In an Olympic overtime final for the ages, the United States women's soccer team found the pot of gold at the end of an 18-woman rainbow of talents, edging Brazil 1-0 for a redemptive victory.
Late Thursday evening in Beijing's Workers' Stadium, the gold-medal match saw nothing short of a MMA cage fight, with four yellow cards split equally between two sides, bloody noses and mud-soaked uniforms. But the U.S. defense harnessed a wild Brazilian team to ride out an extra-time goal in the 96th minute by Carli Lloyd, nearly getting bucked off the lead several times by an obstinate Marta.
Offensively speaking, the U.S. entered the Olympic gold medal match an underdog, and looked very much a runner-up until the final whistle blew. The fact that the U.S. was aiming for its second consecutive gold medal, after beating Brazil 2-1 in Athens 2004 for a dramatic overtime victory, seemed to have no bearing in Beijing.
Surprisingly, both sides got off to a tentative start, with neither team owning possession for long until the 35th minute, when Brazil started ratcheting up the attack. The U.S. offense looked like an afterthought in the first half, as Amy Rodriguez was left on her own to face up against Brazil's three backs with virtually no support from the central midfielders. Lindsay Tarpley and Heather O'Reilly were ineffectively relegated to role of fifth and sixth defenders, and Lloyd seemed to be treading water anytime she got the ball.
One has to wonder if U.S. coach Pia Sundhage decided to play conservative and emphasize the defense first, which would be out of character for the offense-focused coach.
"Brazil played a great match, but we were able to improve and get stronger as the minutes went by," said Sundhage, in a FIFA press release. "I told my players that they should believe in their own ability and in themselves, that they should hold onto the ball in midfield and find the right tempo. They did just that, and here we are."
Brazil kept the U.S. on the run all game long, and there were times the entire U.S. personnel was so compressed into its defensive third, the forwards were toeing the halfway line. But it seemed as if the Americans had no choice, with Brazil dictating the samba rhythm with dazzling dribbling runs and a passing game that seemed two steps ahead of the midfield.
Somehow, the U.S. defense withstood the onslaught, playing in a tight, compact formation with Christie Rampone supporting all players who marked up with Cristiane or Marta. At one point, there was a perfect seven-woman restraining line in force against Brazil, yet the Carinhas struggled to find the holes, getting called for five offsides.
If the back four demonstrated one weakness, it was the profligate 14 corner kicks allowed after Brazil consistently took Heather Mitts and Lori Chalupny to the endline, not to mention the handful of free kicks allowed in dangerous territory. Nonetheless, with Hope Solo making several Herculean saves, the U.S. defense was unquestionably the collective hero of the game.
When the score was still tied at 0-0 after 90 minutes, the U.S. turned up the heat in the first 15-minute extra time period, taking the late initiative to run a full-fledged attack. Indubitably, the superior fitness and toughness shown by the U.S. women began to wear Brazil ragged, forcing Marta to rush several thrilling last-gasp shots that Solo smothered.
There was no question the team's quarterfinal epic against Canada, which ran over four hours long, braced the team psychologically for another lengthy match. Mental toughness nearly always wins in a game of inches.
As the U.S. has proven, sometimes it's not about perfection. Careening and zigzagging through each Olympic leg, the U.S. women managed to find the made-for-a-movie flawless ending: not only did they earn a record third gold medal, but they hit the jackpot -- giving the United States its 1,000th gold in the history of the Olympics.
Ultimately, Brazil's defeat was the sweetest kind of closure for former outcast Solo, who posted a heroic shutout against a team that was very nearly her undoing. "I can't even recall the saves or how it happened, but all I know is that I was playing with a different energy tonight and it just felt so good," said an exuberant Solo. "I don't even think about that, whatever I said last year. I'm just enjoying this moment right now. I feel great. I just won a damn gold medal."
Sundhage, who has had her own storied playing career and is on her way to doubling up as a legendary coach for the U.S., put the win in perspective: "When I was a child I wasn't allowed to play football because I was a girl, and here I am today looking at this gold medal. I'm very proud and thrilled with this victory."
Finally, with gold medals gleaming around their necks, the next generation of U.S. women's soccer is all grown up.
U.S. player ratings (scale 1-10):
Hope Solo, 10 -- Solo had the game of her career, stopping 15 shots, 6 of which were heart-stopping screamers on frame. Her positioning was terrific, and she kept her back line calm and organized throughout the entire 120 minutes.
Christie Rampone, 9 -- The U.S. captain never failed to support her defensive line, and she was responsible for nullifying the majority of Marta's and Cristiane's runs. Other than one uncharacteristic mistake, Rampone's speed frustrated Brazil's offense to no end.
Kate Markgraf, 8 -- Made a brilliant tackling save on Marta in extra time to keep the U.S. in the game, among others, and positively shined against the crafty Carinhas.
Heather Mitts, 9 -- Mitts played her best game yet, making aggressive tackle after tackle. Her touch on the ball was terrific, and she seemed most capable of playing the ball up from the back out of her peers.
Lori Chalupny, 8 -- Another great game from Chalupny, who didn't get much opportunity to attack the wings considering Cristiane put her on defensive overload. Would have liked to see her take more control on the wing like she did against Japan.
Lindsay Tarpley, 6 -- Tarpley played excellent defense, and had her hands full supporting Chalupny with Cristiane on the wings. She had a difficult time getting the attack started on the flank, as the game was primarily played through the midfield.
Carli Lloyd, 6 -- Lloyd had a disastrous game in regulation minutes, failing to keep any possession whatsoever and spending most of the game on the ground. Her game-winning goal and improved play in the final two extra time partially absolved her transgressions.
Shannon Boxx, 6 -- She played tough defense, but also had trouble possessing the ball in the midfield, and was left to chase after Brazil the entire game.
Heather O'Reilly, 6 -- Other than her speed, which kept Maycon on her toes, O'Reilly didn't earn many touches on the ball.
Angela Hucles, 7 -- Hucles was the only offensive player who managed to keep possession of the ball, and thanks to her dropback position, she gave the U.S. a fighting chance. She also got the U.S.'s offensive engines revving on a late strike that nearly went inside the right post.
Amy Rodriguez, 6 -- The striker toiled all game long against Brazil's surprisingly composed defense, but couldn't seem to get things clicking until late, when she set up Lloyd for the goal. She had the opportunity to close the game in the stoppage time of regulation on a wide-open breakaway, but made a poor decision to weakly chip the ball into Barbara's outstretched hands.
Natasha Kai, 5 -- Other than pumping up her teammates and the crowd, which was all she could do at that point, Kai kept the defensive pressure on and earned the U.S. a couple of free kicks.
Lauren Cheney, 6 -- Cheney came on for Tarpley in the 71th minute, shifting Hucles back into the midfield spot. Cheney showed impressive composure on the ball, and had some nice exchanges with Rodriguez to open up the field. We'll see a lot more from this young striker in the future.
Stephanie Cox, N/A -- Cox came on with a minute remaining in extra time for Rodriguez, who was playing right half-back.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.