America's women grab soccer gold; Hope Solo makes leaping saves

(Photo collage credit: https://www.facebook.com/USAWomenSoccerTeam/photos)

On a rollicking night when England's sporting cathedral swelled with their relentlessness, the USA women's soccer team didn't simply gain revenge.

They clutched it. They wore it. They owned it.

One goal bounced from Carli Lloyd's head as she flew, and another soared off her orange-booted right foot as she sprinted. Countless stops soaked through Abby Wambach's headband as she muscled through every minute. All but one attack died at the end of the long green sleeves of Hope Solo, her leaping saves occasionally knocking the ball halfway to France.

It was redemption for nearly two hours and then, after a 2-1 victory over Japan on Thursday in the Olympic gold-medal game here, it was exhausted relief. A year after blowing two leads in losing to Japan in the World Cup championship game, the USA women's soccer team was once again the best on the planet, and they wept at the power of it all.

"We weren't going home without the gold medal," said a red-eyed Lloyd. "We all said that, and then we did it."

Then it seemed they weren't going home at all. As many of the 80,203 fans roared from the vast corners of Wembley Stadium, Wambach wrapped herself in the American flag and crumpled at midfield. Megan Rapinoe ran in front of the stands and tearfully opened her arms wide in wonder. Solo hugged anybody, everybody, maybe all 80,203 of them.

"The resilience of this team is amazing," said Wambach. "We just never, ever give up."

After the medal ceremony, when the stadium's huge speakers played Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," that relief turned into rejoicing. A team that was truly born in the USA — the symbol of a Title IX-inspired women's sports culture unmatched in the world — shook their flowers and waved their medals and bounced in front of the goals while mouthing the words.

"Born in the U.S.A., I'm a cool rocking daddy in the U.S.A.…''

"Toward the end of the game I'm pounding my chest and screaming, 'Guys, guys, this is only about heart," said Wambach.

She beat her chest, and her teammates' hearts listened, and isn't this what we love about the U.S. women's soccer team? Isn't this what makes them, truly, America's team? When they charged on to sports landscape by winning the 1999 World Cup at the Rose Bowl, Brandi Chastain stripped off her top in celebration, and they've pretty much been giving America the shirts off their backs ever since.

America loves them because they seem to espouse the values missing in the most lucrative and popular American team (translated: male) sports. They pass. They don't preen. They defer. They don't demand. And when they score a goal, they sometimes do what Lloyd amazingly did when she scored for a second time Thursday night. They don't run into a corner to slide and showboat; they run to the sidelines to hug the reserves.

"We played tough, and we played till the end, because we knew that was the only way," said Lloyd.

It's always been the only way with this team, a tradition handed down from Mia Hamm and Chastain to Lloyd and Wambach, and so while America has embraced its three consecutive Olympic championships, it has also painfully mourned three consecutive World Cup failures, particularly last summer's World Cup shootout loss to Japan.

The entire team said they've been thinking about redemption since the moment they stood on last summer's silver-medal podium in Germany. They were pondering it even more deeply Thursday when, after taking a two-goal lead after 54 minutes on the header and rocket shot from Lloyd, they gave up a goal by Japan's Yuki Ogimi at the 63-minute mark.

"At that point we're all screaming at each other and we're thinking, 'This is not happening again; we're not letting them back in this game,'" said Wambach.

And so they didn't, quite literally with a bit of guts. In the second half, defender Amy LePeilbet actually made a save with her stomach. And, besides two leaping saves in the first half, Solo made a diving save on a one-on-one shot by Asuna Tanaka at the 82-minute mark.

"This is what the Olympics is about," said Wambach. "Two great teams, amazing soccer, playing until the end."

Of course, the Olympics are also about controversy, and the U.S. women directly benefited from a blown call in the first half. During one indirect free kick, Tobin Heath clearly touched the ball with her hand, which would have resulted in a penalty kick for Japan, but the referee somehow missed it.

"It was just an amazing night," said Lloyd.

And it was a night that ended amazingly, the women being serenaded by one more song as they left the emptying Wembley Stadium field. Suddenly blaring was Katy Perry's "Fireworks," the entire group singing and dancing again, fireworks indeed, the Fourth of July in the middle of England celebrated by some of the toughest women in the world, America's women, America's team.

PHOTOS: 2012 London Olympics | Day 13