Teamwork epitomized in golden victory
For the second time in three tries, the U.S. Women's National Team players are proudly toting gold medals around their necks. When you win five games to go with one tie and not lose a single match, that's exactly what you deserve to be - champions.
It's a fitting moniker for a squad that has always battled back from adversity; that didn't let the losses in the last World Cup and in the 2000 Olympic Games destroy their indomitable spirit; and that never once showcased players that played for the name on the back of the jersey rather than the one on the front.
Team. It's the defining word for this bunch.
When they could simply walk on the field and get a victory, it was all about the group. And when they could no longer eek out a win on talent alone in recent years, the focus remained on the strength of the roster from top-to-bottom.
That ability to play for each other and sacrifice for the team was never so apparent than in the 2-1 victory over Brazil on Thursday.
It's what carried them through the final 17 minutes after Pretinha tied the match at 1-1 in the second half, as well as through the grueling 30 minutes of extra time that was played before and after Abby Wambach headed home the game-winning goal in the 112th minute of the match.
Because, in reality, Brazil should have won this game.
That is not a killjoy statement or the words of a curmudgeon in the least bit. It's the plain truth.
Of course, the team that deserves to win is often denied such spoils. It's one of the reasons soccer is worshipped all over the world. It's often an unfair, unforgiving game, that is as much about quick moments of absolute brilliance than sustained excellence.
The U.S. had two such moments when scoring both goals to outlast a better Brazil side that could do everything but provide that added extra touch or pass or timely shot on target at the most precious of times that separates great from greatness.
In saying that, here are five observations from Thursday's gold medal match:
1. Not enough cards in the deck
There is nothing worse than watching two teams play at the highest of levels within their sport only to watch the officials perform at such a low stage.
From the outset, both squads tackled hard and let it be known that the gold medal match would not be a happy-fun kick-around between friends.
That's fine. With everything on the line, that's how it should be, no matter if the game is being played by men or women. But once contact started happening after a play for the ball was made, something had to be done.
In the first 30 minutes of the match alone, three different Brazilian players committed hard fouls that should have been bookable offenses. Only one was called. That was the foul that saw Formiga slam into Brandi Chastain after a play had been made. The other two fouls were against Wambach, which every official should have been expecting coming into the match. Yet, neither was called.
Julie Foudy should have received a yellow card, as well, later in the half when she made a hard tackle on Brazil's best player, Marta.
Instead, the officials just called fouls. They called over two dozen of them, in fact. But only two players received yellow cards. So much for "persistent infringement," huh?
The officiating crew is lucky it didn't get out of hand, and someone didn't get hurt. Hopefully, this is something that FIFA noticed and tries to fix for the next women's world championship in 2007.
2. Brazil can't finish
For a country that produced so many crafty goal-scorers over the years, Rene Simoes' side could not find the back of the net against the U.S.
Brazil's one goal was off a save by U.S. goalkeeper Briana Scurry that should have been punched further off the line. But it was knocked in by a player (Pretinha) who was allowed to run free to the ball once her marker, Foudy, stopped covering her as the cross from Cristiane came from the left side.
The Brazilians had more quality chances, yet were completely off the mark on several golden opportunities, sending balls wide of the net or right at Scurry. The best example of that came during the first overtime session when the match was still tied. In a span of a minute, both Daniela and Cristiane got behind the defense into the box on the left side and could not convert.
Daniela ran around her left foot to take a shot with her right foot, which gave Joy Fawcett enough time to track her down and break up the play.
Moments later, Cristiane's breakaway ended when her left-footed strike didn't even end up on frame, but instead slammed into the side netting on the outside of the goal. For an otherwise excellent striker, it was a poor showing, and was part of the reason the Brazilians are wearing silver medals on their plane ride back to Rio de Janeiro.
3. Heinrichs use of her roster
One has to applaud Heinrichs for realizing that Chastain belonged on the field over the past few matches. Since not starting in the team's first three matches, the 36-year-old defender got the call to start every match for the U.S. Her presence on the field, as well as her savvy for the game, made a difference at times in all three of her matches.
Chastain gave the team 60 solid minutes against Brazil before Heinrichs inserted Cat Reddick into the match to give the defense some fresh legs and a bit of added speed. It worked out perfectly, as the level didn't drop upon the substitution.
The same goes for the U.S. head coach's faith she showed in Lindsay Tarpley, who she gave the nod to over Aly Wagner as the attacking midfielder in the final three matches of the tournament. The 20-year-old's first-half strike was world-class, and came at a time when the Americans were having difficulty getting the ball out of their own end.
In addition, the utilization of 19-year-old Heather O'Reilly off the bench must be praised. Heinrichs could have easily opted for the experience of Cindy Parlow, but she made the tough call and went with speed over power in this case, and was vindicated for doing so.
4. Tarp's goal was a dagger
A lot of players would have taken an extra touch or turned to look for teammates when faced with four Brazilian defenders in their way. But there was no hesitation on the part of young Tarpley, playing in her first world championship for the full National Team, when she was faced with such a situation in the 39th minute.
Once the University of North Carolina junior recognized that the two Brazilian centerbacks had backtracked all the way to their own 18-yard box, Tarpley unleashed a hard, right-footed shot on the run that somehow found the side netting on the left side of the goal. It was a shot that any striker in the world -- man or woman -- would be proud of, and it came right when the U.S. needed it most.
Had Tarpley not scored when she did, who knows how the outcome of the game would have turned out. Brazil was carrying the play, executing passes with confidence, and forcing the U.S. to defend with 10 players (only Wambach stayed in front of the ball) at the time.
Tarp's goal wiped out any such momentum.
5. The end of an era plays out
Anyone who has followed the U.S. women's National Team has been hearing this for years. And the "what's your legacy?" questions started long before even the Women's World Cup last year.
It was played out, for sure. However, anything with such importance usually is, whether it's been in recent years with Michael Jordan's retirement or in recent days with the accomplishments of Michael Phelps in the water.
If there was ever a group of players -- forget that they are women or men or even that they play a sport that has struggled to find a foothold in American culture -- that deserved a storybook ending with tears of joy, the anthem playing and a golden souvenir, it's Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Joy Fawcett.
They will be talked about in 50 years, as will Kristine Lilly and Brandi Chastain, and the final images that remain in everyone's mind will justly be of them still playing at the highest level as thirty-somethings.
And as champions.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org