LONDON — The U.S. womens soccer team made another play for Americas heart Thursday night, winning a thriller of a gold-medal game 2-1 against Japan.
In front of a screaming crowd of 80,203 in Wembley Stadium the largest number of fans who have ever attended an Olympic womens soccer game the U.S. was both lucky and good.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo made a magnificent save in the final minutes to prevent the game from being tied. Carli Lloyd, who had lost her starting job before the Olympics began, scored both American goals. And the U.S. benefited from a first-half no-call when American player (and former North Carolina star) Tobin Heath knocked a free kick down with her arm inside the penalty box, which should have resulted in a penalty kick.
Solo tipped another Japanese shot high enough to hit the crossbar, and yet another Japanese shot banged against the crossbar as well. Japan had the ball 58 percent of the time. But the U.S. survived to gain redemption for the 2011 Womens World Cup loss in the final to the same Japanese team.
We fought, U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. We dug deep. We were screaming at each other that we couldnt let Japan back into this game.
When the referee finally whistled for the games end, the U.S. players hugged each other and wrapped themselves in American flags.
Many of the Japanese players, meanwhile, burst into tears. But in a sweet moment, Japans team then lined up first at one side of the stadium and then the other and bowed in unison to the crowd.
Solo called her final save a little bit routine after the game, but it was anything but that given the situation. Japans Maria Iwabuchi picked the pocket of a U.S. defender deep on the American side, stealing the ball like a defensive end stripping a quarterback and then taking an open shot on the left side of the goal from about 10 yards.
Solo came way out of the goal to cut off the angle, then dove to knock the shot away. That play was good timing for Solo in a variety of ways her autobiography comes out next week.
At the time, it didnt feel like my best save, Solo said. But when you look at it that it was in the final against Japan and in the final minutes, I guess it is pretty big.
America won the womens soccer gold medal in 2004 and 2008 as well, and has won it four of the five times overall since the sport was added to the Olympics in 1996.
But this one was no certainty. It wouldnt have felt like nearly as much of an upset if Japan won as it would feel if either the U.S. mens or womens basketball teams lose in these Olympics, for instance.
The U.S. womens team captured much of Americas attention and love once again in this tournament in part because it played such dramatic games, just like it did last summer in the World Cup. Against Canada in the Olympic semifinal this week, the U.S. was down 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 before finally winning 4-3 in extra time.
This time the U.S. never trailed thanks to Lloyd, who was benched before the Olympics and didnt like it a bit. I didnt pout, though, she said. I worked.
Then Lloyd got her job back because of an injury and never gave it up.
I feel like I seized the moment today, said Lloyd, who also scored the only goal in the 1-0 win against Brazil in the 2008 Olympic final.
Lloyd scored on a header just eight minutes into the game off a perfect left-footed cross from Alex Morgan, nearly taking the ball off Wambachs foot to do so.
I thought I had kicked her in the head, Wambach said, but she really had a bead on it.
Then, in the 54th minute, Lloyd got the ball in space, made a great run of at least 30 yards and blasted it into the right corner from 20 yards out for a second goal. Thats what I do best running at defenders and creating, Lloyd said.
Japans Yuki Ogimi then scored by chipping in a loose ball in front of the goal in the 63rd minute to halve the margin to 2-1.
The Japanese tried one furious thrust after another to tie the game in the last 27 minutes but never could quite get there as the chant USA, USA rained down from the stadium in the closing minutes.
It was a heck of a game, and the aftermath made you feel good, too. By the time the Japanese players came back out for the medal ceremony, they had recovered enough to goof around. They made a train with their arms on each others shoulders to re-enter the stadium, then gave that up to hold hands as they walked back out to huge applause.
Seeing this, the Americans stopped waving to the crowd and started to hold hands, too.
It was another nice moment on a night full of them.
Fowler: email@example.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler