LONDON — Before the largest crowd to ever watch a women's Olympic soccer match, in a stadium synonymous with what Europeans call football, the U.S. won gold and with it, another chance for the sport to become less of a quadrennial attraction back home.
"Eighty thousand for a women's final?" said Carli Lloyd, who scored both goals for the U.S. in a 2-1 victory over Japan Thursday at Wembley Stadium. "That says a lot about women's soccer, and women's sports."
The match nearly filled the storied stadium, home to the English national team. The announced crowd of 80,203 was loud and proud, with multiple Japanese and American flags hanging from balconies and draped on shoulders, engaged in the game from start to finish.
"It's a dream come true," Lauren Becker, 29, of Atlanta said with a sigh about seeing the U.S. play in the heart of soccer. "I feel like I won gold just being here."
Becker, a nurse at a children's hospital, started playing soccer as a 5-year-old. She was wearing a 10-year-old shirt from when she was No. 12 for the Roswell Soccer Club. While she regrets giving up a chance to play the sport for a women's college, getting front row seats for Thursday night's game was special.
"I couldn't be prouder to be an American," she said.
This was the U.S. women's third consecutive Olympic gold, and entire generations of girls have grown up playing the game and knowing the names of the stars over the years, from Mia Hamm to Brandi Chastain to Hope Solo.
"Abby Wambach," said Kayleigh Rosen, 14, who plays soccer in a rec league in the Boca Raton area of Florida. "She's from Florida, so I've watched her play."
But she'd never seen a game in so huge a stadium. "It's big," she declared, wearing a T-shirt she had tie-dyed and painted to declare her support for Team USA in the gold-medal match.
Back home, women's soccer has struggled to maintain a professional league, something that baffled at least one European reporter, who asked a few of his American colleagues why seven of the 11 starters were listed "no club affiliation." The Japanese players, by contrast were all affiliated with teams such as the Okayama Yumogo Belles or the Vegalta Sendai Ladies.
Player Megan Rapinoe, for one, would like this game to have a "hopefully huge" part in helping women's soccer remain in the spotlight in between Olympic and World Cup years.
"It was just electric," Rapinoe said of the enthusiastic Wembley crowd. "Playing in the UK, which is notorious for not supporting its women's football and having the fans that we have at every single venue has been unbelievable. It's been truly special."
The game was a rematch of last year's World Cup final, which Japan won on a penalty kick. Coming after the tragic earthquake and tsunami, the win was balm to the physically and emotionally battered country. This year, even though the U.S. team was determined to reclaim the top spot, players spoke warmly and respectfully of their Japanese counterparts.
"Thank you for letting us have this one," U.S. start player Abby Wambach said she told one of the players after the match. "We have so much respect for them.
"I couldn't have been more proud to play against Japan. In our opinion, they're the other best team in the world."
Players said they felt they heard equal levels of cheering for each team.
"I love that it was mixed," said goalie Hope Solo, who preserved the U.S. win with a diving stop on Japan's Mana Iwabuchi late in the game. "I don't block out the crowd. I like to feel it. I like to get into the emotion, the atmosphere the game."
If controversy draws crowds, Solo is a one-woman barker for her sport. She started a Twitter war, however one-sided, with NBC analyst and former U.S. star Chastain, whom Solo felt had unfairly criticized a teammate. She raised more than a few eyebrows with her racy quotes in a recent ESPN story about sex in the athletes village.
But none of that proved to be a distraction.
"We all reserve the right to have opinions," Wambach said. "At the end of the day, we wanted to make sure people were talking about us for what we were doing on the field."
To the crowd, the play was the thing as well.
Three American expats waited outside Wembley a couple hours before the game, hoping to wave their flags as the team bus pulled in. They got their tickets about a month ago — before, of course, anyone knew who would be playing for the gold.
"We had faith the women would be here," said Alberto Maldonado, 34, who is originally from Texas, and became a soccer fan in 1994 when the U.S. hosted the World Cup.
Maldonado was here with his co-workers for the U.S. Air Force — they'll only say they do "desk work" — Lauren Regensberg, 23, of Colorado, and Jared Bennett, 23, of Nebraska.
His co-workers, Regensberg and Bennett, also trekked to Manchester, to another famous stadium, Old Trafford, on Monday to see what turned out to be a thriller that ended with Alex Morgan's header giving the U.S. a 4-3 victory.
"I about had a heart attack," said Bennett, who played soccer from childhood to college. "It was an awesome experience to see Americans play at Old Trafford."
Regensberg said she hopes the game will helps women's soccer become more of an every-year presence.
"There's not that many local teams," she said of the U.S. compared to other parts of the world. "I would not know who to follow."
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