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WEMBLEY, England – Hope Solo found herself enveloped in a group hug at the final whistle. Abby Wambach ran to join the fun in a celebration that unleashed a year of bottled-up frustration.
The U.S. women's soccer team won its third straight Olympic gold medal Thursday, beating Japan 2-1 in a rematch of last year's World Cup final and avenging the most painful loss in its history.
Carli Lloyd scored early in both halves, Solo leaped and dived to make saves, and the entire roster found the redemption it had been seeking since that penalty kick shootout loss in Germany last summer.
Before 80,203 at Wembley Stadium, a record crowd for a women's soccer game at the Olympics, the teams put on a back-and-forth, don't-turn-your-head soccer showcase, proving again that these are the two premier teams in the world. Women's soccer is still in its formative stages in Britain, but the match proved more than worthy for the hallowed grounds of the beautiful game.
And the Japanese perhaps played just as beautifully as the Americans, using their speed and discipline to dominate possession and scoring chances for long stretches before finally cutting a 2-0 deficit in half with about a half-hour to go.
Back home, America was paying attention -- just as it was last year and despite the rest of the Olympic events. Even President Barack Obama, during a campaign speech at Colorado College during the second half of the game, noted that, "The women are doing pretty good right now in soccer."
Lloyd's goals came in eighth and 54th minutes, making it four goals in the tournament for the midfielder who lost her long-held starting job weeks before the Olympics. She got back on the pitch when Shannon Boxx injured her hamstring in the opening game and started every game since.
Yuki Ogimi answered in the 63rd minute, and Asuna Tanaka nearly had the equalizer in the 83rd -- only to be thwarted when Solo flung her entire body to the left to push the ball away.
The U.S. team has won four of the five Olympic titles since women's soccer was introduced at the 1996 Atlanta Games, settling for mere silver at the 2000 Games in Sydney.
In the first half, Japan was unfortunate not to have a penalty kick awarded for a clear hand ball by U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath, who stuck out her left arm to stop a free kick inside the area.
Japan also had two shots hit the crossbar, one off the left hand of a leaping Solo, who was kept consistently busy for the first time this tournament. The closest the U.S. came to doubling the lead in the first 45 minutes came when Azusa Iwashimizu attempted to clear a routine ball played in front of the net -- and headed it off the post.
The U.S. goal in the eighth minute began with a run by Heath down the left side. She fed Alex Morgan, who settled the ball near the goal line, spun and chipped it toward Wambach. Wambach raised her left foot for the shot, but Lloyd charged in and got to it first, her strong running header beating goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto from 6 yards out.
Lloyd extended the lead with a 20-yard right-footer just inside the left post after a long run with the ball through the middle of the Japanese defense.
Ogimi soon cut the deficit to one after a mad scramble in front of the net. Captain Christie Rampone saved a shot off the line, but the ball went to Homare Sawa, who fed Ogimi for the tap-in.
Another scramble followed after U.S. defender Amy LePeilbet saved yet another shot off the line in the 74th minute, but this time her teammates were able to corral the ball before a Japanese player could pounce on it.
Boxx was back into the starting lineup after the missing four games with the hamstring injury. Lauren Cheney, who injured an ankle in the semifinals, began the game on the bench for the first time this tournament.
Canada won the bronze earlier Thursday, beating France 1-0 at Coventry.