In US-Japan Olympic soccer final, a triumph for women's sport

The US beat Japan, 2-1, in the Olympic women's soccer final Thursday, avenging a loss to Japan in the World Cup final last year. But on this night, every medalist went away a winner. 

Mike Blake/REUTERS
The US (r.) and Japanese (l.) teams pose with their medals during the victory ceremony after the women's soccer final at Wembley Stadium during the London 2012 Olympic Games Thursday.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Top Olympic medal winners, as of Thursday, August 9th.

When the three women’s soccer teams emerged from the beneath Wembley Stadium – Japan, the United States, and Canada – there was no trace of sadness or disappointment on a single face. Each team held hands, three unbroken lines of purest delight, seemingly aware not just of what they had done on this day, but what they had achieved.

The US had won the gold-medal match against Japan, 2-1, on a perfect August night in London, but the scoreline and who had won what medal was really not the story at all.

In an Olympics where women have, perhaps for the first time, taken center stage, this Olympic soccer tournament turned out to be evidence of the most compelling sort of what women can achieve on the field of play when given a fair chance.

It has been slow in coming. For years, Olympic women’s soccer tournaments have been unbalanced, uncompetitive, and often showed how far there was still to go more than what had been achieved. But on Thursday, three teams that had given the world soccer of the highest order during the past four days strode to the center of the pitch at Wembley – the spiritual home of soccer – and knew that they had thoroughly earned this moment.

Not one of the teams on the medal stand had lost a thing, really, because what they had gained was immeasurably more. Women’s soccer was no longer a project, concocted in the Swiss laboratory of the International Olympic Committee with high ideals and limited expectations. It was the finished product, full-blooded and thrilling.

The Olympic Games were the confirmation of what the world had begun to see during last year’s World Cup. No longer would women’s soccer be a cabal of the select few – the Americas and Germanys winning every tournament. After two decades, the sport was reaching maturity.

But it was that symbolic moment in Wembley Thursday, when the medalists literally took a step forward onto the medal stand in front of an Olympic record 80,203 spectators for women's soccer, that felt like an indelible and historic step forward for the sport itself.

“This is the beginning of something huge on the women’s side” of the game, said US coach Pia Sundhage after the match.

This flowering of women’s soccer must surely be what the IOC hopes for in insisting on women judokas from Saudi Arabia or weightlifters from the United Arab Emirates, and on this evidence, the world of sport can only be richer if these seeds are allowed to bud.

This was wonderful soccer.

If Monday’s semifinal between the US and Canada was a showcase for women’s soccer as pure theater, then Thursday night’s final was a showcase for the women’s soccer as pure sport.

Monday’s match, while among the most thrilling in the history of the women’s game, at times had the feeling of a fire drill. While spectators were in raptures, coaches surely cringed. On Thursday, we got to see perhaps the two best teams in the world playing at the top of their games.

The contrast was intoxicating.

Here was America trying to turn the game into a track meet, flooding forward at every opportunity to try to overrun the Japanese. And here was Japan, trying to slow the game down into a chess match, to make pass after pass after pass until the fabric of the American defense unraveled.

Both strategies worked at times, and at the end, the fact that the game was not tied – or the result reversed – was more due to the heroics of American goalkeeper Hope Solo than any deficiency on the part of the Japanese. Indeed, Japan played appreciably better in this game, which it lost, than in the 2011 World Cup final, which it won on penalty kicks and with a huge dose of opportunism.

Thursday, America struck first, in the 18th minute, with a goal taken directly from its playbook – a sweeping move of devastating speed.

Midfielder Shannon Boxx, whose calm America had missed since her injury in the first game of the Olympics, started the move with a brilliant cross-field ball that unbalanced the Japanese defense. From there, Tobin Heath slipped a through-ball to Alex Morgan, who controlled it well before lobbing the ball in front of the goal. Carli Lloyd, typically barreling through from midfield like an 18-wheeler with no brakes, met the ball with her head, and the US was up, 1-0.

The score should have been 1-1 within 10 minutes, as Ms. Solo was forced to full stretch to parry a header by Japanese forward Yuki Ogimi. It was surely the save of the tournament.

As the half wore on, Japan came into the game more and more as America fell back and allowed Japan space in midfield. The USA’s forays forward became more disjointed, trying to build on individual skill rather than team play, while Japan stayed organized, moving forward and backward as a unit and trying to break down the US through its system of intricate interplay.

With the US getting passed off the pitch, it had to change tactics and buckle down on defense. “This is not the way we wanted to play,” said Ms. Sundhage, paying tribute to the Japanese. “This is the way we were forced to play.”

And indeed, the US struck next though a lightning strike of individual skill. Carli Lloyd picked up the ball at midfield in the 54th minute. When she had finished, the ball was in the net and Japanese defenders were trailing in her wake – another tractor-trailer 40-yard run finished with a high-octane shot to the corner.

Ten minutes later, Japan had responded – in character and deliciously. The goal, crafted on Japan’s passing carousel, was a thing of beauty. Though a bit scrambled at the end, the setup play was ecstatic, the tick-tick-tick of the Japanese passing eventually lulling the US to sleep and then Shinobu Ohno opening a seam in the defense with a through-pass to Homare Sawa, whose shot was blocked, but Ms. Ogimi eventually bundled it in.

“The way Japan plays is the future of the women’s game,” Sundhage said.

But a second would not come, and as the clock neared 90 minutes, desperation saw Japan abandon their possession play in favor of increasingly manic breaks forward, which the US parried with comparative ease. It was only when Christie Rampone made a lazy pass out of the back, which was intercepted by Asuna Tanaka, that Japan threatened – and then Solo again made a brilliant fingertip save.

There were Japanese tears, for a moment at the final whistle, but when the team came back out for the medal ceremony, perspective had been restored. As the the Canadians received their bronze medals for their last-second win over the French earlier in the day, the Japanese women twittered like schoolgirls on a playground, choreographing a collective bow to the crowd before stepping on the podium.

The giddiness was understandable. On a delightful midsummer’s eve in one of the great cathedrals of the sport, just about everything had gone right, and everyone had a medal to remember it.

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