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Lloyd gives USA Olympic glory

Carli Lloyd scored both of the USA goals on Thursday to win Olympic gold.
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Ives Galarcep

Ives Galarcep is a 14-year veteran of the American soccer beat. He created and operates the popular American soccer blog, Soccer By Ives, which was voted Best American Soccer Blog by US Soccer in 2008, 2009, and 2010. Ives was also voted Best Football Writer by SoccerLens in 2010. 
 

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GOLDEN GIRLS

See how the United States performed in their gold medal win over Japan.

As Carli Lloyd dribbled through the Japanese defense and teed up a shot from outside the penalty area, it was easy to feel a sense of deja vu. Sure, her jersey was dark this time instead of white, and she delivered a blast with her right foot instead of left. But watching Lloyd deliver Thursday’s gold-medal winning goal felt like you were being transported back four years ago, when she did the same exact thing.

On a field full of the world’s best players, Lloyd stepped up and played the role of Olympic final hero yet again. Four years after beating Brazil with an extra-time goal in the 2008 Olympic final, the New Jersey native delivered a similar moment of brilliance by burying the game-winning goal to beat Japan and help the US women’s national team secure Olympic gold—and some redemption after losing to Japan in last year’s World Cup Final.

So much has changed in the four years between Lloyd’s golden goals. In 2008, the USA was a team in transition, adjusting to a new coach and a new generation of players. Four years later, an experienced team reached its peak under head coach Pia Sundhage, with veterans such as Lloyd, Hope Solo, Christie Rampone and Abby Wambach leading the charge.

As much as the 2008 gold medal meant to the US team following the debacle at the 2007 World Cup, you can argue that the 2012 gold medal means so much more for American women’s soccer. It provides validation for a team that had long been considered the best in the world, but didn’t have a major title to prove it. The win provided a payoff for all the new fans who have spent the past two summers following the team’s tournament exploits.

CELEBRATION TIME

Click here to check out action shots from the Olympic matches between Canada and France, plus the USWNT's gold-medal match against Japan.  

The victory could also help provide a much-needed boost for the prospects of another professional women’s league. The demise of Women’s Professional Soccer earlier this year threatened to diminish interest in this summer’s Olympics, but the tournament turned out to be arguably the most competitive and entertaining of all previous women’s Olympic soccer tournaments.

The Americans may not have been alone in helping the prospects of another professional league either. The Canadian national team’s inspiring run to an Olympic bronze medal has sparked increased interest in women’s soccer up north, and with the 2015 World Cup set to be played in Canada in three years, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see a combined effort between the United States and Canada to establish a new, stronger league than the previous failed attempts at pro women’s leagues.

Japan and France also deserve major credit for making this Olympic tournament an exciting one to watch, and one with plenty of goals and entertaining play. The Japanese in particular provided a worthy and likable adversary for the Americans, and very nearly beat them again. While they fell short of gold, the Japanese showed once again that you can play attractive attacking soccer and enjoy success in women’s soccer without overwhelming athleticism.

To some outside the United States, the USA run to gold might feel a bit tainted because of questionable calls, close calls and some outright blown calls. Canadians will spend a long time talking about the indirect free kick that helped USA rally back and beat Canada in the semifinals, and you can definitely argue that the referee in Thursday’s final missed two potential penalty calls against the USA (one on a clear Tobin Heath handball, another on a clear-cut foul in the penalty area).

Did the Americans benefit from some big calls in these Olympics? Yes. Should they feel bad about doing what they had to do in order capitalize on those opportunities? Not really. Bad calls are part of the game and as frustrating as those can be for the losing team, blaming teams for getting lucky just seems pointless.

MORE-GAN PLEASE!

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The USA surely won’t be thinking about missed calls or the strokes of luck that helped them along their path to gold. What will ultimately endure are the big plays that the Americans executed to win the Olympic gold medal. From Solo’s outstanding saves in the final, to all the goals Wambach scored and Alex Morgan set up, to the games when Megan Rapinoe played like the best player in the world, the Americans earned their championship. They can move on to the team’s next chapter knowing they succeeded in accomplishing a mission they set for themselves since losing the 2011 World Cup Final.

What is next for the USA? For some players, like Morgan, Solo, Rapinoe and Lloyd, their Olympic heroics should help boost their profiles and make them transcendent figures capable of lifting up the women’s game in the United States. Captain Christie Rampone will have the very difficult decision of whether to finally retire or to try and keep playing for a chance to be a part of the 2015 World Cup team.

And then there is Pia Sundhage. The coach who was thrown into the role before the 2008 Olympics and managed to win gold, Sundhage now has two titles on her resume to go with the knowledge that she has helped the USA regain its place as the top team in the world. She has done an excellent job helping this US team grow up and mature together to develop a more well-rounded brand of soccer, all while molding a team that is arguably as talented as any American team before it.

Will that be enough to get her re-hired for another four years? Only Sundhage and US Soccer know the answer to that. We should not assume that Sundhage wants to stick around, but there is that one empty space on the trophy mantle, that prize that has eluded Sundhage and this US team: the World Cup.

HOPE-FUL WISH

Can't get enough of Hope Solo? Check out her best career shots.

Waiting three years for a chance at World Cup redemption wouldn’t be the same as spending the past year working toward a rematch with Japan and an Olympic final, but if there is something that can keep key veterans like Rampone and Lloyd still playing and working under Sundhage for another three years, it is that desire to win the USA’s first World Cup since 1999.

That year, and that World Cup, continues to cast a shadow over the US Women’s program, and there is nothing that this current group would love more than to have a world title to match the ’99 USA team. If Sundhage sticks around, and the nucleus can keep playing at a high level, the Americans would have to be considered a strong candidate to win a World Cup just over the border in Canada in 2015.

Now, if Sundhage does wind up leaving, and the team has to go through another transition period under a new coach, there is no telling what will come of this group in three years’ time. US Soccer might find a coach capable of building on Sundhage’s work who can take the considerable talent and keep the USA on top, or we could see a new coach struggle to find the right mix and style for a team on the verge of another generational transition.

What won’t change, however, is the fact that this current US team put together a memorable four-year run with Sundhage in charge. A period of time that not only saw the USA return to prominence as the world’s best, but also helped the US women’s national team capture the attention of a country in a way we haven’t seen since 1999.

From Lloyd’s first Olympic title winner in 2008, to her gold medal-clinching strike on Thursday, those two goals helped mark an era that could wind up meaning more to women’s soccer in America than any before it.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FOXSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.

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