LONDON — It was a game of redemption for Team USA. A chance to face again on the world stage the foes who outkicked them for the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup title last year.
“This is about who wants it more,” said Abby Wambach, the U.S.’s leading scorer in the Olympic tournament, in a pre-match press conference. Wambach missed the 2008 Olympics with a broken leg, and the 32-year-old striker was a key player on the 2011 World Cup team.
In front of 80,203 exuberant fans in venerable Wembley Stadium — the most ever to attend an Olympic women’s soccer game — both teams wanted it. But the U.S. women played like they wanted it more. They already had one silver medal too many.
Even Japanese coach Norio Sasaki knew of the U.S. team’s desire.
"Maybe USA have the greater drive to win, and we know this USA team is very motivated to avenge the World Cup defeat,” he said before the game. “So we need to be as one in order to strengthen our own desire to triumph."
From the start, the Japanese team put on a show of unity, huddling before each half while the U.S. players took their places on the field.
The Japanese possessed the ball for 58 percent of the game, with elegant footwork and textbook passes. But while the Japanese looked precise, the Americans looked alive.
As they said they would do, the U.S. women imposed their more direct, aggressive style on the game. And, as Wambach said they must do in order to win, they took advantage of every opportunity they had to score.
Those chances came early. On an assist from Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd charged toward the goal and headed in the ball like a bull. 1-0. The clock read 8 minutes.
After dribbling down field, Lloyd found the goal again in the 55th minute. 2-zip. It was a dream way for the 30-year-old midfielder to wrap up an Olympic tournament that began on shaky ground. Pulled off the starting lineup before the Olympics, she was put back on after Shannon Boxx suffered a hamstring injury. Boxx was back in the gold medal match though. And after scoring two goals earlier in the Olympic tournament, so was Lloyd.
Lloyd also scored the gold-medal-winning goal against Brazil in the 2008 Olympics.
With American defenders glued to the Japanese offense, and Hope Solo’s leaping and diving saves, they shut down Japan’s scoring opportunities in the first half. Japan only converted one scoring opportunity in the second half. In heavy traffic in front of the goal, Yuki Ogimi touched in the ball. 2-1.
As the crowd became more and more animated, chanting U-S-A, U-S-A — a change from the deafening cheers during the past 10 days for Team GB — the U.S. women looked at the clock.
“It seemed as if the minutes were taking forever to tick by,” said Wambach.
“The last 15 minutes were really difficult, Japan was really coming at us,” added Morgan, the youngest member of the 2011 World Cup team and an Olympic rookie. “I wanted to celebrate, but we weren’t done yet. We needed to finish the job defensively.”
The U.S. team’s history with Japan in the past 13 months was not great. In the four times the teams have played each other in the past 13 months, Japan held a 2-1-1 lead on the U.S. women.
But in this Olympic tournament, played in historic British stadiums from Glasgow to London’s Wembley Stadium, the U.S. team cast themselves as a band of fighters, coming back twice in two separate games during the tournament. In the semifinal game against Canada, they clawed their way back three times, with Morgan finally scoring late in overtime.
Solo called the game with Canada a “kick in the butt” that motivated them to play superlative soccer on a warm Thursday evening.
The biggest kick in the butt, though, was the World Cup loss in 2011.
“Everything that’s happened up until now doesn’t matter because it’s all part of the process,” said Wambach. “The fact that we’re champions means that we all committed to one central idea. That idea was believing in each other.”
That belief in each other led to the 2-1 win over Japan for Team USA’s third consecutive gold in women’s soccer — and fourth overall.
“This is the first time in my athletic career, and I’ve been through a couple major tournaments now, that it really feels like a team through and through, from player #1 through the alternates through 22 players,” said Solo. “We knew anybody could step up and make a different on this team.”
Incidentally, the U.S. women also lost the World Cup in the years before they won gold at the 1996, 2004, and 2008 Olympics. The only World Cup that they have won since women’s soccer was added to the Olympic program was 1999. At the 2000 Olympics, the U.S. women fell to Norway and took home silver.
Asked what the difference is between the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s soccer team and the 2011 women’s World Cup team, coach Pia Sundhage said depth, as well as the duo of Wambach and Morgan scoring goals.
As if to prove Sundhage right in the gold medal game, it was Lloyd who found the goal — twice — not Wambach or Morgan.
On the medal stand, the Japanese seemed happy with silver. Before the game, Coach Sasaki had said their objective was gold. But he added that in Japan, the character of silver can be superior to gold.
Not in the U.S. though.
“We respect Japan so much, and we were so happy to play them in the final,” said Morgan. “It was a little bit of redemption, a little bit of revenge. We’re the world champions now. We feel on top of the world now.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.