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U.S. women edge Japan 2-1 for soccer gold at London Olympics

A record crowd of 80,203 nearly filled Wembley Stadium on Thursday night for a dramatic women’s Olympic soccer final worthy of the hallowed grounds on which it was played. Wembley is the second-largest stadium in Europe, the national stadium of England and the site of numerous memorable men’s championship matches.

But never had women put on such a show at this world-famous venue — unless you count Madonna and Tina Turner, who have played here to sold-out crowds.

The U.S. women avenged their heartbreaking loss in the 2011 World Cup final by beating rival Japan 2-1 to win a third consecutive Olympic gold medal and fourth in the past five Olympics. Midfielder Carli Lloyd of Delran, N.J., scored both goals — one in each half — to secure the win for the Americans.

It was personal redemption for Lloyd, who had missed one of the penalty kicks against Japan last summer in the World Cup final and been relegated to the bench before these Olympics.

When it was all over, the U.S. women leaped into each other’s arms and piled on top of goalkeeper Hope Solo, who made several huge saves to help stave off Japan’s relentless pressure. Lloyd was in tears. Solo and Lloyd grabbed a giant American flag and ran over to wave at the U.S. fans in the end zone as We are the Champions played over the loudspeakers. The U.S. players and coaches pulled on T-shirts that read: “Greatness has been found.”

“We believed in each other when nobody else did,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. “Last summer, when we lost those heartbreaking penalty kicks at the World Cup, a team can go one way or the other. Our team chose the right path, not just because we were on that top podium tonight, but because of the way we treat each other, the way we believe in each other. That was truly a team win, and I’m so proud.”

Lloyd’s first goal, in the eighth minute, came on a diving header after Alex Morgan flipped a cross from the end line toward Wambach, who was ready to volley it in with her left leg. Lloyd ducked in front of Wambach, charged head-first to the ball and drove it into the net.

“My first one, I saw Alex and anytime she’s in that final third [of the field], she’s going to beat her player,” Lloyd said. “She serves up great balls. I saw that one coming and I was hovering around the box, sprinted past Abby and just made sure it went in.”

Then, in the 54th minute, Lloyd got the ball at midfield from Megan Rapinoe and dribbled more than 30 yards up the gut of the Japanese defense. Lloyd briefly stopped and buried a shot from 20 yards out into the back of the net.

“The second goal, I was just doing what I do best, taking the space, dribbling at players, found an open shot and unleashed it,” Lloyd said. “It feels so good, especially the way I started out this tournament, not knowing if I’d be starting. I had to seize the moment. When someone tells me I’m not good enough to start, I’m going to prove them wrong. I took full advantage of that.”

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage admitted after the game that she made a mistake benching Lloyd. “She has proven that I was wrong before the Olympics,” Sundhage said. “I am happy she was more clever than I am.”

Yuki Ogimi scored the lone goal for Japan in the 63rd minute, but the Japanese players got close on a half-dozen occasions. In the first half, Ogimi forced an acrobatic save from Solo, who punched her shot up over the crossbar. Solo’s most critical save came in the 83rd minute, when she denied Mana Iwabuchi with a full-stretch diving save to her left.

Solo said she tends to play well under pressure and knew she had to “find a way” to stop Iwabuchi’s shot.

“Hope was big-time, she’s the best goalkeeper ever,” Lloyd said. “That’s what she does, comes up big in big moments. She’s unbelievable. She saves the day.”

Wambach also credited Solo for the win.

“The thing about great athletes and superstars is they show up when they’re needed,” Wambach said. “Same thing with Alex Morgan scoring the header in overtime against Canada. Same tonight with Hope Solo. Superstars don’t go unnoticed for very long. I’m so proud of Carli; she lost her starting job, got it back, didn’t pout, was a great teammate and stayed professional and look, she scored two goals in the final of the Olympic Games. Dreams do come true.”

The Americans needed three comebacks and Morgan’s 123rd-minute header to get past Canada in the semifinal, one of the most exciting in recent women’s history. This time, there was no last-minute drama, no controversy, no penalty-kick shootout.

No bigger audience had ever watched a women’s Olympic soccer match. The previous record was set at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where 76,489 watched the final between the United States and China.

“Eighty-thousand people for a women’s final?” Lloyd said. “That says a lot for women’s soccer. The whole thing is a dream come true.”

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