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Thursday, August 9, 2012
Closure for U.S.

By Jeff Carlisle
ESPN.com

Carli Lloyd
Carli Lloyd was nothing short of stellar in the U.S. midfield, scoring two great goals and dictating play.

It took over a year for the U.S. women's national team to find redemption but it was well worth the wait as the Americans rode two brilliant goals from Carli Lloyd -- plus some stellar goalkeeping from Hope Solo -- to subdue a vibrant Japan side 2-1 in a pulsating Olympic final.

The victory marks the Americans' third consecutive Olympic title and if the script of Lloyd and Solo playing the role of heroines sounds familiar, it should. The pair was prominent in the Americans' 1-0 victory over Brazil in Beijing four years ago and their performances were just as critical at Wembley on Thursday. It was an especially gratifying moment for Lloyd, who lost her starting job just prior to the Olympics yet recovered to be a vital contributor throughout the tournament.

There were other similarities as well. A year ago in the World Cup final, the U.S. was thought to be the better team even as it fell on penalties to the Nadeshiko. And like the Brazil match in 2008, this gold-medal game saw the U.S. put under tremendous pressure even as Lloyd staked the U.S. to a 2-0 lead. After Yuki Ogimi pulled a goal back for the Nadeshiko midway through the second half, Solo and the rest of the U.S. defense hung on just long enough to claim a memorable victory, one that will only burnish the reputation of the Americans' incredible mental strength.

While Japan head coach Norio Sasaki named an unchanged lineup from the team that beat France in the semifinals, U.S. boss Pia Sundhage made one alteration -- and it was a whopper. Shannon Boxx, who hadn't played in the tournament since injuring her hamstring in the Olympic opener against France two weeks ago, was deemed fit enough to replace Lauren Cheney and thus allowed Lloyd to move into more of an attacking role.

Sundhage told NBC prior to the game that the move was made in a bid to bring on some fresh legs, but it was also done to shore up the team's midfield that was exposed by Canada in the semi.

The move worked a treat from the opening kickoff, not so much in terms of Boxx's contribution but with regard to Lloyd. In the eighth minute, Tobin Heath's low cross found Alex Morgan in the box. The U.S. forward took the ball to the end line and her chip was perfectly timed to pick out Lloyd, whose late run and header gave Miho Fukumoto no chance in the Japanese goal.

But around the 15th minute, Japan began to assert control. The U.S. was content to drop deep defensively and with the American forwards providing little pressure, Japanese midfielders Mizuho Sakaguchi and Aya Miyama were able to start dictating the pace of the game.

Nahomi Kawasumi was the prime beneficiary as she started to give the right side of the U.S. defense all kinds of problems. The Japanese winger had a shot blocked by Christie Rampone in the 17th minute and Solo was able to stuff the rebound. Kawasumi then picked out Ogimi with a cross a minute later, though Solo reacted brilliantly to touch the ensuing header off the crossbar.

Homare Sawa
Homare Sawa, last summer's World Cup Golden Ball winner, was unable to assert herself against the U.S. this time around, though her teammates caused the Americans plenty of nervous moments.

The U.S. then caught a massive break in the 26th minute when Miyama's free kick clearly struck Heath's extended arm, but referee Bibiana Steinhaus was unmoved and waved play on. (Replays would confirm that it was a blown call.)

The Americans nearly scored a lucky goal two minutes later when Amy LePeilbet's cross was nearly nodded home for an own goal by Saki Kumagai. But Japan was soon back on the attack. A flowing move in the 33rd minute ended with Shinobu Ohno laying off a pass to Miyama, only for her shot to carom off the bar. A minute later it was Ohno's turn to go close as her curling effort went just wide of the post. All told, there was palpable relief for the U.S. when the halftime whistle blew.

The second half started out with the U.S. forwards putting more pressure on the Japanese midfielders as Heath switched sides in a bid to halt Kawasumi's advances. While Japan still had some good spells of possession, the Americans looked more secure in the back.

That sense of comfort was doubled in the 54th minute thanks to a brilliant individual effort from Lloyd. The U.S. midfielder collected the ball in the center circle, embarked on a long run that left Sakaguchi in her wake and buried a shot from 23 yards inside the far post.

But the Nadeshiko weren't finished; Sasaki brought on Asuna Tanaka for Sakaguchi in the 59th minute and Japan reasserted its dominance over a U.S. midfield that was feeling the fatigue of its semifinal extra-time win over Canada. The goal that had been long in coming finally arrived in the 63rd minute. Boxx failed to track Ohno's run from deep and after receiving a pass from Miyama, the midfielder played the ball square for Homare Sawa. Her shot was cleared off the line by Rampone but the ensuing clearance was hit straight back to Sawa, whose pass was touched home by Ogimi.

With the U.S. looking wobbly, Japan nearly equalized three minutes later. The irrepressible Miyama worked a combination with Ohno yet fired her shot high with Lloyd trailing the play.

Hope Solo
After conceding three against Canada in the semifinal, Hope Solo pulled off a string of superb saves to affirm why she's the best goalkeeper in the world.

Earlier, Sundhage had brought on Lauren Cheney for Megan Rapinoe in a bid to get more possession. Cheney nearly set up Rachel Buehler for a goal on a set piece that was saved by Fukumoto from point-blank range but otherwise there was little overall change in the Americans' fortunes.

Yet even as Japan continued to own the ball, it was a rare mistake from Rampone that provided the best opportunity for another goal. Substitute Mana Iwabuchi caught the U.S. captain in possession and was poised to tie the game, but Solo produced a superb diving save to her left to preserve the lead and ultimately, the victory.

It's one that may prove to be the last for many members of this group. Sundhage's contract expires on Nov. 30 and she has given no indication of her future plans. Players like Rampone may also decide that now is the time to make way for the next generation.

Either way, this team has captured the hearts of the American public over the past two summers and without question, its accomplishments have added another compelling chapter to the program's rich history.

Player ratings: (0-10; 10=best)

G: Hope Solo, 9 -- Delivered a stellar performance after having little to do for much of the tournament. Left nerves jangling with a couple of fumbles but she made the plays that mattered. Her save from Ohno's 18th-minute header was top notch, as was her late stop on Iwabuchi.

D: Kelley O'Hara, 6 -- Was caught ball watching at times early but found her strength defensively as the match went on. Threatening going forward per usual.

D: Rachel Buehler, 5 -- Needed to mark Ohno tighter on a first-half header but did well to track some diagonal runs. Also nearly scored off a set piece.

D: Christie Rampone, 6 -- Kept the back line together with a key clearance midway through the first half and used her speed to good effect. Should have done a bit better with another goal-line clearance in the second half. Has Solo to thank for bailing her out on her late giveaway.

D: Amy LePeilbet, 4 -- Was given a torrid time by Kawasumi and needed to do more to prevent service into the box. Did have a key clearance midway through the second half.

M: Tobin Heath, 6 -- Lucky to avoid conceding a penalty with a handball, but helped out with possession. Key pass to Morgan in buildup to the first goal.

M: Shannon Boxx, 5.5 -- A gutty display considering she hadn't played in two weeks. Was tidy in possession but seemed to struggle with her mobility.

M: Carli Lloyd, 9 -- Has a knack for coming up big in finals and delivered a fantastic two-way display. Took her goals well and got in plenty of tackles. Did tire a bit late but there's no doubting how vital her contribution was.

M: Megan Rapinoe, 4 -- Struggled to get into the flow of attack and was nearly made to pay for some slack defending on Miyama's shot that hit the crossbar.

F: Abby Wambach, 6.5 -- Put herself about in the box and helped out a ton defensively on set pieces.

F: Alex Morgan, 6.5 -- Terrific assist on Lloyd's first goal and used her pace well overall. However, she could have helped to defend from the front a bit more and was a bit too selfish on some counterattacking opportunities in second half. Still, a constant danger up top.

Subs:

M Lauren Cheney, 5 -- Didn't do much to help the U.S. keep possession, although she had some dangerous set piece deliveries.

D Becky Sauerbrunn, 6 -- Helped stem Japan's attacking force after coming on for Buehler.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.