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By Ridge Mahoney, Soccer America Magazine
Whether the U.S. women are better, weaker or about the same without Abby Wambach is no longer relevant.
By squelching Brazil, 1-0, in the Olympic gold-medal match Thursday to complete a run of five straight victories, they took a giant step away from the legacy of past U.S. teams and up to their own place in history.
Carli Lloyd stepped up to blast a shot inside the far post six minutes into extra time to decide a tense, scrappy match in which neither team, despite the array of stars sprinkled across the field, could dominate for longer than brief periods.
Brazil, which destroyed Germany, 4-1, in its semifinal and had hammered the Americans, 4-0, at the same stage of the 2007 Women's World Cup, again ran aground in the decisive match, marking the third straight major final (2004 Olympics, 2007 Women's World Cup, 2008 Olympics) it has lost.
The Americans retained the gold medal they had won in 2004 and added another entry to their Olympic tradition of playing in every final. The U.S. took gold at the inaugural women's Olympic tournament in 1996 and lost to Norway in the 2000 final.
Marta, Cristiane, Daniela and Co. believed they could succeed vertically and often attacked straight upfield on the dribble. Occasionally, Marta would break through two or three markers to take a shot or cut a dangerous ball across goal, but Brazil's mesmerizing interchanging and passing seldom materialized as the Americans defended resolutely away from the ball.
Lloyd and central midfield teammate Shannon Boxx tracked and tackled tirelessly, and often surprised Brazilian attackers by double-teaming them from behind when a U.S. defender had stood them up.
Outside backs Lori Chalupny and Heather Mitts refused to give ground, and central defenders Christie Rampone and Kate Markgraf often set a deep line, preferring to keep the Brazilians in front of them rather than be beaten for pace over the top.
The balls that were played long usually reached keeper Hope Solo, whose punch-outs of bending crosses and cat-quick scampers off her line defused numerous dicey situations.
A heavy, damp field hampered the Brazilians desire to knock balls into space and chase them down, yet numerous times bold runs were blunted by smart defensive positioning shoulder-to-shoulder and hip-to-hip. In the first half, Marta shot wide after evading two defenders and later hit a hard, low cross that Solo smothered.
But her best opportunity, and Solo's biggest save, occurred in the 72nd minute. Seemingly trapped between Rampone and Mitts, Marta burst through them to fire a fierce shot, but Solo stabbed her right hand up in time to block it.
Then came two chances for the U.S. to win it late. In the 86th minute, Brazilian keeper Barbara deflected an effort from Hucles, and in the final seconds Rodriguez broke through clean but her feeble shot sailed straight to the goalie.
Regulation ended, 0-0, sending the women's gold-medal match to extra time for the third straight time. Norway won the 2000 final with a controversial goal that bounced into the net off Dagny Mellgren's arm; Wambach's strike captured the gold four years ago.
To that list would be added Lloyd, like former men's international Peter Vermes a native of Delran, N.J. and product of Rutgers.
Lloyd, one of seven American women to score goals in this tournament, had confirmed her prowess by netting in four consecutive games during the 2007 Algarve Cup, and her ability to strike from distance proved to be one of several factors that softened the loss of Wambach. The buzzing runs of Amy Rodriguez, a quartet of goals by Angela Hucles, the dribbles and serves of Heather O'Reilly, and the dogged work of Lindsey Tarpley carried the burden during crucial phases of the competition.
O'Reilly seldom broke free of Brazilian pressure, Rodriguez rarely linked up with Hucles, and Tarpley exerted little attacking influence. But the Americans gradually gained more traction in midfield, and as regulation ebbed and overtime began, they converted turnovers into possession, and possession into chances.
The decisive play arose after a brief flurry around the Brazilian goalmouth had petered out. The Americans won the ball back, Lloyd played it to Rodriguez in the center, and she relayed it back to the left side. Lloyd could have cracked it first time, but any long-distance specialist knows closer is better, so she touched it once and from just outside the box hit a searing knuckler that dipped under Barbara's lunge and zipped into the side netting.
Lloyd nearly scored again in the second extra session but drilled a shot off the base of the post after a setup from substitute Natasha Kai, and the U.S. had to shrug off the disappointment of so narrowly missing a clinching goal as it defended three straight Brazilian corner kicks in the final minutes.
But Brazil had no more magic, and not enough nerve. Renata Costa headed into the side netting, and Cristiane directed a shot on target that Solo covered.
At the final whistle, the American women celebrated a memorable and collective triumph. After losing their opener to Norway, they bonded together and gained strength game by game to be better on the day, regardless of situation or opposition.
Aug. 21 in Beijing
USA 1 Brazil 0 (OT). Goal: Lloyd 96.
USA -- Solo, Mitts, Markgraf, Rampone, Chalupny, O'Reilly (Kai, 101), Boxx, Lloyd, Tarpley (Cheney, 71), Rodriguez (Cox, 120), Hucles.
Brazil -- Barbara, Simone (Rosana, 104), Tania, Renata Costa, Erika, Maycon, Daniela (Fabiana, 77), Formiga (Francielle, 106+), Ester, Marta, Cristiane.
Referee: Dagmar Damkova (Czech Rep.).
Shots: USA 10, Brazil 15
Shots on Goal: USA 7, Brazil 6
Saves: USA 6, Brazil 6
Corner Kicks: USA 3, Brazil 15
Fouls: USA 11, Brazil 15
Offside: USA 0, Brazil 6
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