U.S. off the board in the first half. The Americans go for goal, relying on their pace and fitness, the tricky wing play of Rapinoe and the sweet feet of Alex Morgan and Wambach’s finishing power. He didn’t want to chase the game. Japan plays cat and mouse, possessing the ball as much as possible and probing for opportunities, utilizing its fast wings and clever reverse passes. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage wanted to throw a little bit of a curve at her opponent. She promised to change the strategy and emphasized getting more possession along with going to goal. She also had midfielder Shannon Boxx back in the starting lineup to provide defensive cover in front of the central defenders, allowing Lloyd to press higher up the pitch.
The opening whistle of a final has a tendency to make coaches’ plans immediately irrelevant. The Americans kicked off and went directly for goal. Japan quickly established its possession game. “This is not the way we wanted to play, but this is the way we were forced to play,” says Sundhage. “They found a way to win. Phenomenal.”
Here’s how: in the seventh minute, Tobin Heath, whom Sundhage calls her most gifted technical player, steamed down the left wing and hit a perfect pass to Morgan, who was making a run to the near post. Morgan collected the pass with her back to goal, turned onto her left foot and chipped the ball across to the onrushing Lloyd at the 6-yard box. Bending to head the ball, she barely beat Wambach’s foot to it. Either would have scored. “My heart goes out to Carli. She stepped up when she needed to step up. She is a big-time player,” says Solo of her teammate at the other end of the field.
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Then it was Solo’s turn to step up. The U.S. held Japan comfortably for the next 10 minutes, but the Japanese gradually began to create more chances as they controlled the game. Solo was called on to make two point-blank saves in the middle of some frantic defending in the 17th minute. Either could have been a game saver, but this was just the beginning. Nahomi Kawasumi, who was a constant threat in the first half, set up yet another great chance for Japan. Her beautiful cross from the left to center forward Yuki Ogimi’s head was perfectly met. And more perfectly saved, Solo jumped up and to her left to tip the ball onto the bar. World class. “Both had fantastic games today,” says Wambach of Lloyd and Solo. “Obviously Carli with two goals, but you can’t go without saying that Hope saved the day, literally, five times.”
In the game’s only controversial incident, Japan had a decent claim for a penalty when Heath stopped a free kick with her arm in the 26th minute. But referee Bibiana Steinhaus waved it off, which probably had the Canadian team — which won the battle for bronze over France — stammering, since the U.S. was awarded a penalty on a similar play in the semifinals. Japan could blame no one else when defender Azusa Iwashimizu nearly scored an own goal, heading an angled cross onto her own post. In the 33rd minute, Shinobu Ohno dribbled past three U.S. defenders — one-on-one defending had been a weakness throughout the tournament — and passed back to Aya Miyama, whose drive smashed off the crossbar and out. A level score at the half would not have been unfair.
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The second half kicked off with Solo confidently patrolling the penalty area and in one case knocking a Japanese attacker and her own teammate Rachel Buehler to the pitch as she stormed out to punch away a dangerous free kick. But in the 54th minute, Lloyd would change the game again. Picking the ball up at the bottom of the circle, she dribbled three times to her right, leaving Mizuho Sakaguchi desperately chasing her, before angling a potent, right-footed shot back across her body. Goalie Miho Fukumoto could only wave as it flew into the corner. It was Lloyd’s fourth goal of the tournament, and there was none better. “What I do best is dribbling and making shots from distance,” she says. “It opened up, and I just kept going and just unleashed it.” Lloyd wasn’t even in the starting lineup at the beginning of the tournament, even though she thought she’d been the most consistent player. “She’s proven that I was wrong before the Olympics,” Sundhage admits. “I am happy that she is more clever than I am.”
Japan’s relentlessness finally paid off in the 63rd minute. Solo was finally beaten but Homare Sawa’s shot was saved off the line by Christie Rampone. Her weak clearance reached Sawa, who found Ogimi, who netted easily. “Of course I felt we could come back,” says Ogimi. The thought occurred to Wambach too. “Of course, it creeps in your brain: Is this going to really happen? Are they going to tie this up? But we fought. We dug deep.”
Japan continued to press as Sasaki threw on one, and then another, additional attacker. But it was Rampone, of all people, who nearly gifted the Japanese a tying goal. The oldest and most experienced U.S. defender was stripped of possession deep in her own end allowing Mana Iwabuchi to buzz in alone on Solo. Her 15-yard shot from the left was good, but once again Solo was magnificent, diving wide to her left to push away Japan’s last golden chance. “You can’t win a major tournament without some great goalkeeping,” Solo says. True enough. Even a good team has no hope otherwise.
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