VANCOUVER — When the final whistle sounded on the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday, Carli Lloyd dropped to her knees near the sideline and looked to the open roof at BC Place, pumping her arms before teammate Heather O’Reilly embraced her.
Players and coaches penned in the bench area flooded the field like water released from a dam. Tears flowed. Flags snapped throughout stands filled almost exclusively with American supporters.
The 16-year wait was over: By virtue of a 5-2 victory over Japan, the U.S. women’s national soccer team was world champions again.
With Vice President Joe Biden among 53,341 in attendance, Lloyd gave one of the great performances in men’s or women’s tournament history, scoring three goals in the first 16 minutes, including a shot from the midfield line some 55 yards away.
Lloyd set championship marks for the fastest goal and first hat trick. She became the first American to score three goals in a World Cup game since the inaugural event in 1991.
After underperforming in the three-game group stage, the 32-year-old midfielder from New Jersey and Rutgers University scored in four consecutive knockout rounds to claim a share of the scoring title with Germany’s Celia Sasic. Lloyd won the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s most outstanding player, Hope Solo earned the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper.
The United States scored four early goals and then held off Japan’s rush to become the first program to win three women’s titles, breaking a tie with the Germans.
The outcome was sweet redemption for Lloyd and 13 other holdovers who not only had lost to Japan in the 2011 final, but, for four years, carried the burden of unfulfilled expectations dating back to the Rose Bowl party in 1999.
Reminders of the last championship tailed this squad for years. The narrative was inescapable and, with the title in reach, it crested ahead of the final. Several members of the last trophy-winning team were in the audience: Mia Hamm, Briana Scurry, Julie Foudy and Michelle Akers, among others.
Beyond the team feat, individuals embraced the moment. In her fourth and final tournament, Abby Wambach, the sport’s highest international scorer regardless of gender, added the World Cup to her substantial portfolio.
The back line, intact for almost every minute of the competition, recorded five straight shutouts before Japan dented it with a pair of goals and several other chances against Solo.
Many fans carried mixed feelings about Solo, whose off-field transgressions in the past year — domestic abuse charges and an unrelated team suspension — overshadowed her sterling performances. She was almost perfect in this tournament, conceding a goal in the first half of the first match and organizing a defensive corps that had not taken shape until the spring.
The triumph was redemption for Jill Ellis, the English-born head coach who graduated from Fairfax, Virginia’s Robinson Secondary School and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. As the Americans stumbled through the early matches, Ellis was criticized by fans, media and former players, most notably Akers, for lineup choices and tactical decisions.
She remained steadfast in her long-term approach to the monthlong tournament, committed to the defensive plan and alternating attackers until ultimately reinforcing central midfield with Morgan Brian at the expense of a forward. It worked. The Americans showed marked improvement in the quarterfinals against China and hit their stride in the semifinals against top-ranked Germany.
There was no reason for Ellis to alter the lineup on Sunday, so she didn’t. While the Americans picked up speed as the tournament transpired, Japan was a model of consistency: six consecutive one-goal victories while never scoring more than two goals.
If the Japanese needed extra motivation, they got it from veteran midfielder Kozue Ando, who fractured an ankle in the tournament opener. On Sunday, when the teams entered the stadium, reserve goalkeeper Erina Yamane carried Ando on her back.
Despite meeting in a final for the third straight major competition, there were no hints of animosity between the teams.
The Americans’ deference morphed into cold-hearted dominance.
In the third minute, as Megan Rapinoe served a low corner kick, Lloyd made a sharp run from outside the penalty area. She met the ball in stride and, using the outside of her left foot, stabbed a nine-yard shot into the lower left corner.
Two minutes passed. Another goal. Another Lloyd goal.
From inside the penalty area, Julie Johnston flicked Lauren Holiday’s free kick. The ball caromed off the arm of a Japanese player and bounded into the six-yard box. Lloyd beat two defenders and poked it between Saki Kumugai’s legs.
Lloyd embarked on another celebratory sprint. From field level to the upper reaches of the Olympic arena, bedlam reigned.
The Americans entered as slight favorites, but this?
There was more. In the 14th minute, Holiday rushed at Azusa Iwashimizu’s poorly headed clearance and volleyed a 12-yarder over goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori. 3-0.
Then came one of the most implausible goals in men’s or women’s World Cup history, a shot that defied soccer convention in both audacity and execution. With the Americans breaking out of their own, Lloyd dodged a challenge in the center circle.
At this point, a player will accelerate into space or spray the ball wide to launch a counterattack. Lloyd looked up and saw Kaihori at the top of the penalty area.
Why not? The ball sailed. Kaihori back-pedaled. The crowd collectively held its breath, as if to say, “That couldn’t possibly go in, could it?”
With time and space in short supply, Kaihori stumbled. In a last desperate effort, she reached with her right hand and made contact. The ball bounced off the left post and spun into the net. 4-0.
She almost added a fourth goal two minutes later but missed the left corner by a whisker.
Japan was deflated but not defeated. In the 27th minute, Yuki Ogimi beat Johnston to Nahomi Kawasumi’s cross in the box and fired past Solo, ending the U.S. shutout streak at 540 minutes.
Seven minutes into the second half, Johnston contested a long free kick in the penalty area and headed the ball past Solo for an own goal. This was starting to get interesting.
Heath restored order two minutes later, smashing in Brian’s cross from six yards for her first goal of the tournament.
All that remained was the entrance of Wambach and Christie Rampone, a 40-year-old defender at her fifth World Cup.
The trophy awaited.