For a World Cup that always seemed to be waiting for the extraordinary, the first 16 minutes of Sunday’s USA-Japan final came like a sonic boom.
At the end of them, the game was, for all intents and purposes, over, and American Carli Lloyd had authored perhaps the most remarkable game – and goal – in Women’s World Cup final history. Sixteen minutes. USA 4, Japan 0. And Lloyd had a hat trick.
The remaining 74 minutes, while enjoyable enough, mostly served as the echo of that concussive opening – as if both teams were slowly coming to grips with the reality of what had just happened.
Lloyd, described by her coach after the game as a “beast,” had scored in the third minute, a predatory toe poke in a chaotic 18-yard box. Then she’d scored again in the fifth minute, appearing out of nowhere as though stalking the ball through high grass.
After yet another American thunderbolt, Lloyd then scored soccer’s equivalent of a two-point shot – an audacious lob from midfield that dropped over a scrambling and out-of position Japanese keeper.
Yes, it only counted for one point, but only the most audacious players will even attempt it. And only the most gifted actually make it. The day a floppy-haired, 21-year-old David Beckham did it to Wimbledon keeper Neil Sullivan was the day he became David Beckham.
That is the company Lloyd is now keeping. And, for good measure, she did it in a World Cup final.
The entertainment value of the USA’s 5-2 win was what this World Cup desperately needed, frankly. Usually, the excitement at World Cups comes well before the finals, which can be drab, defensive affairs. This edition got the plot backward, with the entertainment value in crescendo.
Before Sunday, what were the story lines from Canada 2015? They all had to do with FIFA, soccer’s governing body. And that’s not a good sign.
There was the shadow of the FIFA bribery scandal and the recent resignation of President Sepp Blatter, who once complained that the problem with women’s soccer was that the shorts weren’t tight enough.
There was the fact that FIFA basically rigged the draw in order to maximize television revenue – a decision that led to the Nos. 1 and 3 teams in the world (Germany and France) playing in the quarterfinal.
There was the fact that every game was played on artificial turf, which is roughly the equivalent of holding the National Basketball Association finals on asphalt. The men have never played a single World Cup match on artificial turf. In fact, when the United States hosted the men’s World Cup in 1994, it went so far as to install natural grass in the Pontiac Silverdome. Which is indoors, mind you.
After the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics, when women’s soccer flowered into a truly international game of alluring and contrasting styles, 2015 was a bit of a letdown. The best match was the ill-planned Germany-France quarterfinal.
Yet, by the end, those were clearly not the best teams. In becoming the first nation to win three Women's World Cups (the others were in 1991 and 1999), the USA left little doubt that it was the best team. The semifinals and finals were not the best games – as competition – because the USA fairly ran their opponents off the field.
It was shocking enough to see in the semifinal, when America’s first-half dominance meant the No. 1 Germans had difficulty stringing two passes together.
But it was near incomprehensible in the final, when Japan were mercilessly ripped apart. This was the same Japan team that had beaten the USA in the 2011 final, on penalty kicks and with no small amount of good fortune, then played better but lost to the USA, 2-1, in the 2012 Olympic gold medal match.
At least they should have seen Lloyd coming.
For all the skill that the USA has in Megan Rapinoe’s right foot, in Alex Morgan’s speed, and in a solid defense, it is Lloyd who is the American turbo-charger. When she is on her game, the field seems slanted toward the opponents’ goal, and she appears to be running downhill, heels flaming.
For much of this World Cup, she was idling in midfield, tending to defensive duties. The Americans looked correspondingly lifeless. They were winning, but without any verve.
It wasn’t until Lloyd was freed from her defensive duties in the quarterfinal against China that the American offensive engine began to thrum. And Lloyd, it turned out, was just getting started.
Back in the London 2012 Olympics, too, she turned in a virtuoso performance in the final against the Japanese, scoring both US goals.
Sunday, she went one better. And what a one it was.