WEMBLEY, England — Abby Wambach didn’t put on her “Greatness Has Been Found” T-shirt right away. She instead strayed from her teammates and knelt alone at midfield — and cried into a U.S. flag.
Yes, greatness has been found. And payback has been achieved.
The Americans are again on top of the women’s soccer world.
They won their third straight Olympic gold medal Thursday, beating Japan 2-1 in a rematch of last year’s World Cup final and avenging the most painful loss in their history.
“They snatched our dream last summer,” U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “And this kind of feels like the nightmare turned back around.”
Carli Lloyd scored early in both halves, Hope Solo made a spectacular late save as the Japanese pushed frantically for a tying goal, and the entire roster found the redemption it had been seeking since that penalty kick shootout loss in Germany last year.
“I just kept pounding my chest, going, ‘Guys, this is only about heart. We’re all tired, every player on the field. Twenty-two players on the field are tired,'” Wambach said. “It’s about who wants it more, right here, right now. And today we proved that we did.”
Before 80,203 fans at Wembley Stadium, a record for a women’s soccer game at the Olympics, the teams put on a back-and-forth, don’t-turn-your-head soccer showcase, proving again that these are the two premier teams in the world. Women’s soccer is still in its formative stages in Britain, but the match proved more than worthy for the hallowed grounds of the beautiful game.
Back home, America was paying attention — just as it was last year and despite all the other Olympic events. Even President Barack Obama, while visiting the U.S. Olympic Committee’s training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., offered a “special shout-out” to the women’s team for its victory.
At the final whistle, Solo found herself enveloped in a group-hug celebration that unleashed a year of bottled-up frustration. Many of the players paraded with the flag and put on the celebratory T-shirts.
Wambach, the outspoken co-captain who missed the Beijing Games with a broken leg, was always the player most impassioned about the mission to get the Americans back atop the podium. She spoke of “nightmares” from the Japan defeat, and now they’ve been replaced by tears of happiness.
The loudest of cheers erupted when she received her gold medal, and she was the only one to get a hug from American IOC member Angela Ruggiero, who draped the medal around Wambach’s neck.
“I’m so proud of us, the resilience of this team from never giving up, for always believing in ourselves even when the scoreline and time proved otherwise,” Wambach said. “This is what the Olympics is all about, two great teams that faced off against each other today, that have mutual love and respect for each other. And you know, sometimes the ball bounces your way, and today that’s what the case was for us.”
The U.S. team has won four of the five Olympic titles since women’s soccer was introduced at the 1996 Atlanta Games, taking second place at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
Settling for silver, the Japanese players huddled together in defeat, with coach Norio Sasaki trying to encourage them. Karina Maruyama was inconsolable. Aya Miyama bowed her head and Asuna Tanaka wiped away tears.
But they were all smiles when they re-emerged for the medal ceremony, bouncing their way to the podium.
Lloyd also scored the winning goal in the gold medal match against Brazil in Beijing four years ago. On Thursday she found the net in the eighth and 54th minutes, making it four goals in the tournament for the midfielder who lost her long-held starting job weeks before the Olympics. She got back on the field when Shannon Boxx injured her hamstring in the opener against France and started every game since.
“I think I just come up big in big moments. That’s what I’ve trained for,” Lloyd said. “I worked my butt off day-in and day-out. I don’t think there’s anybody that works harder than I do. I was on a mission this Olympics to prove everybody wrong, and that’s what I did. To show everybody that I belong on the field.”
Yuki Ogimi answered in the 63rd minute, and Mana Iwabuchi nearly had the equalizer in the 83rd — stripping the ball from captain Christie Rampone and swooping in on Solo — only to be thwarted when the goalie flung her entire body to the left to push the shot away.
Throughout the game, Japan perhaps played just as beautifully as the Americans, using speed and discipline to dominate possession and scoring chances for long stretches. The Japanese were unfortunate not to have a penalty kick awarded in the first half for a clear hand ball by U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath, who stuck out her left arm to stop a free kick inside the area.
Japan also had two shots hit the crossbar, one off the left hand of a leaping Solo, who was kept constantly busy for the first time this tournament. The closest the U.S. came to doubling the lead in the first 45 minutes came when Azusa Iwashimizu attempted to clear a routine ball played in front of the net — and headed it off the post.
Lloyd’s first goal began with a run by Heath down the left side. She fed Alex Morgan, who settled the ball near the goal line, spun and chipped it toward Wambach. Wambach raised her left foot for the shot, but Lloyd charged in and got to it first, her strong running header beating goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto from 6 yards out.
Lloyd extended the lead with a 20-yard right-footer just inside the left post after a run from midfield through the heart of the Japanese defense.
Ogimi soon cut the deficit to one after a mad scramble in front of the net. Rampone saved a shot off the line, but the ball went to Homare Sawa, who fed Ogimi for the tap-in.
Another scramble followed after U.S. defender Amy LePeilbet saved yet another shot off the line in the 74th minute, but this time her teammates were able to corral the ball before a Japanese player could pounce on it.
Boxx was back in the starting lineup after the missing four games with the hamstring injury. Lauren Cheney, who injured an ankle in the semifinals, began the game on the bench for the first time this tournament.
Canada won the bronze earlier Thursday, beating France 1-0 at Coventry.
The previous record crowd for a women’s soccer game at the Olympics was 76,481 at the Atlanta Games.