“Miss Olympics” Fires USA To Gold Medal Again

Written by Ian Thomson

Reggie Jackson and Carli Lloyd grew up in different eras playing different sports on different sides of the Delaware River.

Jackson, from Wyncote, Pa. on the northern fringes of Philadelphia, became a 14-time Major League Baseball All-Star and two-time World Series MVP. The former Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees right-fielder earned the nickname “Mr. October” for his clutch hitting in the post-season.

Lloyd, born 17 miles away in Delran, N.J., earned her second Olympic gold medal Thursday after her two goals fired the United States women’s national team to a 2-1 win over Japan. Lloyd also scored the overtime game-winner in 2008 when the U.S. beat Brazil 1-0 in the gold medal game. She’s fast laying claim to the moniker “Miss Olympics.”

It’s just as well Lloyd took her shooting boots to London’s Wembley Stadium. Japan rattled the Americans’ crossbar twice, forced two goal line clearances, were denied two strong penalty kicks appeals, and missed a glaring chance late on when substitute Asuna Tanaka scuffed her shot too close to goalkeeper Hope Solo.

Pia Sundhage’s players generally didn’t find their most sparkling performances during the past fortnight. An unrivaled ability in the women’s game to attack swiftly and directly led them to a fourth Olympic gold in five tournaments.

Fast Start Gives Sundhage’s Side Early Advantage

U.S. Head Coach Pia Sundhage made one change from the semi-final win over Canada: Shannon Boxx replaced Lauren Cheney in midfield

Alex Morgan’s speed and determination paired with Abby Wambach’s brawn and aerial ability provides the U.S. with a unique attacking threat that their opponents have been unable to contain. The veteran Wambach has scored 143 goals in 188 internationals, second only to U.S. legend Mia Hamm in the world’s all-time top scorer list. Morgan has found the net 30 times during her 48 appearances.

The fullness of this attacking potential was unleashed in the opening stages of Thursday’s final. Wambach flicked Kelley O’Hara’s third-minute punt behind Japan’s defense for Morgan to chase. Center-back Saki Kumagai missed her clearance, allowing Morgan to carry the ball into the penalty area before firing a weak shot at goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto.

Lloyd’s alertness allowed her to intercept a square ball by Japanese captain Aya Miyama on six minutes. The cultured midfielder tried to release Morgan with a measured pass behind Japan’s defense. The ball rolled safely through to Fukumoto after Morgan bundled into Kumugai’s back.

Another rapid attack set up Lloyd’s opening goal on eight minutes. Shannon Boxx, back in the line-up in place of Lauren Cheney, quickly spread the ball across midfield to the advancing O’Hara following Megan Rapinoe’s throw-in from the right. O’Hara’s immediate forward pass found Tobin Heath with room to attack right-back Yukari Kinga. Heath drove the ball low into Morgan’s feet at the front post, and the 23-year-old striker wheeled to dig out a cross aimed between Fukumoto’s defense and Japan’s backtracking midfielders. Lloyd, sprinting late into the penalty area, dived bravely to head it into the net from six yards.

Morgan (circled) digs out a cross that Lloyd dived toward at the edge of the six-yard box to put the U.S. 1-0 ahead

Japan Take Control But Can’t Find Equalizer

Japan’s strength and resilience flourished in last summer’s World Cup Final when late equalizers in regulation and extra-time earned them a penalty shootout against the heavily favored Americans. Norio Sasaki’s players held their nerves from the spot while Boxx, Lloyd and Heath crumbled. Here, they gained control of the first half after the U.S.’ strong opening and peppered Solo’s goal.

Japan’s Head Coach Norio Sasaki kept the same starting 11 that beat France 2-1 in Monday’s semi-final

Patient, skilled build-up play saw Japan penetrate the eight-man American defense on 17 minutes as veteran midfielder Homare Sawa found Nahomi Kawasumi on the left of the penalty box. Christie Rampone prevented Kawasumi’s shot from crossing the line and the sprawled Solo blocked Yuki Ogimi’s follow-up effort. The rebound fortuitously broke back off Ogimi for a goal kick.

Solo’s luck continued one minute later when her outstretched fingertips pushed Ogimi’s header against her crossbar. Sawa’s deft backheel released Kawasumi down the left wing and she supplied an excellent cross for the Germany-based striker. Solo would have been beaten had Ogimi planted her header a foot wider of the goalkeeper’s reach. As it was, Solo’s athleticism just allowed her to repel the attack.

Solo’s first big save, tipping Ogimi’s header against her crossbar on 18 minutes

Controversy paved the U.S.’ path to the final. Norwegian referee Christiana Pedersen’s eccentric handling of the semi-final against Canada saw Sundhage’s side benefit from a highly dubious handball decision. They received another contentious call in their favor on 25 minutes when Heath lifted her left arm to block Miyama’s cross inside her own penalty area. It was a clear offense, yet German official Bibiana Steinhaus allowed play to continue.

A stooping Azusa Iwashimizu inadvertently headed Amy Le Peilbet’s dipping cross against the inside of her own goal post on 28 minutes, but Japan soon regained their composure and ascendency. Rapinoe’s failure to track back was leaving the dangerous Kawasumi in advanced 1-vs-1 positions against Le Peilbet, and another neat spell of possession crafted another opportunity down the left side on 33 minutes with the U.S. pulled out of shape.

Kawasumi breezed into the penalty area past the isolated Le Peilbet before cutting the ball back to Shinobu Ohno. The 28-year-old forward laid the ball to the edge of the box after her initial hesitancy allowed Rampone to close her down. Miyama arrived to curl a left-foot shot off the top of Solo’s bar from 16 yards.

Ohno’s curling effort from Ogimi’s layoff four minutes later shaved the paintwork from Solo’s left post following another incisive run from Kawasumi.

Lloyd provided a brief respite for her defense on 42 minutes, using her body to spin Mizuho Sakaguchi in the center-circle before side-stepping Sawa and driving toward Japan’s penalty area. Fukumoto did well to hold Lloyd’s swerving, arching left-foot shot down to her right.

Americans Extend Lead With Counter-Attacking Nous

Referee Steinhaus overlooked a second possible penalty call for Japan one minute into the second half when Rachel Buehler wrestled Kumagai to the floor as both women attacked Miyama’s inswinging free kick.

Japan’s captain possesses a rare skill at any level of soccer, including the men’s professional game – the ability to deliver dangerous inswinging set plays with either her left or right foot depending where the kick is being taken from. She almost found an equalizer on 52 minutes, racing from behind the flat-footed Rapinoe to fire Kawasumi’s cross wide of target.

Rapinoe provided a fleeting glimpse of what she’s capable of with a scintillating second equalizer in Monday’s titanic battle against the Canadians. Yet the skillful winger was below par for much of this tournament and struggled to make any impact on the final. The same can’t be said for Lloyd, and she doubled the U.S.’ lead on 54 minutes with a devastating counter-attack goal.

Boxx untidily hooked Heath’s miscued clearance high into the London sky before Wambach flicked the ball to Morgan inside the center circle. Suddenly the chance for a break was on with Japan’s midfielders and full-backs camped around the U.S. penalty area. Morgan and Rapinoe worked the ball to Lloyd just inside Japan’s half. The 30-year-old drove forward, like she did minutes before the interval, drifting to her right this time past the chasing Sakaguchi.

Kumagai hesitated, unsure whether to step forward to meet Lloyd’s charge or hold her position at the edge of her penalty area. She chose the latter option – the wrong option. Lloyd unleashed a thumping right-foot drive that cannoned into Fukumoto’s far corner.

Kumagai (circled) didn’t step forward from the back line, allowing Lloyd a couple of yards to crack her shot beyond a helpless Fukumoto

Morgan hasn’t done much wrong in her short international career, but her selfishness on 56 minutes could have seriously impacted the final result. An adrenaline-fueled Lloyd seized upon Miyama’s square ball near the edge of the U.S. penalty area and immediately sprung Morgan into action down the right wing.

Kinga and Sakaguchi held up the Californian’s route to goal as she proceeded toward the penalty area, while Wambach and Rapinoe made lung-bursting 80-yard runs to get forward in support. Morgan ignored the cavalry, cutting inside to wastefully blaze a left-foot shot high into the crowd when a simple pass along the 18-yard line would have teed up either of her teammates with a chance to seal the gold.

Sundhage shored up her midfield on 57 minutes by introducing Cheney for Rapinoe. Sasaki brought in Tanaka for Sakaguchi two minutes later.

Morgan’s Miss Costly As Japan Cut Deficit

Ogimi narrowed the deficit to 2-1 on 63 minutes to conclude another impressive, flowing Japanese move. Ohno drifted deep to the left touchline to pick up the ball and she quickly changed the angle of attack with a cross-field switch to Kinga. Ohno followed her pass, rejoining the attack moments later to play a one-two with Miyama that sent her clear into the penalty area as neither Boxx nor Lloyd tracked her deep run.

Ohno’s cutback left Solo stranded at her near post, but Rampone stopped Sawa’s goal bound shot on her line. It only delayed the inevitable. Ogimi tapped home from two yards out after Sawa prodded the loose ball back toward goal.

Boxx and Lloyd (circled in navy) get drawn toward Miyama as Ohno (circled in red) darts onto her captain’s return pass to create Japan’s goal

Miyama worked another one-two on 66 minutes, this time with Ogimi, before shooting off target as Japan swarmed in search of an equalizer. The U.S. were now content to threaten on the break and from set pieces. Fukumoto rescued her side on 68 minutes when Heath’s knock down from Cheney’s deep free kick fell for Buehler on the six-yard line. The Japanese goalkeeper quickly pounced to block the defender’s effort with her legs.

Le Peilbet made another goal line clearance on 74 minutes to thwart Iwashimizu’s volley following Solo’s unconvincing punch from another Miyama delivery. Morgan wasted a second chance on the break at the other end seconds later when Cheney and Wambach were available.

Sasaki Shifts To 3-4-3 In Search Of Equalizer

Teenage forward Mana Iwabuchi replaced left-back Aya Sameshima with 13 minutes remaining as Japan pushed for the leveler and the U.S. began to show signs of fatigue. Their big moment arrived on 83 minutes following a rare mistake by Rampone.

The U.S. captain tried to be cute on the edge of her own penalty area, attempting to step inside Tanaka after receiving the ball from substitute Becky Sauerbrunn. Tanaka read the feint and stripped the ball away, leaving her with a clear path to Solo’s goal from the left side of the penalty area.

Tanaka had half of Solo’s goal to roll the ball into. She didn’t open her right foot out enough, and her weak effort curled too close to the goalkeeper at the perfect height for a save. Solo got two firm hands to the ball, pushing it beyond her far post and away from the poaching Ohno.

It proved to be the save that preserved the U.S. women’s spot atop the Wembley Stadium medal podium.

Solo’s dramatic late save: The arrow shows the angle that Tanaka’s shot should have taken, but she placed it too close to the goalkeeper.

 

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