In 16 minutes, the U.S. Women’s National Team blew everyone’s expectations out of the water.
Through the first 540 minutes of the tournament, the U.S. never showed the performances that people expected. Heading into the World Cup final with a rematch against the possession-based style of Japan, most observers expected a grind-it-out final with the game expected to go into extra time.
Instead, the USWNT proved that no one wanted the title more than them.
Benefiting from a formation change – something I called for in my last column – that freed up captain Carli Lloyd, the 32-year-old midfielder from New Jersey put in an all-time-great performance in the final, scoring a hat-trick in 16 minutes to lead the USA to a 5-2 rout over Japan.
Lloyd capped off her hat-trick with an absurd 50-plus yard lob, catching Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori way off her line. It earned her the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament and Silver Boot for the second-most goals scored.
The World Cup title ended a 16-year drought, and the final whistle almost brought more relief than exuberance, as the pressure to perform and win the cup had only been growing throughout the tournament.
The early 4-0 lead also gave the U.S. enough breathing room to make a couple of classy substitutions, bring on Abby Wambach and 40-year-old Christie Rampone, both of whom will likely not play in a World Cup match again.
“After 15 minutes, I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming,” U.S. head coach Jill Ellis told reporters after the match. “We wanted to put them under pressure right from the start, and everything fell into place perfectly. To be honest, I couldn’t really have imagined things turning out better.”
The U.S. opened the game with goals by Lloyd in the third and fifth minute, both coming off set pieces taken low, a change in tactics pioneered by assistant coach Tony Gustavsson.
Midfielder Lauren Holiday, who announced her retirement from international soccer since the World Cup win, then lashed home a poor clearance on the volley to make it 3-0, before Lloyd capped off her hat-trick with the astonishing goal from the halfway line.
Another reason for the USA’s dominance early and throughout most of the game was the decision to move Morgan Brian from attacking midfield to a holding midfield role. Brian stood out in that role in the 2-0 semifinal victory against Germany, and it forced Ellis to start her, Lloyd, and Holiday all in the same midfield.
Of course, the U.S. were backed up by one of the best back lines in World Cup history. Hope Solo, the Golden Glove winner, only had to make 15 saves all tournament, and the back line of Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Meghan Klingenberg was stout throughout the tournament.
Johnston, who had taken superb advantage of an opportunity to start with Rampone out injured prior to the tournament, had one of her shakier performances against Japan, but Sauerbrunn picked her up on many occasions and Tobin Heath’s second-half goal to make it 5-2 confirmed that the World Cup was the USA’s for the keeping.
As impressive as the game was, so has been the response since it ended.
Everyone from celebrities and President Barack Obama to regular Joe’s were discussing the game on social media, with Twitter recording 3.5 million tweets sent during the World Cup final, according to Nielsen.
On the silver screen, Nielsen recorded an average of 25.4 million people watching the World Cup final on FOX, with a peak of 30.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched soccer game in U.S. history. That’s a bigger TV audience than the one that watched game seven of the 2014 World Series.
The USWNT returned to Los Angeles on Tuesday to huge crowds, received a phone call from President Obama, and are scheduled to be honored with a ticker-tape parade in downtown Manhattan, with huge crowds expected.
It’s a monumental reaction to a team that 16 years ago, was barely known. But in 16 minutes against Japan last Sunday, this USA team proved that they’re still the team to beat in the world.
The true value of this World Cup victory won’t be known for another 16 years. A majority of the players on the 2015 USWNT were just children when the USA last won the World Cup in 1999, and were likely inspired by the play of Mia Hamm, Julie Fowdy, and Brandi Chastain.
My hope is that countless young girls and boys – especially here in Brown County – who watched team USA succeed in Canada, can use that win as inspiration to continue practicing and working on their craft, so that someday they may be representing their country on the biggest stage.
Soccer still has plenty of hoops to jump through before it’s truly in the national conversation. But the USWNT’s success at the World Cup and the response to it is proof that soccer is growing and it can’t be stopped.
Reach Daniel Karell at 937-378-6161. Follow him on Twitter @GNDKarell