Olympics 2012: U.S. tops Japan 2-1 to win women’s soccer gold

WEMBLEY, England — Hope Solo found herself enveloped in a group hug at the final whistle. Abby Wambach ran to join the fun in a celebration that unleashed a year of bottled-up frustration.

The U.S. women’s football team won its third straight Olympic gold medal Thursday, beating Japan 2-1 in a rematch of last year’s World Cup final and avenging the most painful loss in its history.

Carli Lloyd scored early in both halves, Solo leaped and dived to make saves, and the entire roster found the redemption it had been seeking since that penalty kick shootout loss in Germany last summer.

“This is the dream that we’ve all been thinking about and feeling for the last year since the World Cup,” Wambach said.

Before 80,203 at Wembley Stadium, a record crowd for a women’s football game at the Olympics, the teams put on a back-and-forth, don’t-turn-your-head football showcase, proving again that these are the two premier teams in the world. Women’s football is still in its formative stages in Britain, but the match proved more than worthy for the hallowed grounds of the beautiful game.

United States players celebrates winning the women's soccer gold medal match against Japan at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, in London. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

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“I just kept pounding my chest, going ‘Guys, this is only about heart. We’ll all tired, every player on the field. Twenty-two players on the field are tired,” Wambach said. “It’s about who wants it more, right here, right now. And today we proved that we did.”

The Japanese perhaps played just as beautifully as the Americans, using their speed and discipline to dominate possession and scoring chances for long stretches before finally cutting a 2-0 deficit in half with about a half-hour to go.

“The result was tough on us, but I’m glad to get a medal,” Yukari Kinga said. “We just wanted to challenge ourselves. We weren’t relaxed but we weren’t nervous. We just wanted to enjoy the game. We didn’t give up until the very last moment.”

Back home, America was paying attention — just as it was last year and despite the rest of the Olympic events. Even President Barack Obama, during a campaign speech at Colorado College during the second half of the game, noted that, “The women are doing pretty good right now in soccer.”

Lloyd’s goals came in 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 pitch when Shannon Boxx injured her hamstring in the opening game and started every game since.

Yuki Ogimi answered in the 63rd minute, and Asuna Tanaka nearly had the equalizer in the 83rd — only to be thwarted when Solo flung her entire body to the left to push the ball away.

The U.S. team has won four of the five Olympic titles since women’s football was introduced at the 1996 Atlanta Games, settling for mere silver at the 2000 Games in Sydney.

In the first half, Japan was unfortunate not to have a penalty kick awarded 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.

Japan also had two shots hit the crossbar, one off the left hand of a leaping Solo, who was kept consistently busy for the first time this tournament. The closest the U.S. came to doubling the lead in the first 45 minutes came when Azusa Iwashimizu attempted to clear a routine ball played in front of the net — and headed it off the post.

The U.S. goal in the eighth minute 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.

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