Sixteen years of disappointment, heartbreak and anticlimax led to this moment. For every commercial featuring Brandi Chastain, the weight of the world pushing her to the ground at the very moment it lifted, there was a rumble about Abby Wambach’s training regimen, Carli Lloyd’s inconsistency or Hope Solo’s extracurricular activities. Not having won a World Cup since 1999, despite a trio of Olympic gold medals, wore on this team. They grew tired of heeding to the Germanys and Japans of the world in its most important tournament, and a shaky start did not bode well for the Americans.
When they needed to get it together in a time of dire need, however, where they so often had misstepped on the biggest stage, the U.S. women delivered a barrage of cannonading blows, exorcising demons and returning their country to a once and present glory.
It simply had to be Carli Lloyd, didn’t it? She of the two World Cup match-winning goals to go with her pair of Olympic gold medal-winners, a product of New Jersey and Rutgers who, a decade after her first senior national team call-up, has finally achieved the kind of immortality reserved for players as accomplished as Chastain, the Brazilian artisté Marta and Wambach.
Lloyd’s quixotic tendencies have infuriated U.S. fans for years, yet in moments of panic, she retained her cool, almost as if she didn’t understand that certain games meant more than others. She gained a reputation for having what pundits like to call “the clutch gene,” even though to a reasonable degree of scientific certainty and to the best of my knowledge, no such strain of DNA exists.
As Kevin McCauley points out in a fantastic piece on SB Nation, Lloyd’s pedigree falls well short of Robert Horry’s because of how strangely staccato her contributions are to the national team. She is less Horry and, if you care to join me on a little jaunt down Basketball Metaphor Lane, more J.R. Smith, the walking representation of risk analysis and opportunity cost, without the questionable Instagrams and untied shoes fines.
Do not mistake that comparison for a slight on Lloyd’s skill. J.R. Smith has admirers the world over despite his flirtations with sociopathy, and now, Carli Lloyd is a national hero and, now, a Golden Ball Winner. Her three-goal outburst in sixteen minutes in the Final against Japan makes her a legend, particularly to the young women (and men, if they have any sense, because most of them would never dare attempt firing a shot on goal from midfield, much less nail it) who are currently lacing up boots and strapping on shinguards in the United States.
But to get hung up on Carli Lloyd, despite her Trey Anastasio guitar solo of a World Cup which peaked at an unspeakable volume with her hat trick, would be to do a massive disservice to the rest of the veritable wrecking crew that gained its form right when it lost its leader. Relegating Wambach to the bench is a move Jill Ellis simply had to make, and Wambach’s noble embracement of it seemed to make it okay for the rest of the team to move forward without her preeminent leadership and innate heading ability, skills which have made her the greatest goalscorer in the history of international soccer. Note the lack of a gender qualifier in that last sentence and grab yourself a $5 footlong, Pelé.
The defense, of course, stood tall, despite Julie Johnston’s panicked foul against Germany that led to a missed penalty kick and the not-as-egregious own goal she scored for Japan in the Final when the U.S. was already up 4-1. Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn complemented each other perfectly on the back line, with Sauerbrunn acting as the broom in Johnston’s negative space.
When Tobin Heath scored a goal to put the U.S. up 5-2 in the 54th minute, the Cup was ours. It probably was even before then, but that didn’t hurt. To the next generation of great American soccer players, this team is a revelation, the ideal of athleticism-meeting-skill which for which our country strives on both the men’s and women’s sides. For the last decade, the USWNT has received praise for its consistency and scorn for its inability to put it all together at the highest level. Finally, we have our 1999, complete with adequate levels of icons and iconoclasm.
On the last team to win the Cup, those 99ers – they apparently sent an email chain around during and immediately following the Final (at the behest of ESPN’s Julie Foudy, it ought to be noted, but they did it nonetheless). When Christie Rampone, the last remaining active member from the ’99 team, replaced Alex Morgan in the 86th minute of the Final, the link between the sides was never more apparent. Now, as an influence and inspiration for the next great American players, this team shares another commonality with that squad: World Cup champions.
come celebrate with me that everyday something has tried to kill me and has failed. - Lucille Clifton, "won't you celebrate with me"