by JJ Duke
It was a scene that every person jammed inside Wembley Stadium wanted on Thursday evening in London. For the United States, the night represented redemption after a heartbreaking loss to their opponents in the World Cup Finals a year ago. For Japan, they could do what no team has done before, win an Olympic Gold Medal a year removed from a World Cup victory, against the same team no less. And for over 80,000 spectators at the iconic home of the English National team, the ideal match-up of the tournament was playing on the pitch below them. But after an intriguing 90 minutes of soccer, the United States won their fourth Olympics Gold Medal by defeating Japan by a score of 2-1. The USA were backed by a two-goal performance from Carli Lloyd and despite giving up a goal in the second half to Yuki Ogimi, it was a great match to watch for the fans and a memorable occasion for the players on the field.
Going into the match, Pia Sundhage made one change to the side that defeated Canada so dramatically at the end of extra time in Manchester on Monday. Shannon Boxx, who recovered from a hamstring injury in the first match for the USA against France, replaced Lauren Cheney in the midfield. On the other side, Norio Sasaki marched out the same lineup he did on Monday against France in the semifinals. The early action went in favor of the U.S. as a high-pressured defense forced Japan into some early errors. The first U.S. goal came only eight minutes into the match as Kelley O’Hara sent Tobin Heath down the left flank with a good early ball. Heath drilled a low cross near-post toward Alex Morgan, and her touch was taken away from goal toward the end-line. With a chipped ball to the back post, Carli Lloyd beat not only her defenders but a waiting Abby Wambach as she powered her header home to give the U.S. a 1-nil lead.
The momentum quickly shifted back toward Japan as 10 minutes later Nahomi Kawasumi crossed a ball toward Shinobu Ohno, who powered a header only to see U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo pull out a stunning save as she tipped the ball onto the crossbar. It seemed that everything was going Japan’s way for awhile until the 26th minute when an Aya Miyama free kick seemed to have struck Heath’s extended arm inside the box, but referee Bibiana Steinhaus, who was in charge of the match between these two teams last year in the World Cup Final, did not award the penalty. The Japan luck almost went from bad to worse because not more than a minute later a driven cross from Amy LePeilbet was redirected by Azusa Iwashimizu past her goalkeeper only to be saved by the post. The rest of the half was dominated by Japan though, gaining two good opportunities including Miyama hitting the crossbar from a teed up ball by Ohno. But the half finished at 1-0 to the U.S.
The second half started like the first half ended with Japan dominating the possession of the game, but that was all to be gone for none as Lloyd scored her second of the night in the 54th minute. The midfielder made a great run down the middle of the field and similarly to the goal she scored against France that turned out to be the game-winner, put it on her right foot and blistered the shot past Miho Fukumoto and just inside the far post. This was Lloyd’s second goal of the match and third in her career in Olympic Gold Medal Finals, the first came back in 2008 when she rifled a long distance shot against Brazil in extra-time that would eventually be the game-winner that night.
Japan wasn’t quite done yet as in the 63rd minute, they pulled a goal back through Ogimi to make the score 2-1. Miyama threaded a great pass to Ohno, and as Solo came out to cut the angle down Ohno slotted the ball back to Homare Sawa. Her shot though was saved off the line by Christie Rampone, her second save off the line on the night. But after the defense scrambled the ball away from goal, Sawa hit a second shot only to find its way to Ogimi, who was on the doorstep and closed the gap to one.
After that goal, Japan gained a second wind, and only a couple great plays by Solo off of Miyama free kicks, the score remained 2-1 through 80 minutes. Lloyd had an opportunity to put the game away with another long distance effort, but this one flew over the bar. The biggest play of the night though happened in the 83rd minute, when Rampone got pick-pocketed in the back by second half substitute Mana Iwabuchi and was alone with Solo with Ohno on Iwabuchi’s right, she went for goal. But not to be denied, Solo made a flying save to her left and parried the shot away from goal. That was to be the last real chance for either side and after the whistle blew, the U.S. won their third straight Olympic Gold Medal, while Japan who played admirably in the match, received the silver medal.
It was a fantastic game of soccer to be fair, both teams left their all on the field and at the end of the day, it was the U.S. who took advantage of their chances despite being out possessed by Japan nearly 60% to 40%. Lloyd was fantastic on the night and all tournament as well, scoring four goals and possibly putting to rest some of her doubters. Solo, despite not really having to do with much of the action during the tournament before the finals, came up big on the night, exactly like she was four years ago on the same stage. And this was the first time in any major tournament since 1999 that the U.S. recorded a clean sweep of the competition, a 6-0-0 record, and scored 16 goals in the process, a new tournament record. And you have to give Japan a lot of credit as well, they put in a game effort and played their traditional technical style and pestered the U.S. goal with shots. And they were graceful in defeat and were expressively happy to win the silver medal.
But the game effort of the night had to go to the Canada Women’s team bus driver, who after their 1-0 victory earlier in the day against France, had to make the two-plus hour drive from Coventry, and had to get around the London traffic but got the Canada women to the Wembley stadium in time for them to receive the Bronze medal, one that will surely lift the country as they prepare to host the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the next major international tournament on the Women’s program.