London – The United States beat Japan in the Olympic women's soccer final Thursday 2-1 avenging their World Cup loss in 2011 and bringing home the gold for the third straight time.
Midfielder Carli Lloyd scored both U.S. goals in front of over 80,000 fans.
There will always be doubters and naysayers about women's soccer who claim it isn't real soccer or close to the men's game.
Well, the women's game isn't as fast, that is true. But that doesn't take away from the talent, grit, determination, desire and drama that we have witnessed during the Olympic soccer tournament the past 2 1/2 weeks.
You only have to see what transpired at Wembley Stadium on Thursday night when the two best women's soccer teams on this planet confronted each other for the gold medal.
On one end of the storied pitch was Japan, defending Women's World Cup champions, who defeated the United States in last year's final after twice overcoming 11th-hour deficits in regulation and extratime to secure the triumph via penalty kicks. The Japanese were trying to become the first women's team to win the world and Olympic titles in consecutive years.
On the other end was the U.S., the top-ranked women's team in the world that was still smarting from the Japan defeat, using it as a motivation to reach the final yet again.
What the Wembley crowd of 80,203 -- a record for Olympic women’s soccer, incidentally -- witnessed was an entertaining and gripping display of the beautiful game.
The Japanese women are masters at the possession game, playing triangles as they move the ball slowly, but efficiently up the field before a player worked her way free for a shot. They did it enough times in the first half to make the U.S. sweat as they put on a clinic on how not to score. That included hitting the woodwork, having a shot cleared off the goal line, whizzing a shot just past the right post and not having a penalty kick called when a free kick hit the arm of U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath in the penalty area.
The U.S. game is a hybrid of the long ball, which the Americans love to take advantage of their target striker, Abby Wambach, and speedster, Alex Morgan. That has gone against what coach Pia Sundhage wants to use -- a possession game, to keep the ball away from the feet of the opposition.
For a good part of the tournament, the U.S. battled itself on which system to use. Yet, somehow it worked.
Some grizzled veteran writers of the English men's game -- it is called football in these parts and most of the rest of the world -- walked away impressed with both teams, particularly the American women.
They marveled at midfielder Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals in the 2-1 final, including one in which she displayed her dribbling and her uncanny ability to blast long-range shots past goalkeepers (which she did on her second goal that gave the U.S. a two-goal advantage).
They were impressed with goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was rarely tested in the previous five games, but made the save when she had to when Japan was pressing to equalize in the 83rd minute.
Then there was Wambach, the team's leading goal-scorer (she found the back of the net five times as many matches before being blanked in the final) and essentially team's spiritual leader and heart and soul.
Wambach is a superstar who plays for the team and not for herself and someone who has the knack of saying the right thing at the right time.
“This was a year's worth of work and the sacrifices all of us have had to make for our friends and families, for the players that didn't make the roster, this goes out to all of our fans that cheered us on last summer and were equally as heartbroken as we were,” Wambach said. “This year has been trials and tribulations, we lost to Japan a few times, and this win feels like everything has come full circle. I'm so proud of this team for never giving up. It was a team effort for this entire tournament and it shows what it takes to win championships -- its teamwork and loyalty and trusting in each other.”
The 32-year-old Wambach, who has 143 international goals, has put her battered body through the ringer over the years. Yet, she wants to return to play in the next tournament cycle. That's not exactly what the rest of the world wants to hear.
Wambach wants to continue an incredible soccer legacy.
During the past 21 years, the American women have enjoyed unparalleled success over the long or short haul. No national team on this planet -- men or women -- have come close to their accomplishments.
Not even the Brazil men, who have done pretty well over the years with five World Cup championships (and perhaps its first Olympic gold medal as it takes on Mexico here on Saturday), or even Spain, which has enjoyed unprecedented success the past four years, not including its dismal Olympic run in the United Kingdom.
The U.S. has won two Women's World Cups -- 1991 and 1999. Moreover, the Americans have worn four of the five Olympics tournaments, including the past three.
In 11 major women's tournaments -- the WWC and Olympics -- since 1991, the Americans have never finished below third. Yes, that's right, never below the bronze medal, in Olympic terms.
Remarkable, simply remarkable.
So, expectations, regardless who the foe is or the whatever competition is, is through the roof, even if the world catching up with the U.S. in recent years.
But somehow the Americans keep finding ways to win or stay alive to the bitter end.
The way the international soccer schedule is set up, the U.S. won't have a real challenge for three years, Canada hosts the Women's World Cup.
That's a long time between games that really, really mean anything.
That will give the U.S. an opportunity to recharge and reload while the rest of the world will try to figure out how to close the gap even further or perhaps overtake the Americans.
Given the talent, grit and desire of the American women, it would not be surprising if they wind up playing for the title once again in Canada in 2015.
Michael Lewis, who is covering his seventh Olympic soccer tournament, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com.
Michael Lewis, who has covered eight World Cups and has been reporting about soccer for four decades, can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com or via Twitter at @soccerwriter.
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