Wembley, England • Alex Morgan couldn’t bear to watch what was about to happen.
“Hope, save this,” cried the rising star of the U.S. women’s soccer team. “Save this.”
Almost as if through telepathy, goalkeeper Hope Solo dove to her left to stop a sure goal with seven minutes left in regulation Thursday night in a climactic ending that left the Americans atop the world.
The United States held off gallant Japan 2-1 to win its third consecutive Olympic gold medal in front of 80,023 fans at Wembley Stadium in a redemptive and often poignant struggle. The largest crowd to attend a women’s Olympic soccer match was treated to an operatic game highlighted by Solo’s six mesmerizing saves.
Solo, 31, said she hadn’t made an impact in the United States’ first five victories of the Olympic tournament.
“I was hoping it would come,” she said.
If not for Solo’s acrobatic stops that were worthy of the gymnastics all-around competition, the United States would not have won its gold.
“She will save the day,” said midfielder Carli Lloyd, who scored both U.S. goals.
The defense also played a role after weathering a ferocious battle Monday in a double overtime victory against Canada. It clung to the precipice in the final, gut-wrenching minutes to help preserve the victory.
A year after a sucker-punch defeat to Japan in the World Cup final, the Americans imposed their steely will to remain Olympic champions. None of it would have happened without Solo, the outspoken Seattle keeper who knows how to command a big stage.
“You are Superwoman,” Morgan told the keeper after the game.
Morgan, who is fast becoming a soccer sensation, wasn’t bad herself, ending the tournament with a team-leading five assists. Her pinpoint pass in the eighth minute led to Lloyd’s first goal that put Japan on its heels.
The setting could not have been better for an Olympic soccer matchup that had the promise to inspire a generation. With summer breaking out across London, players from the United States and Japan entered sun-splashed Wembley Stadium feeling a sense of urgency.
Few stadiums are as steeped in tradition as Wembley, the scene of England’s greatest soccer triumph. On July 30, 1966, the Bobby Moore-led English won their only World Cup by defeating West Germany 4-2 in extra time in one of the most memorable finishes in soccer history.
The ghosts of Jackie Charlton and Moore rattled through the stadium rafters as the women parried and attacked and tested their wills. The world’s two best teams battled for every inch of real estate.
Every final the Americans had played since 1999 has gone to overtime, including last summer’s World Cup match against Japan that was lost on penalty shots.
Not this time.
The United States struck early when Tobin Heath raced down the left flank with Japan in full retreat. Morgan, 23, broke free just left of the penalty area where she collected the ball and turned to offer a left-footed service in front of the goal. Abby Wambach took a swipe to draw defenders while Lloyd raced in with a direct header for a 1-0 lead.
Japan, which held a 2-1-1 advantage over the United States the previous four games, came roaring back in the 17th minute. Defender Nahomi Kawasumi broke through into the left side of the penalty area and shot toward the far right post. The ball slipped past Solo, but central defender Christie Rampone cleared it.
The rebound deflected off Solo’s back and bounced into a dangerous spot in the six-yard box, where striker Yuki Ogimi fired a shot that the goalkeeper blocked.
Japan wasn’t done. A minute later, Ogimi headed the ball on goal, but Solo stretched to get a hand on it and push the ball off the crossbar. Defender Rachel Buehler tried to clear the ball, but Ogimi regained possession. This time she shot wide right and high from close range.
The game might have turned on a play in the 26th minute when Aya Miyama’s free kick from just outside the box struck Heath’s left arm in an apparent hand ball. Japan appealed for a penalty kick, but referee Bibiana Steinhaus let play continue.
The Americans struck again within the first 10 minutes of the second half. This time it came on a slow buildup, with Megan Rapinoe feeding Lloyd in the center. The midfielder attacked, creating space despite having Morgan breaking to her right. Lloyd fired a shot past goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto into the far corner for a 2-0 cushion.
“This year has been trials and tribulations, and this win feels like everything has come full circle,” Wambach said. “It was a team effort for this entire tournament and it shows what it takes to win championships — it’s teamwork and loyalty and trusting in each other.”
It also took some luck.
Japan seemed to play inspired after Lloyd’s second goal by unleashing a relentless attack to try to regain momentum. It came to fruition in the 64th minute. It took three good tries, but Japan finally closed the margin to 2-1 after Shinobu Ohno’s shot was cleared off the line. Homare Sawa fired a point-blank shot that Rampone blocked back to the aging Japanese star. This time Sawa, 33, found Ogimi open on the left for an easy tap-in.
It almost went badly for the Americans in the final anxious minutes because of a defensive lapse by Rampone. A lackadaisical clearance on the left led to a counterattack by reserve Mana Iwabuchi. The Japanese striker curled a shot toward the back post, but Solo dove to her left to knock it away.
“Everything came together and fell into place,” said Lloyd, who also scored the only goal in the 2008 victory in Beijing.
“No one can stop this team.”
Storylines U.S. 2, Japan 1
R Midfielder Carli Lloyd scores both goals for the Americans, leading them to their third straight Olympic gold medal.
• U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo makes six saves, and Alex Morgan finishes the tourney with a team-high five assists.
• Japan was 2-1-1 against the U.S. in their last four games.