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Olympics

All you need is gold

Best in the world is probably what they were anyway, this group of women with the two natural goal scorers, the bleached-blonde playmaker and goalie with a chip on her shoulder that's sometimes bigger than the foot in her mouth.

But just like in any other sport, best on paper and best in perception only gets you attention as a favorite. Trophies and medals come with results.

So as the members of the United States women's soccer team bent down Thursday night to receive their Olympic gold medals, their redemption more than a year in the making, almost all of them reached down to grab it, ogle it.

"It's so heavy," Heather Mitts said, considering its weight in her hand the way one might a gold bar. Megan Rapinoe, her blonde hair standing out as it always does, kissed hers. Many of the others did the same.

The women stood atop the podium between the two teams they had just beaten -- Canada in an Olympic semifinal that we'll remember for its twists and turns, and Japan in a gold medal match-turned instant classic that showed us just how far women's soccer has come in terms of talent in the last couple of decades.

Behind two goals from Carli Lloyd, a few timely saves by Hope Solo and -- no use denying it -- a blown hand ball call, the U.S. beat Japan 2-1 in front of a record crowd at Wembley Stadium on Thursday night to win the country's third straight Olympic gold medal in women's soccer.

The game was billed as a chance for the U.S. to get its revenge for a loss on penalty kicks to Japan at last year's World Cup final -- an outcome that haunted some of the Americans for more than a year.

But not everyone saw it that way. Instead of revenge, Rapinoe said the game was about evening the score.

"I guess after we had our dreams snatched away from us last year we've snatched their dreams away from them this year," she said.

Lloyd, and not Abby Wambach or Alex Morgan, scored the U.S. goals. She came out of nowhere to make it 1-0 in the eighth minute, rushing in for a header that almost no one saw in real time, even her teammates.

Wambach was in position for Morgan's pass from the far side, her foot at the ready, when Lloyd flashed through the area like an arrow. She raced to the sideline and slid on her knees, but it was a beat before the others realized who had scored.

There was confusion for some in the press area, too, and on social media where the U.S. Olympic Committee tweeted Wambach had scored.

But Lloyd -- one of the U.S. players who missed a penalty kick in the World Cup loss to Japan -- didn't leave any reason to doubt who scored the second goal.

Her right-footer inside the left post came after a brilliant run through the defense early in the second half.

"I have waited my whole life for something this big," said Lloyd. "I just did what I do best for both of [the goals] and for the second in particular. I just love running at people."

Lloyd had, in fact, already come through in a similar way before. She scored in extra time four years ago to lift the U.S. to a 1-0 win over Brazil in the Olympic final.

Thursday's two-goal effort gave her four for the Olympic tournament -- not bad for a player who lost her starting job before coming to London only to get it back because of an injury.

"She came in and made the difference and she proved that I was wrong before the Olympics," said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. "I am really happy that she is more clever than I am."

Yuki Ogimi scored in the 63rd minute for Japan, leaving some of the U.S. players to think back on last year's World Cup final.

"It all happened so fast. We conceded the goal and, of course, it creeps in your brain -- is this going to really happen, are they going to tie this up?" said Wambach.

"But we fought," she said, "we dug deep. We were screaming at each other 'We cannot let them get back in this game!'"

Solo made several good stops and two highlight-reel saves -- one on a high shot in the first half, getting her left hand in the right place to knock the ball clear of the crossbar; and another later in the second half, a diving stop with under 10 minutes to play and Japan pressuring the U.S. defense.

Each Japanese rush was met with a buzzing crescendo from the crowd of 80,203 -- a record for Olympic women's soccer. One Japanese shot hit the crossbar, one curled just wide and American Tobin Heath got away with a hand ball in the penalty area.

Time after time, things went the Americans' way. And as only the best teams can do, they made the most of their chances until the final whistle blew and they hugged at midfield.

Later, they posed for team pictures in front of a throng of photographers near the sideline. Already the best team in so many ways, they were wearing the hardware to prove it.

Gold medalists in front of 80,000 people. That's a hell of a thing.