- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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LONDON -- "People will become legends tomorrow night."
When Abby Wambach spoke those words at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, one day before the U.S. women's soccer team beat Japan 2-1 to capture its third consecutive Olympic gold medal, the list of women who could fill in that blank was longer than the security lines at Wembley Stadium.
Would it be the young, fiery forward Alex Morgan, the star of the semifinal match? The electrifying playmaker Megan Rapinoe, who'd already tallied three goals in this tournament? Goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was on a mission to prove defense wins championships? Or would it be Wambach herself, a woman who could already lay claim to that title?
"I feel so proud to be part of such a complete team," Wambach said two hours after Thursday's game and in between returning phone calls to friends and family back home. "Our depth is the strength of this team. And today, big players stepped up. The life of many players on this team will be very different tomorrow."
But none so much as midfielder Carli Lloyd, the New Jersey native who scored the U.S. team's only two goals of the game and became just the second player to score in two Olympic finals. Lloyd's first strike, a header from 5 yards in the eighth minute, was the earliest goal the United States scored all tournament and was followed by its longest celebration. Lloyd made it 2-0 in the 54th minute with a driving shot to the far post.
Not bad for a player who wasn't even part of her team's original starting 11.
"Carli proved I was wrong before the Olympics," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said after the game. "I'm happy she is more clever than I am."
Before the U.S. team arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, for its first game against France, Lloyd had been relegated to the bench after losing her starting position at center midfield to Lauren Cheney. But instead of griping about her new role on the team, instead of lobbying her coaches to return her to the starting lineup, Lloyd was patient. "Coming into the tournament, I knew I wasn't starting, but I didn't pout," Lloyd said. "It made me work harder and dig deeper. I wanted to prove to Pia that I deserved to be a starter."
Her time came sooner than anyone expected -- in the 17th minute of the first game, after midfielder Shannon Boxx left the game with a hamstring injury. In the 56th minute of that match, which the U.S. won 4-2, Lloyd scored the go-ahead goal on a beauty of a strike from distance and remained in the starting lineup, in Boxx's role, for the next four games.
But in Thursday's gold-medal match, with Boxx back in the lineup and Cheney on the bench, Lloyd was able to return to her role as more of an attacking midfielder.
"My role had been to keep the game flowing and be an anchor in the midfield," said Lloyd, whose heroics came in front of an Olympic women's soccer record 80,203 fans at Wembley. "Today I was able to do what I do best -- dribble and take shots and be on the attacking side of things. I seized my moment in that first game, and I seized my moment again today."
After Lloyd's second goal, there was no celebration. Although the scoreboard showed a U.S. lead of 2-0, the game itself was much less lopsided. The Japanese players were relentless in their attack, but thanks to the tough play of Solo -- and two shots that bounced off the crossbar -- Japan simply couldn't find the back of the net. At times, it seemed like Lady Luck was playing in a dark blue jersey. Sundhage praised Solo.
"Today, Hope made a difference, coming up huge when we needed her," the coach said. "She made great decisions the whole game."
But when Japan forward Yuki Ogimi cut the U.S. lead in half with 27 minutes left in regulation, Wambach couldn't help but be reminded of the Women's World Cup game she had been trying so hard to forget.
"I had thoughts of, 'Will this be a repeat of the World Cup? Will we lose the lead? Will we let them take what we've worked so hard for?'" Wambach said. "But we had the utmost faith in each other, even in the most dire of times.
"That's so inspiring and that's what the Olympics is about: putting yourself on the line and being willing to fail and lose in order to achieve glory. We did that today. We did that in this whole tournament."
In hindsight, it's hard to dismiss the kismet in this U.S. team's story. After losing to Japan on penalty kicks in last year's World Cup final, the Americans came to London looking not only to defend their 2008 gold medal, but to avenge that loss. The fact that both teams ended up in this final already set up a storybook ending. "For us, anything less than gold would have been a failure," Wambach said. "Everything we put into this tournament and the sacrifice of the last year, the time away from our friends and family, was for that feeling of never wanting to step onto a podium in second place again."
It's hard, too, to overlook exactly how the stars lined up for Lloyd. Had Boxx not been injured in that first game, Lloyd likely wouldn't have come into the game so early, nor would she have scored that go-ahead goal against France. Had Cheney not injured her ankle and Boxx not been well enough to return to the starting lineup in the final, Lloyd might not have been in a position to score those two goals.
"That's the thing about soccer," Wambach said, "you never know what's going to happen."
Even when you predict it in a news conference the day before.