America’s birthday party continued Sunday just north of the border in this Canadian seaside city, as the U.S. Women’s World Cup team electrified a sold-out BC Place, scoring four goals in the first 16 minutes and beating Japan 5-2 in the championship match.
It was the highest-scoring final in tournament history and avenged a heartbreaking penalty-shootout loss to the Japanese four years ago.
Sixteen years after Mia Hamm and the “Girls of Summer’’ won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, another group of tenacious players captured America’s imagination over the past few weeks. And they saved their best performance for last.
When it was all over, the U.S. players piled on each other, grabbed American flags from the crowd, draped them over their shoulders, and danced all over the field, finally out of the shadows of the “99ers’’ and finally champions after a 16-year drought. The U.S. women’s jersey will now be embroidered with a third star to commemorate the third world title.
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Legend Abby Wambach was especially emotional, having played her final World Cup match. She got a rousing ovation when she entered the game as a sub in the 79th minute, and Carli Lloyd gave her the captain's armband as a gesture of respect.
“I knew they had it in them, and I’m just so happy now the world gets to see,’’ said U.S. coach Jill Ellis, a Palmetto Bay resident. “I just knew these players could deliver. These players were born for big moments. It’s no surprise to me that as the teams get harder and there’s more pressure, this team gets better. That’s their DNA, how they’re engineered.’’
Lloyd opened the scoring with the fastest goal in World Cup final history, streaking into the box to put away a Megan Rapinoe corner kick in the third minute. The partisan American crowd erupted into chants of “USA! USA!’’ and “We Believe That We Will Win!’’
Two minutes later, just as the chants had subsided, Lloyd struck again. Lauren Holiday took a free kick from the right after Tobin Heath was taken down in the box, Julie Johnston flicked it with her heel and Lloyd knocked it in with a high boot.
Holiday made it 3-0 in the 14th minute when she pounced on a bad clearance by Japanese defender Azusa Iwashimizu. And then, two minutes later, Lloyd launched the most audacious shot of the tournament from just inside the halfway line. It skimmed over the outstretched glove of Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori into the net, and team USA had a 4-0 lead.
Asked what she was thinking after that fourth U.S. goal, Ellis smiled and replied: “Pinch me. Wake me up. We talked about trying to start fast and finish strong. They definitely came out of the gate.’’
Lloyd became the first player to score a hat trick in a Women’s World Cup final. She was awarded the Golden Ball for the tournament’s outstanding player. She admitted afterward that she had visualized scoring four goals in a World Cup final while on a recent training run in New Jersey, and she also had dreamed of scoring from midfield.
“I’ve dreamed of scoring a shot like that,’’ she said. “Very rarely do you just wind up and hit it. When you’re feeling good mentally and physically, those plays just are instincts and it just happens. I feel like I blacked out first 30 minutes of that game. Hasn’t really sunk in yet.’’
Japan coach Norio Sasaki praised Lloyd after the match. “Lloyd always does this to us. In London [in the 2012 Olympic gold medal game], she scored two goals. Today, three goals. We are a bit embarrassed, but she is a great player. I really admire her, and she deserves the Golden Ball.’’
Japan cut the American lead to 4-2 after a 27th-minute goal by Yuki Ogimi and an own-goal by Johnston in the 52nd minute when she inadvertently flicked a clearance with her head. But Tobin Heath scored two minutes later off a perfect feed from Morgan Brian to make it 5-2 and crush any momentum Japan had gained.
Ellis said last week that “set pieces win matches.’’ Never was that more true than Sunday. She credited assistant coach Tony Gustavsson, who devises the team’s set piece plays.
Ellis endured harsh criticism early in the tournament for utilizing a conservative, defensive strategy. Critics said Ellis was holding the players back, and keeping them from being creative. She was vindicated on Sunday.
With the majestic North Shore Mountains and Vancouver Harbor as the backdrop, the U.S. team quieted any doubters that remained.
The crowd of 53,341 included U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, former U.S. stars Mia Hamm and Landon Donovan, former University of Miami president Donna Shalala, and UM basketball coach Katie Meier, who was decked head to toe in USA gear.
By late morning, downtown was buzzing with American fans decorated in stars and stripes, and wearing replica Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Wambach jerseys. It looked like a Fourth of July parade crowd, with a smattering of Japanese and Canadian fans joining the fun.
As the day wore on, it became apparent that Team USA had won over fans from all over the sports and entertainment world. Justin Timberlake, Tiger Woods, Andre Agassi, Kobe Bryant and The Rock were among the celebrities who tweeted words of praise during and after the game.
“We made history,’’ Lloyd said. “When I watched the ’99 team play, never do you think you can be a part of something like that, play in the World Cup final and win. Those were the pioneers. Now it’s our turn to keep the tradition going. In four years we want to be champions again.’’