BEIJING – They came to the Beijing Olympics as a team trying to find its way, still adjusting to a new coach and each other, still smarting from a loss that brought humiliation on and off the field.
They dropped their first game, hardly an auspicious start for a country that had lost only one other in three Olympics. But bit by bit, game by game, they came together, figuring out what it would take to win.
On Thursday night, the U.S. women's soccer team stood as one, Olympic gold medals around their necks, champions once again.
"Vindicated? I feel great, I feel amazing. I just won a gold medal," said goalkeeper Hope Solo, whose banishment at last year's World Cup symbolizes the struggles these Americans have had and without whom they wouldn't have won this game.
Solo made save after save to keep the United States in the game, and Carli Lloyd scored in the sixth minute of extra time to give the United States a 1-0 victory over Brazil and the gold medal for a third time in four Olympics.
It was the first victory in a major tournament for new coach Pia Sundhage, who took over less than nine months ago.
"It was hard, and this win wasn't just down to my goal," Lloyd said. "It was only achievable with the team we have and that we played for each other."
United now, the Americans were ripped apart at last year's World Cup, also in China.
Though Solo had allowed only two goals in four World Cup starts and had a shutout streak of nearly 300 minutes going, then-coach Greg Ryan decided to sit her for the semifinal against Brazil and play veteran Briana Scurry. The move was a disaster, and the United States — a favorite to win the tournament — was humbled 4-0, its worst loss ever at a World Cup.
Solo lashed out at Ryan, and was banished. A month later, Ryan was fired.
"I went through hell. A lot of people did," Solo said. "But I feel stronger in the end. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm glad I went though it. I learned a lot about myself."
And she has a gold medal as the result.
After the game ended, Solo sprinted back out onto the field, a gaudy imitation gold medal around her neck, a phone to her ear and a bright smile on her face. She closed her eyes when the national anthem began playing, and bounced proudly and gripped her medal when the team posed for pictures afterward.
A few fans in the crowd chanted, "We want Hope! We want Hope!"
"I asked two questions: Do you want to win? Yes. Do you need goalkeepers to win? Yes," Sundhage said. "We had to move on, and this day you could see that we did it."
Emotion poured from the Americans at the final whistle. They charged to the middle of the field, screaming in celebration. A few grabbed American flags and sprinted to the U.S. fans in the stands. Mostly though, they beamed, those long months of tension and uncertainty suddenly far away.
"This is such a reward for nine months of hard, hard work and soul-searching after the World Cup," Kate Markgraf said.
For the Brazilians, it was yet another bitter disappointment, the third consecutive time they've been the runner-up at a top event. They outplayed the Americans in the 2004 final, too, and lost in extra time. They also fell to Germany in the World Cup final last year.
As jubilant as the Americans were, the Brazilians were just as despondent. Goalkeeper Barbara lay on her back when the game ended, sobbing, while Cristiane sat on the ground crying.
"I have no idea why we can't win a final," said Marta, who sobbed when she got her silver medal, her lip quivering. "It's something I'm gonna keep asking myself for a long time. You keep asking what you did wrong."
The two-time FIFA Player of the Year has nothing to regret. Her speed and control mesmerized the American defenders, and her cat-like quickness allowed her to get to balls no other player would have come close to. She was credited with six shots on goal, but she seemed to be in Solo's personal space more often than a pickpocket.
"I'm more mad than sad," Marta said. "Again we had a chance to win the gold and again we let it slip away. It's hard to say why that keeps happening to us."
Though the Americans arrived in Beijing as the world's top team, they were far from favorites for gold. They lost top defender Cat Whitehill in June, when she tore up her left knee. In the final tuneup before Beijing, leading scorer Abby Wambach broke her leg. Then they lost their opener, giving up two goals in the first few minutes to Norway.
This was not, it was clear, a team like the United States had grown accustomed to in the days of Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy, who played together so long, they knew each other's every move.
But Sundhage's calming presence bolstered the Americans. Their offense wasn't always a thing of beauty, but they found ways to win games.
"We are not looking at the results, but on how we play," Sundhage said. "Soccer is not a matter of 1-0 or 2-0, it's the way to find out the rhythm. The match against Norway is our key point in the tournament. ... We found out our weak points and improved it. That's why we stand here with the gold medal."
The Americans were outclassed for much of the game by Brazil's dazzling speed and control, but Solo kept them in the game, making at least a half-dozen big saves. In the 31st minute, Lloyd lost a ball to Formiga, who passed to Cristiane. Cristiane was the tournament's leading scorer, and she ran full-speed looking for another. But Solo came off her line and dove at Cristiane's feet to collect the ball, upending the Brazilian in the process.
Even more impressive was Solo's save in the 72nd minute, when Marta lost the ball behind Heather Mitts and Markgraf and then picked it back up for a close-range shot that looked certain to be in. But Solo leaned out, threw up her right arm and sent the ball flying out of harm's way.
"I think I was leaning to my left waiting to dive to the left because the whole goal was open," Solo said. "And she ended up going right, and I luckily kept some of my weight on the right."
Said Marta: "I don't understand why the ball wouldn't go in. In so many games before we were able to score easily, but today it wasn't the case."
The rest of the Americans picked up the slack in the last five minutes of regulation, nearly scoring three times — twice in the 86th minute alone.
Then, in extra time, Amy Rodriguez held off two Brazilians and put the ball up for Lloyd who gave it a light touch with her right foot and then left-footed it from a yard outside the area. Barbara dived, but the ball scooted past her and settled in the far bottom corner of the net.
"I just knew that I had to keep it low, strike it hard and it went in," Lloyd said.
Marta did everything she could to draw the Brazilians even. In the 102nd minute, she was tackled by Mitts and then, after getting the ball back, was blocked first by Markgraf and then by Christie Rampone. In the second extra period, she tried to bend in a corner a few minutes later only to watch Solo punch it free. Renata Costa collected the rebound, but her shot banged into the side of the net, drawing groans from the star-studded crowd of 51,612 — Kobe Bryant, Pele, FIFA president Sepp Blatter and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge were all in the house — that clearly favored Brazil.
Shortly after, Marta looped in a free kick, but none of her teammates went for it, and the ball bounced over the scrum and wide of the far post.
"We felt like we were getting better each minute," captain Christie Rampone said. "We said, 'Don't worry about making mistakes, just go out there and play with confidence and be brave.' You could feel it every minute of that second half and in overtime. We felt strong."
With just seconds left, Cristiane's header went wide.
The Americans began to celebrate, champions once more, whole once again.
"Brazil is a fantastic team, and they have many great individuals," Markgraf said. "But they didn't put away their chances tonight. We had one."