When Carli Lloyd raced toward the corner flag after heading the ball into the back of the net, sliding on her knees, she glided in the same skid marks as some of the richest names in soccer.
Just like Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Didier Drogba before her, roars from more than 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, the man cave of world soccer, washed over her.
Even in these Olympics, coming on the 40th anniversary of Title IX, where women in hijabs have come to compete, where women participants outnumber the men for the United States, where else have they shared footsteps and adulation?
“It was … ” Lloyd said, her voice trailing off as she searched for the words that might some up the moment. “I can’t describe it.”
Lloyd scored two brilliant goals, Hope Solo walked the walk after talking the talk and another controversial referee’s call favored the United States as it survived a spellbinding Japan team for a 2-1 victory in Thursday’s gold-medal game.
It was the United States’ third consecutive gold in soccer and payback for last year’s loss to Japan in the World Cup. But as much as this was a victory by one country over another, it was every bit a victory for women athletes.
It showed that though a women’s soccer league has twice failed in the United States, there is a formula here — a captivating team, a brilliant adversary, drama that is as unrelenting as it is unscripted — that works in a country that still prides itself on having invented the game.
For some players like Lauren Cheney, preparing for a tournament like this means going to parks in Philadelphia looking for games to play. For others, like Lloyd, it means finding a trainer to work out with on her own.
“You remind players, it’s two times 45 minutes,” Sundhage said. “Now, for women, especially this team, they try to put the bigger picture in there and prove that this women’s sport needs a little recognition. It’s a balance. It’s nothing that the men ever think of, but the women do.”
The men also are not particularly motivated by money, but a $1.5 million bonus, split among the 18 players, was dangled in front of the women by United States Soccer, along with a 10-game series of exhibitions if they won.
Not enough to buy a house, Megan Rapinoe noted, but a down payment will be nice.
The Americans had plenty of people to thank for their newfound fortune, not the least of whom was the referee for the second consecutive game. Awarded a series of controversial calls in an overtime semifinal win over Canada, the US again caught a break Thursday when the ball struck Tobin Heath’s outstretched arm in the penalty area in the first half. Referee Bibiana Steinhaus of Germany chose not to call a penalty.
“It was a clear hand ball,” Lloyd acknowledged. “It hit her arm, but that’s how it goes.”
It was the type of break the United States needed against a team whose deft passing and intelligent runs made a mockery of their game plan, which was to keep the ball away from Japan.
“It didn’t work,” Sundhage said.
Instead, the Americans did what they do best: run and jump and put the ball in the net. It also helped to have Solo in their net.
Solo, who had made more news with what she has said in this tournament — her cold war with Brandi Chastain and her comment after a quarterfinal win over New Zealand that she hadn’t been tested — than what she had done.
However, after allowing three goals by Christine Sinclair against Canada, she made several critical saves Thursday, including one in the 83rd minute.
Twice in last year’s World Cup Final, the United States blew late leads and eventually lost on penalty kicks. When Christie Rampone — who otherwise played an exemplary game at center back, clearing two balls off the line — was stripped by Mana Iwabuchi in the 83rd minute with a clear path to Solo …
“At that moment,” forward Alex Morgan said. “I was almost closing my eyes saying, `Hope, save this. Save this.’”
Solo did, flinging her body to the left to push the shot away. She also tipped a ball off the crossbar, one of two shots by Japan that hit the frame.
“I was hoping to make an impact on the game," Solo said. "In my experience, there’s always one moment in a tournament when you can make an impact. After five games, it finally came.”
Lloyd’s two goals were memory makers. When Morgan danced with the ball in the left corner and created enough space to loft the ball toward the far post, Lloyd had come tearing toward the goal. She thrust her forehead onto the ball, driving it into the net, taking the ball just before it was going to meet Abby Wambach’s left foot.
It was exquisite timing and teamwork.
Her second was simply sheer power and technique. Lloyd gathered the ball near midfield and took off toward the goal as the Japan defense parted. With a defender on her left hip, Lloyd carried the ball for 10 yards, then 20 and 30, all the while loading up for a shot from 25 yards that ripped into the side netting inside the far post.
“Everything kind of opened up,” Lloyd said. “I figured why not have a shot?”
The night was colored with redemption for Lloyd, who lost her starting job just before the Olympics, but got it back when Shannon Boxx was injured in the opener against France. Lloyd also missed a penalty against Japan in the World Cup.
She said the benching bothered her and gave her something to prove. If there was a statement to be made, she was thrilled to have made it. But on this night, with two teams, a historic stadium, a capacity crowd and riveting soccer, she had company.