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Aug 21, 2008

Lloyd the unlikely hero for the U.S.

BEIJING -- As the women's Olympic soccer final lurched toward extra time, a few hard truths had already emerged. Brazil was completely dominating the United States. The Americans were defending bravely, but didn't look capable of holding on. And U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd was having an utterly forgettable game.

But in an instant, Lloyd went from forgettable to immortal, hitting a pile driver in the 96th minute that settled into the Brazilian net, and gave the Americans a 1-0 victory and a gold medal that at times seemed beyond the realm of possibility.

Up to that point, Lloyd hadn't looked remotely capable of donning the hero's cape. The pace of the Brazilian attack had her struggling defensively. Her passes, instead of finding their intended target, usually ended up at the feet of the opposition. And on the occasions when Lloyd tried to dribble her way out of trouble, she was getting picked clean.

But as the game progressed, Lloyd began to show some signs of life. With a tackle here, and a shot from distance there, she showed that she still had some fight left. That said, her extra-time strike was completely unexpected.

"It happened so fast," said Lloyd of her game-winning goal. "I remember getting the ball, playing it in to [Amy Rodriguez], she laid it back, and I just knew that I had to keep it low, strike it hard, and it went in. It was just an unbelievable feeling."

That Lloyd managed to fight through her struggles in the final and be a difference-maker is a testament to how much her game has grown since last year, when she finished her first World Cup on the bench after beginning the tournament as a starter. But a heavy dose of confidence instilled by head coach Pia Sundhage has made all the difference in not only Lloyd's game, but the entire team's as well.

"[Pia] has taken this team so far in eight months," said Lloyd. "I think people have to look at that and look at how much she changed the way we play, and our personality on the field, just believing in all the players."

Of course, Lloyd's goal wouldn't have mattered had it not been for the grit-your-teeth, grind-it-out performance turned in by the American back line. There were times when Brazilian attackers Marta and Cristiane beat two or even three players. But there always seemed to be one more defender who finally did get that last-ditch tackle in.

"It was definitely our game plan going in to cover, cover and recover," said defender Christine Rampone. "Brazil are very technical on the ball and even if they beat you once, you have to keep fighting and keep tracking."

And when that didn't work, Lloyd's good friend Hope Solo was there to deny Brazil, especially on a jaw-dropping save from a Marta blast in the 72nd minute. Given their World Cup woes of a year ago, it's fitting that Lloyd and Solo should bask in the limelight of their gold-medal triumph.

"[Solo and I] were standing next to the podium together. We experienced a World Cup together last year, and it didn't go as planned," said Lloyd. "We both went through some rough times there, and tonight we just looked at each other and said, 'We did it.'"

And in the process they became unforgettable for all the right reasons.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Center Line soccer and can be reached at eljefe1@yahoo.com.

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