Carli Lloyd leads USWNT to Women’s World Cup title past rival Japan

VANCOUVER, British Columbia —  

That wasn’t a victory. That was grand theft soccer — and it came in the biggest game on the grandest stage with a whole lot of Jersey attitude.

What Carli Lloyd and the United States women’s national team heisted inside the muggy confines of BC Place Sunday evening wasn’t merely a 5-2 win over defending Women’s World Cup champion Japan. It was seizure by the U.S. of the right to claim being the greatest team in women’s international soccer.

Lloyd’s hat trick, which she accomplished in a mere 16 minutes, is the first ever in Women’s World Cup Final history, and just the second in World Cup Final history.

"I call her my beast," USWNT coach Jill Ellis said of Lloyd. "She’s unbelievable, a rock star."

The shootout shattered the record for the highest-scoring Women’s World Cup final of all time, as well. The seven goals in the match broke the previous high of four, set between these two sides in 2011.

"Pure elation and I’m just so proud of them, and so happy for every American girl who dreams about this," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said after the victory.

Goodbye to 1999. Goodbye to 16 years of World Cup futility. Goodbye to the searing memory of July 17, 2011, when the U.S. twice held the lead against Japan in the Women’s World Cup final in Frankfurt and three times let the game escape them.

Seems it’s true what Lloyd, Abby Wambach, Ali Krieger, Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and every woman part of that devastating loss in 2011: Never again!

"I am speechless. I am so proud of this team. This doesn’t feel real, it hasn’t sunk in," Lloyd said. "We just made history."

Even Japan’s great Homare Sawa understood the momentousness of the moment for the U.S. When Wambach subbed into her final World Cup game, the 36-year-old former captain for Japan walked over and gave a high-five to the 35-year-old Wambach. Just a touch of hands for two of the game’s all-time great warriors, though on this night, it was all about the U.S.

By barraging Japan early and often, the U.S. women’s national team has once again crowned itself the Women’s World Cup champs. It’s the third time in history, and while it’s long overdue, the title brings incredible relief to a team loaded with international superstars whose careers deserved this ultimate glory.

Wambach, the all-time leading international goal scorer, will all but certainly retire with a World Cup befitting her stellar legacy. Same for veterans like Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx, Heather O’Reilly, Lori Chalupny and Amy Rodriguez. If there was any confusion as to why this 2015 Women’s World Cup roster was loaded with players who connected this year’s team with the history of U.S. women’s soccer, the reward for those veterans was justified, no matter how few minutes they actually played this June.

"I swear I think this is surreal, I don’t even think this is real life," a joyful Wambach said after the win. "I’m so thankful that we stuck together as a team. We didn’t buy into any of that cynicism that was creeping in during the group stage. This is a championship for everyone."

While most of the U.S. women’s campaign in 2015 did not give a clue as to the power it would come to unleash at the end of this World Cup run, the seeds for the U.S. World Cup title were sewn not on the pitch but in meeting rooms between coach Ellis and her top players. After the U.S. struggled to score and unleash an attack, Ellis found a way to rearrange the U.S. formation and give the team exactly what it needed.

The first showing came in the U.S. resounding win over Germany in the semifinals, when the five-midfielder formation was tantalizingly unveiled. The key has been Lloyd’s repositioning as a defacto forward, playing just under or beside striker Morgan. The energy and skill and power were elevated to an entirely new level. The question was whether the U.S. was going to be able to keep it going?

The answer in the final came fast and furiously. The emphatic realization of Elli’s midfield experiment came into full fruition. Lloyd was unstoppable, at least in the early going, as she lifted the U.S. to an early, and as it turned out, insurmountable lead.

Lloyd was clearly in a hurry to make good on the formation shift that had put the keys to the U.S. attack in her hands. The 32-year-old, New Jersey native who has dedicated herself lock, stock and barrel to becoming the best player in the world got the U.S. on the board 3 minutes into the match. Lloyd took up position on the middle of the box where she converted a corner from Megan Rapinoe.

That was just the start. Lloyd added her second goal less than two minutes later on a second set piece. Lauren Holiday took the free kick and Julie Johnston had a back-heeled shot blocked, but Lloyd was there to collect the rebound and knock down the second U.S. goal.

"I was just on a mission to help my team win this game," Lloyd said. "Personally I have worked my butt off, and all the repetitions came into play."

Next up was Holiday, the centerback who, along with Lloyd, had been frustrated most of the year trying to find a rhythm. In the 14th minute, Holiday was in the right place when Japan back Aya Sameshima poorly cleared a header, allowing the ball to fall right to a wide-open Lloyd. The former Tar Heel merely shoved the ball back past Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori.  

By the time Lloyd added her third goal, the U.S. was up 4-0 and the packed house inside BC Place went from frenzied to shocked. Was it really already over?

Not according to Japan. Despite the massive deficit, the Nadeshiko are a fabulous ball-control team and only needed for the U.S. attack to subside in order to execute Japan’s style. Midfielder Rumi Utsugi, indeed, was having none of the narrative that said the U.S. was going blank Japan. As the U.S. settled the pace and started to take its time moving the ball upfield, Utsugi pushed to break up the slow progression the U.S. was trying to maintain. The veteran midfielder was unwilling to let the U.S. take complete control of the tone of the match.

Soon enough, Japan found ways to move the ball into the U.S. defensive end. That set up Japan’s opening goal. In the 28th minute, Yuki Ogimi took a pass in the middle of the box and, when Julie Johnston attempted a slide tackle on the play, Ogimi was left standing. All she did was have to turn and fire off a rising shot that Solo tried to lay out and stop, but it blew off her fingers and in for the goal.

The next move Japan made was one that seemed to serve two purposes. Coach Norio Sasaki substituted 36-year-old Sawa — the star figure from the 2011 Women’s World Cup win that has made her a talismanic figure in  Japan — defender for Azusa Iwashimizu. The U.S. barrage had left Iwashimizu overwhelmed and, once on the bench, the defender had to be consoled by her teammates. Out of the pitch, Sawa was ready to try and inspire another Japan comeback, just as she had done four years ago on that fateful July 17, 2011 date in Frankfurt, Germany.

But by the time Sawa hit the field, the U.S. had staked itself too great of a lead. In the 52nd minute, the score was lifted to 4-2 when Johnston’s header in the box deflected past a surprised Hope Solo, resulting in an own goal. The U.S. was not ready to let Japan creed back in, however. Two minutes later, Tobin Heath added the 5th U.S. goal on an assist inside the box from Morgan Brian.