Hope Solo was Woman of the Match. Her final save was as beautiful as it was crucial. Solo dove at full stretch to deflect a wicked low strike by Mana Iwabuchi. Japan had had all the momentum in the match from Yuki Ogimi’s 63rd minute goal onward. Had Iwabuchi equalized, Japan might well have prevailed. The Iwabuchi save alone would have been enough to make Solo one of the heroes of the match, but Solo also stopped many other excellent Japanese chances, bailing out a US defense that I will charitably call “porous.”
That said, the USA win was a team effort. Solo was anything but in her efforts to win the gold. Offensive star Carli Lloyd earned the first of her two goals with excellent positioning and vision; she saw Alex Morgan’s eventual cross developing and came to get it. Her second goal was still more impressive. Japan committed all their [sic, see footnote] defensive forces to contain the dangerous Wambach and Morgan (who repeatedly found herself triple-teamed). Lloyd was left with a one-on-one match-up. She beat that defender and scorched a beautiful 20-meter curler just inside the left post. Two-nil USA. Lloyd and Solo were aided by the unselfish Morgan, whose brilliant chip cross engineered the first goal, and who created chances and drew defenders throughout the game with her speed and ball-handling. The US also might not have won without Wambach’s relentless, willful play. In the closing minutes, the USA defense went from merely porous to nonexistent, as Japan’s better conditioning augmented their existing advantage in pure speed and their strikers ran circles around the USA back line. The Americans might have conceded a goal or even two but for Wambach, who ranged back from her striker position to hit several crucial defensive headers. Wambach is known for scoring through the air; she possesses the most dextrous brow in the women’s game. In this final, she deflected crosses away from her own goal as ably as she normally sends them into opponents’ nets.
Canadians will (and do, the internet suggests) think that this US team effort included a contribution from the ref. The US undeniably benefited from a blown call. Japan got away with plenty of fouls (and stooped to uncharacteristic pushing and diving in the final minutes), but no uncalled Japanese violation was as flagrant as Tobin Heath’s handball in the box with the US up one-nil. Solo, clearly in the zone, might perhaps have saved the direct free kick that ought to have been awarded, but Japan more likely would have equalized, and a different match could have unfolded. That said, the other officiating in the match (not perfect, but hardly unequal) demonstrates that this was a mere blown call, not proof of a pro-USA reffing conspiracy. Such a conspiracy exists only in the imaginations of bitter Canadians.
Others have complained about America’s dirty play on defense. Please. This is football. The Japanese players frequently pushed off American defenders while cutting on set pieces. That is also football. If the refs called every push or shove in the box on a set piece, every single international corner kick would lead immediately to a free kick for one side or the other.
Rachel Buehler is too slow. When injury to Buehler in the closing minutes forced USA coach Pia Sundhage to sub Becky Sauerbrunn and her fresh legs for the defender, I exhaled with relief up in the stands. You may remember Buehler as the goat (in the sense of anti-MVP, not Greatest of All Time) of the USA’s loss to Japan in last summer’s World Cup final. She bungled a clearance attempt, giving Aya Miyama a clear shot on goal. In this excellent rematch, Buehler found herself repeatedly outrun by Japan’s fleet-footed forwards. People (and by “people,” I mean “Canadians”) complain about Buehler’s (sometimes uncalled) fouls. They’re right; she does foul too much, and it’s because she gets outrun too much. In Buehler’s defense, I should mention that she did tip away a goal-bound ball after Solo had committed herself early. Still, I agree with Brandi Chastain. Sorry, Hope.
In general, I would like to see a slightly faster and more competent back line from Pia’s ladies in future tournaments. Japan created many lovely and well-deserved chances, but their only actual goal arrived gift-wrapped compliments of the US defense, which once again bungled a clearance. This particular time, Christie Rampone was at fault, but she was hardly the only American defender to falter in the match. Solo bailed out the women in front of her several times.
Gripes about a defense that tested my cardiovascular health aside, hearty congratulations are due to both teams for a very well played match. Japan were swift, creative, and deadly. The US did not create quite so many chances, but capitalized beautiful when they did. Lloyd and her teammates thoroughly deserved both goals. As in the World Cup final, either team could have won the match. Last time, Japan pulled it out; this time, it was America’s day. I look forward to watching the two teams—undoubtedly the best two teams in the world (cue more Canadian griping)—meet again and produce more gripping football.
[Footnote] I follow football convention by referring to the sport as “football” and the teams as plural—rather than singular—collectives. I recognize that this will seem weird to some speakers of American English. That said, given that I root unabashedly for the US Women’s National Team, I think my patriotism need not be questioned on grounds of language.