KASHIMA, Japan — The U.S. women’s soccer team did not want to be here. Not again, three days after semifinal heartbreak, for an Olympic bronze medal match they’d all rather not be playing.
But here at the Ibaraki Kashima Stadium, they seemingly found something they’d been missing throughout this slog of a tournament. “I feel like we haven’t had our joy,” Megan Rapinoe said Monday. On Thursday, they found it.
Rapinoe in particular played with the freedom of a consolation game and the intensity of meaningful one — which is exactly what this was. She scored two audacious first-half goals, one directly from a corner, the other a volley picked straight out of the air. She spread her arms and beamed when the first nestled into the far side-netting.
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Carli Lloyd also scored twice to become the USWNT’s all-time leading Olympic goalscorer. And the U.S. topped Australia 4-3 to win bronze in what could be Lloyd’s final competitive international match.
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Three days earlier, they'd been gutted. They'd walked around this very same field in a daze. But as Rapinoe said that night, "not many people even freakin’ get to the Olympics, much less the medal round.”
They resolved to seize the opportunity. In the two-day interim, they held a full-team meeting, and then a players-only meeting. They vowed to treat Thursday like a gold medal match.
Lloyd told the group: "When you get third place at a World Cup, you get a little chintzy medal. This isn't chintzy. It's just a different color. Not everybody gets 'em. And it's truly special."
Then she flew around the field, as she always does. Crystal Dunn charged forward from left back to set up Christen Press for the shot that led to the eighth-minute corner, from which Rapinoe scored. Lindsey Horan bullied Australia’s Kyah Simon, won a challenge in midfield, and slid in Lloyd for the third.
"Lindsey was a beeaast," Rapinoe raved. "I don't know how Crystal's still running, she's not of this world."
There were still hints of the flaws that had foiled their gold medal chase. The poor spacing. The general slowness. The sloppy passes, one of which led to Australia’s 17th-minute equalizer. After the semifinal loss to Canada, players had searched for explanations and come up empty. “I don’t know,” Rapinoe, Lloyd and Alex Morgan, who left Thursday's game in stoppage time with an injury, had all said.
But they didn’t dwell on their staleness. They promised to come out Thursday with what Lloyd called "the U.S. mentality," and they did. Lloyd had shown them her version of it after this very field had cleared on Monday night. She ran sprints up and down it, alone, heartbroken but still determined. Why?
"So I was ready for this one," Lloyd said.
So that she didn't have to go home with a sour taste in her mouth.
So that she could clinch a win that, she said, "made the trip worth it."
At the final whistle, there were no hints that this was a consolation prize. Players let out a loud roar. They hugged and joked with one another and coaches during a post-match gathering on the field. Rapinoe later arrived at a post-match interview area kicking the air and yelling, "WOOO!"
"How was your day, Megan?" a reporter asked.
"F–––ing great," she said with a smile.
She'd felt this joy on the field as well. "Oh my gosh, I mean, so much more" than Monday, she said. "I felt like we just had a good vibe going into the game. We've done, as you can imagine, lots of talking in meetings, and hashing it all out, and doing the autopsy. But I felt like we just got to a good place, [where] we'll just be a little bit more free, trust in ourselves, trust in each other."
They’ll leave Japan with a bronze medal. And if Thursday was in fact Lloyd’s last dance, and perhaps even Rapinoe’s, they’ll have sent two legends out in style.
Or, rather, those legends will have gone out in style. Lloyd was her typical raging-bull self, and finished her two chances expertly. (She also selfishly went for a hat-trick, as all great strikers would, instead of squaring to Tobin Heath for a tap-in in the second half.)
Rapinoe reminded all of us that, when on top of her game, her combination of confidence, technical ability and smarts is unmatched.
Neither will go out as they’d surely imagined, in a rocking stadium, with gold medals around their necks.
Both, nonetheless, will go out in a fashion befitting two of the greatest players to ever wear a USWNT jersey.
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