Thursday, August 9, 2012

The third time is quite charming.

Champions do not have to be the best at everything. Just winning.

Don't believe me? Ask Abby. Photo credit: ESPN.com
Japan did not appear to be a team that the U.S. could simply out-work. The Japanese were fit, technically watertight and tactically infallible. The U.S was bigger, faster stronger and yes, luckier. Oh, and the American women also finished their chances with the ruthlessness they lacked for most of the tournament.

The early goal changed everything. An astute low near-post cross from Tobin Heath found Alex Morgan who turned back and crossed to a waiting Abby Wambach. Yet before Wambach could reach the ball gold medal specialist Carli Lloyd dove in to give Team USA an eighth-minute lead.

The simplicity of the play did not make it any less meaningful.

What might have been an end-to-end dog fight instead turned into a methodical duel. Only the U.S. was not nearly methodical enough. When the game begged for gradual, controlled build-up play the team preferred to take off straight for goal. Poor touches abound and counters for Japan threatened.The defending World Cup champs rattled the crossbar twice in the first half only for some world-class goalkeeping and über-committed defensive saves to keep the U.S. in the game, much less in the lead.

Some helpful refereeing didn't hurt. That was a handball.

But the U.S. also had "it."Part of "it" was some luck, but ignoring the tireless effort that went into defending that lead would be a travesty. Amy LePeilbet, Christine Rampone and Amy Buehler all laid out to stuff Japanese shots. And while Rampone should not be making full-field attacking sprints in the 79th minute of the Olympic final with her fragile defense holding onto a one-goal lead, the gold medal hanging around her neck said it's OK.

Abby Wambach putting in a sacrificial effort of McBride proportions giving her cover didn't hurt.

Still, plays like that defy logic. So did what turned out to be the game-winner. After one of many awkward controlling touches from Morgan, Lloyd picked the ball up at midfield. Rampone dashed down the left flank with no one  remotely marking her. Lloyd ignored her for 20 yards, bulldozed through the Japanese midfield and rolled to the right-outer edge of the penalty area while ignoring several teammates before devastating whatever momentum Japan thought it had with a curling laser into the side netting.

Japan did get a 64th-minute goal that cut the lead to one off some poor defensive spacing and neat vision, but they never got any closer.

Never mind that Japan played the better soccer. Forget that they were the smarter, more organized team. Pia Sundhage's squad was the winning team; the one that completed the task presented. On this day the U.S. put its physical advantages to use and punished Japan when given the (half-)chances. By the end of the game Japan's collective gas tank was empty and the gold medals were headed to America once more.

The U.S. still hasn't won a World Cup without Mia Hamm, yet for some reason when there are Olympic rings in the stadium, this team does what it takes to win.

- Jacob Klinger

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