WEMBLEY, England (CBSNewYork/AP) — In the closing minutes of the Olympic final, goalie Hope Solo flung her body toward the ball and managed to push it away. The lead stayed intact. The Americans would win the gold medal and redemption from a year-old World Cup heartache.
The U.S. women’s soccer team puts up with a lot from Solo. The candid comments. The Twitter tangents. The pause she put on her training to appear on “Dancing With the Stars.”
But when the game is on the line, she’s still hands-down — not to mention hands-up and hands-to-the-side — the best goalkeeper in the world.
“You can’t go without saying that Hope saved the day,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach. “Literally. Five times.”
The Americans became champions for the third consecutive Olympics, beating Japan 2-1 Thursday in a rematch of last year’s World Cup final. Carli Lloyd scored early in both halves, and the entire roster found the salve it had been seeking since that penalty kick shootout loss in Germany 13 months ago.
“They snatched our dream last summer,” U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “And this kind of feels like the nightmare turned back around.”
Turned back around with every shot turned back by Solo, who leaped high with her left hand to knock one off the crossbar early in the game and then made the save of the Olympics in the 83rd minute, when Mana Iwabuchi stripped the ball from captain Christie Rampone and swooped in toward the net — only to be thwarted when the goalie lunged left to deflect the ball out of harm’s way.
“I knew I had to make the save,” Solo said. “That was pretty much my only thought. I had to make that save.”
Solo now owns two Olympic gold medals as well as the golden glove award as the top goalie at last year’s World Cup.
Solo has a long history of speaking her mind, and has made plenty of headlines over the years for doing so. The most recent Solo saga came earlier in the games when she ripped NBC analyst and former American player Brandi Chastain’s game commentary on Twitter, prompting her coach to call her in for a meeting.
“Hope Solo, she says a lot on Twitter, I guess. I don’t follow her,” U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. “But what matters is what kind of team player she is and how she performs. … Today Hope Solo had a very good game. She brought the gold back to the United States of America.”
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 gave a special shout-out to the women’s team for its victory.
“Congrats to the U.S. women’s soccer team for a third straight Olympic gold. So proud,” he tweeted.
At the final whistle, there was 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, strayed alone to midfield and cried into a U.S. flag.
“The Olympics is a perfect platform in terms of what life is,” Wambach said. “You cannot win at everything you attempt in life. You have to be willing to fail and fall flat on your face in order to get glory. And we really did fail last year, in our opinion. We have to give Japan credit. They’re a fantastic team.
“But anything less than winning for us is a failure. And we worked tirelessly all year long to prove that we still can win and we are still champions.”
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 shed tears in defeat, with coach Norio Sasaki trying to encourage them as they huddled on the field. But they were all smiles when they re-emerged for the medal ceremony, bouncing their way to the podium.
“Even though we got defeated and we couldn’t win in this Olympics, if I look at it objectively, they all played very well,” Sasaki said through a translator. “There is nothing we should be ashamed of.”
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 was on a mission this Olympics to prove everybody wrong, and that’s what I did,” Lloyd said. “To show everybody that I belong on the field.”
Yuki Ogimi answered in the 63rd minute for the Japanese, who used speed and discipline to dominate possession and scoring chances for long stretches. Japan was 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.
The Americans knew they’d gotten away with something.
“The one on Tobin?” Rapinoe said, smiling. “Thank God I’m not a referee.”
Asked about the play, Japan coach Sasaki responded with a wry grin and said he wondered what the referee was thinking at the time. He diplomatically added that he respected the call.
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, with Wambach staying wide to draw defenders away.
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.
Canada won the bronze earlier Thursday, beating France 1-0 at Coventry.
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