THE SOOTHING POWER OF GOLD
BY LUIGUI BARRAGAN
Photo by Lefteris Pitarakis/AP Photo
Carli Lloyd’s Olympic success burns brighter than the torch that symbolizes the Games. The thirty year-old midfielder from New Jersey has taken part in two gold medal matches with the U.S. women’s soccer team, and has scored every goal in both games for the Americans. In 2008, in Beijing, Lloyd struck gold with a shot from just outside the penalty area in the 95th minute, breaking a scoreless tie between the United States and Brazil. Four years later in London, Lloyd doubled her efforts, scoring twice, resulting in a third consecutive gold medal for the U.S. in women’s soccer.
The London chapter of Lloyd’s legacy, however, began from an unfamiliar vantage point, that is from the bench instead of the pitch. An overflow of talent at midfield meant that Lloyd would not be among the starting eleven in the USA’s first match of these Games against France. She didn’t warm her seat up though for very long. Seventeen minutes into their title defense, the U.S. was already down by two goals and one very important player in Shannon Boxx, due to a hamstring injury. Head Coach Pia Sundhage looked to Lloyd to fill the void left by Boxx. Lloyd was ready. She relinquished her seat on the bench and was back where she belonged, at the heart of the U.S. midfield. From that moment on, Lloyd would make it difficult for Sundhage to name a starting line-up that didn’t include her in it. It also didn’t hurt that Lloyd scored the game winning goal against France in that first fixture. The victory over France meant the United States dodged an early bullet, for Carli Lloyd it meant a restoration of status.
Even with the return of Shannon Boxx for the gold medal final versus Japan, Lloyd’s place in the midfield was no longer in question. And for good reason. The Boxx-Lloyd combination in the midfield personified Sundhage’s game plan of “keeping possession” (done by Boxx) and “going straight to goal” (led by Lloyd).[i] “Keeping possession is important,” Sundhage said. “I think this team is capable of keeping possession and creating big chances.”[ii] The USA was offensive minded from the start. With the match not yet ten seconds old, Lloyd’s first pass, from behind the midfield line, was “straight to goal” looking for either Alex Morgan or Abby Wambach, the two superstar U.S. forwards up top. In the fifth minute, Lloyd intercepted the ball at midfield and brought it up some fifteen yards before trying to connect on a pass with a streaking Morgan. A brutal collision between Morgan and her Japanese defender Saki Kumagai meant the ball never got to Morgan’s feet. Two minutes later, Morgan’s feet were on the ball, and pressed close to the end line. Morgan turned and managed to float a centering pass across the goalie box in a desperate attempt to create any sort of a scoring chance. With Sundhage’s words seemingly ringing in her ears, Lloyd went straight to goal, charging at full speed, head first, as if the red color of the Japanese team jersey had suddenly turned her into a Spanish bull. Once struck by Lloyd’s head, the ball too heeded Sundhage’s instruction and went “straight to goal;” actually, it went into goal and the Americans enjoyed an early one-to-nothing lead. It was Lloyd’s third goal of the competition, her second in Olympic gold medal games. “I saw Alex [Morgan] and anytime she’s in that final third [of the field], she’s going to beat her player,” Lloyd said. “She serves up great balls. I saw that one coming and I was hovering around the box, sprinted past Abby and just made sure it went in.”[iii] “For maybe a millisecond,” Wambach said, “I was like, ‘Yes, I’m going to score a goal.’ But I’ll take Carli Lloyd’s head any day over my foot.”[iv]
Lloyd’s head put the U.S. in front after eight minutes of play, but it was her right foot that made it possible for her teammates to walk out of London’s Wembley Stadium wearing gold around their necks. Reminiscent of her heroics in 2008, Lloyd found herself a couple of yards outside of the penalty area again, only this time on the right-hand side of the 18-yard box. She had Alex Morgan to her left and Abby Wambach to her right, both ready and waiting for a pass that never came. Lloyd raised her head, but she never looked left, nor did she glance to her right. Her eyes stared squarely at the goal in front of her. Never skittish to shoot from the outside, Lloyd unleashed a shot-on-goal from about 20-yards out with the precision of an archer or an expert marksman. Bull’s-eye, into the side netting on the right side of the goal. USA 2, Japan 0. “I was doing what I do best,” Lloyd said, “taking the space, dribbling at players. I kept dribbling and found an open shot and took it.”[v] And when a spot opened up on the field in that first game against France, due to injury, she took that opportunity with as much conviction as she did that shot in the 54th minute of the gold medal match. “It feels so good,” Lloyd said, “especially the way I started out this tournament, not knowing if I’d be starting. I had to seize the moment. When someone tells me I’m not good enough to start, I’m going to prove them wrong. I took full advantage of that.”[vi] It was head coach Pia Sundhage, who, just before the Olympics, decided to relegate Lloyd to the role of a reserve player, coming in off the bench. Once the Olympics were over for her team, Sundhage had no problem owning up to her mistake. “I’m so proud of her,” Sundhage said of Lloyd, “because she played so many games and, all of a sudden, I thought she wasn’t good enough. And then she just comes back and helps the team tremendously; so she proved that I was wrong, and I love that. Perfect.”[vii] “I’m so proud of Carli,” added Wambach, “she lost her starting job, got it back, didn’t pout, was a great teammate and stayed professional and look, she scored two goals in the final of the Olympic Games. Dreams do come true.”[viii]
For the U.S. women’s soccer team it was a dream come true to beat Japan in this gold medal game; especially after Japan “snatched,” as U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe put it, a World Cup title away from the Americans last summer. London offered the U.S. women the redemption they’d been wanting for over a year. That fact was not lost on Japanese head coach Norio Sasaki, who through an interpreter at the press conference the day before the game said, “With this idea of revenge, maybe they have a stronger desire to win. We ask ourselves, ‘How can we have a stronger desire?’”[ix] To their credit, the Japanese women were trying to become the first women’s soccer team to win an Olympic gold medal the year after winning the World Cup. And after Lloyd’s header put the U.S.A. ahead in the eighth minute, Japan’s desire to get on the scoreboard intensified. The Japanese attack first came by ground in the sixteenth minute when forward Nahomi Kawasumi fired a shot on goal that eluded the out-stretched arms of U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo but not the foot of U.S. team captain Christie Rampone. Rampone kicked the ball clear of the goal line, the ball then bounced off of Solo’s body and into the path of oncoming Japanese forward Yuki Ogimi. Solo recovered at light speed and prevented Ogimi’s shot from tying the game. Forty-five seconds later, Kawasumi was at it again. This time, she served an arching centering pass over two American defenders and onto the head of Ogimi. From Ogimi’s head to the palm of a leaping Solo’s hand and onto the crossbar, the U.S. clung to their lead by their finger nails. In the twenty-fifth minute, Team USA went from clinging to biting their finger nails when a free-kick by Japan team captain Aya Miyama hit the arm of American midfielder Tobin Heath inside the penalty area. The U.S. knew what that meant. They benefited from such a play three days earlier in their semifinal match against Canada. Losing 3-to-2 with 12 minutes left, Rapinoe took an indirect free kick inside the penalty area that struck Canadian defender Marie-Eve Nault in the arm. That resulted in a penalty kick that Wambach tucked into the left-side of the net. The U.S. tied the game and went on to win 4-to-3 in overtime to reach the final. Three days later, it failed to garner the same result for Japan. Head coach Norio Sasaki could only smile in disbelief.
“We’re not letting them back into the game,”[x] admonished Lloyd. And while desire to score the equalizer grew for team Japan, resolve began to take root in Team USA. And after surviving two more close calls in the 33rd and 37th minute of this contest, the U.S. turned to the offensive with Lloyd at the helm. “She was the cheerleader, the motivator,” Wambach said. “She was keeping us organized.”[xi] “As a center midfielder, I often get overlooked from the goal scorers,” Lloyd said, “but I’m the engine that keeps things going.”[xii] Lloyd revved up the attack in the 41st minute with a shot-on-goal from about 30 yards away. The shot was smothered by goalie Miho Fukumoto, but it foreshadowed Lloyd’s second goal of the game. Japan finally broke through in the 63rd minute when forward Shinobu Ohno darted into the U.S. penalty area and received a pass from Miyama. Getting the goalkeeper and a defender to commit to her, Ohno faked the shot and dished the ball to reigning FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year Homare Sawa. Sawa struck the ball soundly but into the feet of Rampone, who once again impeded the ball from crossing the goal line. Rampone looked to steer the ball away from danger, instead she cleared the ball back in the direction of Sawa. Both Sawa and U.S. defender Kelley O’Hara lunged at the loose ball. O’Hara got to the ball first with her left foot, but in slid Sawa, the ball hitting her left knee next. The ball then rolled onto the left foot of Ogimi who finally guided it into the American net. The United States lead was cut in half with just under thirty minutes to play.
Japan had turned the tide of this game and had the U.S. pinned inside their own territory desperately trying to stave off each new wave of the Japanese attack. In the 71st minute of play, Miyama served up a cross, into the penalty area, meant for the head of Ogimi. Wambach, instead, got there first and headed the ball away from the U.S.A. goal. Next, it was U.S. defender Amy LePeilbet who, in the 73rd minute, sacrificed her body by getting in front of goalie Hope Solo, and, on her knees, blocked a shot-on-goal with her midsection. Yet, even more rough water lay ahead for the Americans. With just seven minutes left in the game, Team USA looked to navigate the ball up field from deep in their own end. The feet of team captain Christie Rampone had saved the Americans from doom on two occasions earlier in this gold medal match, and seemed like a safe haven to keep the ball away from the Japanese. But along came fleet-footed forward Mana Iwabuchi and pick-pocketed Rampone and now closed in on Solo and the U.S. goal. This time there would be no teammate between Solo and the opposing player. There was no time for that. The duel was set. It was Iwabuchi v.s. Solo. For redemption. For the gold. Iwabuchi gained territory. Solo stood her ground. Iwabuchi fired away. Solo dove to her left and redirected the flight of the ball with both her hands. The lead was safe, redemption preserved. “If she [Solo] doesn’t make that save,” Wambach said, “who knows what happens. We could still be out there right now. Well, maybe not.”[xiii] Referee Bibiana Steinhaus of Germany whistled the game over after 92 minutes of play. The celebration could now begin for Team USA on that legendary field in north-west London, and 389 days after losing to Japan in the World Cup final, so could the healing. ”It’s a year’s worth of work and the sacrifices all of us have had to make for our friends and family, for the players that didn’t make the roster, injured or otherwise,” Wambach said. “This goes out to all of our fans who cheered us on last summer and were equally as heart-broken as we were. We feel like this year has been trials and tribulations. We lost to Japan a few times this year and this win feels like everything has come full circle.”[xiv] “We weren’t going home with anything but gold,”[xv] Lloyd said. “This kind of reverses the nightmare,” Rapinoe said, “now this is just such a beautiful dream.”[xvi]
[i] Futterman, Matthew. “The Soccer Final is Thick With Opportunity.” The Wall Street Journal 9 August 2012, Page D9
[ii] Klemko, Robert. “USA, Japan Respectful Rivals in Soccer Final.” USA Today 9 August 2012, Page 4D
[iii] Kaufman, Michelle. “The Avengers.” The Miami Herald 10 August 2012, Page 2A
[iv] Brennan, Christine. “Lloyd Has Night To Dream About.” USA Today 10 August 2012, Page 8D
[vi] Kaufman, Michelle. “The Avengers.” The Miami Herald 10 August 2012, Page 2A
[vii] Sundhage, Pia. Post-Game Interview with Michele Tafoya. NBC Sports. 9 August 2012. Television.
[viii] Kaufman, Michelle. “The Avengers.” The Miami Herald 10 August 2012, Page 2A
[ix] Klemko, Robert. “USA, Japan Respectful Rivals in Soccer Final.” USA Today 9 August 2012, Page 4D
[x] Brennan, Christine. “Lloyd Has Night To Dream About.” USA Today 10 August 2012, Page 8D
[xiii] Klemko, Robert. “Solo Backs Up Talk With Gold.” USA Today 10 August 2012, Page 8D
[xiv] Wambach, Abby. Post-Game Interview with Michele Tafoya. NBC Sports. 9 August 2012. Television.
[xv] Borden, Sam. “A Payback In Gold.” The New York Times 10 August 2012, Page B9
[xvi] Rapinoe, Megan. Post-Game Interview with Michele Tafoya. NBC Sports. 9 August 2012. Television.