Enormous, heartfelt congratulations are due tonight to the special group of human beings that is the US women's national team as they celebrate a World Cup championship long in the making and richly deserved.
Much of this team has been together for a long time, and they've had their hearts broken at least once on the daunting stage that awaited them at BC Place in Vancouver on Sunday. But this particular date with destiny belonged to them – lock, stock and barrel – and they made sure to wear their “favorites” tag with imperious pride as reigning Women's World Cup champs Japan were swept aside with jaw-dropping power, ease – and intelligence.
That last one is as good a place to start this Three Things as any.
1) The USWNT found their missing link
By now you've probably heard the conventional wisdom about this US team and the program that produces it: Strong, speedy, fit, aggressive, relentless … but not quite as skilled or cerebral as their top rivals for this trophy. Reliant on brawn over brains. All too quick to lump it long and play a grinding, attritional style that was liable to get exposed against the likes of Germany and Japan.
It looked all too accurate in the group stage. But sometime around the USWNT's 1-0 quarterfinal win over China, conventional wisdom went stale.
We've talked before about the impact Morgan Brian had on this team when coach Jill Ellis was forced to field her youngest player as a out-and-out holding midfielder by the suspension of Lauren Holiday for that game. Brian's discipline and savvy unleashed Lloyd to go marauding in the final third as she saw fit, and when Holiday returned vs. Germany, Ellis wisely slotted her in as a further link between the attacking and midfield lines. The USWNT's soccer IQ spiked, and their performances followed suit.
Against Japan, Ellis (also wisely) did the exact same thing – but also pulled a new card from her sleeve.
We tend to think of set pieces as the domain of the tall, tough and uncomplicated. But (much like Real Salt Lake did against Columbus in MLS play last month) the USWNT reminded us that the best restarts are about ingenuity, and training – practice, practice, practice until you've got something that can catch your opponents napping.
Japan were bracing for aerial bombardment when Megan Rapinoe stepped up to those early corner kicks – and instead they got Trojan Horse-d, with the US craftily carving them open – not once, but twice in a row – with low near-post service and well-choreographed movement.
The defending champs weren't out-fought. They were out-thought.
2) Carli was right
Those three words about the hat-trick hero apply in many contexts tonight, but for me the most important one is Lloyd's choice of mantra in the leadup to this tournament and in its the early stages.
She said it in May, and it looked implausible:
Carli Lloyd on #USWNT form: "We're peaking at the right time and that's the most important thing..."— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) May 27, 2015
She said it again last month, and many of us, me included, were dubious:
Carli Lloyd before tournament: "We're peaking at right time." Carl Lloyd 1 minute ago: "I keep saying we haven't peaked yet.— Neil W. Blackmon (@nwblackmon) June 23, 2015
Over the past week or so, she's proved that it was indeed all about peaking at the right time, and the USWNT did exactly that. Since that China game, each display has been better than the last, and when it came time to go get the trophy, there was no stopping her and her teammates.
USA women peaking perfectly at World Cup. Game turned on two pens but Germany were hardly given a sniff. Better team won. Carli Lloyd superb— Ian Darke (@IanDarke) July 1, 2015
Lloyd's individual outings have epitomized this, of course. She worked earnestly but inefficiently in the group stages, then blossomed as the stakes grew and the opponents got tougher. And now this team's leadership mantle has been handed to her for the future.
Right here and right now, she sure looks like the greatest big-game performer – of any age or gender – in US soccer history.
Is Carli Lloyd the most clutch player in @ussoccer history? 3 gwgs in 2015 wwc. Also had gwgs in 08 & 2012 Olympic Gold Medal games.— Nate Loucks (@JustNateLoucks) July 6, 2015
3) Just win (with style), baby
In recent years, observers of the US men's national team have spent many long hours agonizing over questions of national style and identity. Is there a specifically US way to play? Or is the very idea farcical in a country of this size and diversity?
We've seen hints of a distinctly American way in the USMNT's best moments under Jurgen Klinsmann. But every team that dons the Red, White and Blue might just want to take home a copy of Sunday's 90 minutes and study it – even if the Yanks in question were wearing white, black and lime green (for reasons that only Nike can explain).
Faced with a win-or-else tasking in Canada over the past month, Jill Ellis stuck to the script when the microphones were on, then retreated to the privacy of the training ground to do some alchemy.
El vicepresidente de EEUU Joe Biden en el campo de juego felicita a Jill Ellis. pic.twitter.com/G5KO3yszj0— ANDRES CANTOR (@AndresCantorGOL) July 6, 2015
Take the ruggedness and resilience of Abby Wambach's generation, add the dynamism of Lloyd and Rapinoe, sprinkle a liberal dose of the intellect of Brian and crucial center back Becky Sauerbrunn and voila: You've got a pretty compelling way to play.
This team proved they could create and score in myriad ways. They showed a level of defensive sophistication that even the snobbiest Serie A devotee could respect. And they found ways to control the tempo and tenor of play against a wide spectrum of opposition.
The men could learn a thing or two.