In 1999, the USA won their second Women's World Cup from the penalty spot after 120 minutes in which the USA and China cancelled each other out for wide swathes of the match. Sixteen years later, the USA became world champions once more with a ruthless offensive performance in the final that was supported by a tight and organized defensive setup throughout the tournament. It represents the third star on the US women's kit, one that was the most difficult to earn in an increasingly globalized women's game yet won with total merit.
I wanted to wait 24 hours before writing this post so that I could collect my thoughts, and I was searching in my own memory banks for some kind of parallel. Without stretching things too far, the USA's performance reminded me of Italy's in the 1982 World Cup. They struggled to score in their three group stage matches, scraped through by virtue of their defense, and then rode Paolo Rossi's match-winning goals in the knockout stage on their way to a third world championship. The US women struggled to score, finished first in a tough group thanks to their defensive performance, and rode Carli Lloyd's goals in the knockout stage to a third world title.
What can you possibly say about the final, and about Carli Lloyd? Four years ago Lloyd missed her penalty in the climactic shootout that saw Japan win the title. On Sunday, she couldn't miss at all as she became the first female player to achieve a hat-trick at a Women's World Cup final (and the second player after Sir Geoff Hurst to achieve the feat in a World Cup final of either gender) and the runaway winner of the Golden Ball. First a well-executed maneuver off a corner by her teammates opened a path for Lloyd to sweep the ball home, two minutes later a goalmouth scramble off another corner was poked over the line, and a little over ten minutes later an audacious, sensational lob from the halfway line. As valiant as the Nadeshiko were after the onslaught -- and they did score two goals to narrow the gap to 4-2 -- the final outcome was clear.
Eight years ago I asked whether the future path of the US women's team would resemble Italy, a perennial favorite at World Cups and Olympic Games, or Uruguay, a former dominant power looking to recover past glory, and five years ago I went further out and asked if their future resembled the decline of West Indies cricket. It is clear that women's football is a much more global game than it was sixteen, twelve, eight, or even four years ago, and it will be more difficult for the USA to win international tournaments in the future because of the improved competition. (It's already happening at junior level, but junior tournaments are more unpredictable than those at senior level.) But this edition of the US women's team combined their individual talent with a game plan that exploited their strengths and allowed them to achieve the ultimate prize in women's football. In so doing, they reaffirmed their links to the great champions of 1991 and 1999 and created a standard for future teams to aspire.