Since they like to joke it about themselves after every narrow escape, we don't have a problem saying it: this United States women's soccer team really does like winning with drama.
They like lapsing into brain-melting defensive errors from time-to-time, even against teams famous for punishing those errors who just-so-happened to have denied them the World Cup last year in exactly that same fashion. They like missing out on the final few scoring chances that would put the game out of reach and beyond doubt. They like putting key moments of the match in the hands of the referee and hoping the whistle goes their way.
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How much do they like these things? They did them even with a gold medal on the line, even when silver would have been a staggering disappointment and a boldfaced admission that their Asian rivals were now the world's preeminent women's soccer power, even when it would have let the World Cup revenge they so desperately craved slip away--probably forever.
But don't make the mistake of thinking liking those things also means that this team doesn't like winning. They do.
They adore it, in fact. They like winning so much they've won the gold medal at the last three Olympics. They like it so much that in the last 13 months alone, they've won when down a goal in the 122nd minute, won when down 2-0 within 20 minutes against an Olympic semifinalist, won in the 123rd minute after going behind by a goal three separate times against a team playing the game of its life. They have won many, many times -- as they did Thursday, with the stakes at their highest -- when their preference for drama means they're not playing their best.
As quality of performance goes, the 2-1 U.S. win over Japan was probably their third-best of the tournament, behind the brutally epic 4-3 win over Canada in the semifinal and the 4-2 opening-day win over France that sent them on their way. But it was a win all the same, because they like the winning part even more than the drama.
That showed in the performance of the remarkable Hope Solo, who pulled off two jaw-dropping saves (one in each half) that we have little doubt no other female goalkeeper in the world is capable of making. It showed in the U.S.'s fervent defensive effort (if not poise ... definitely not poise), one embodied by the critical late defensive header by none other than Abby Wambach, back to help defend a free kick. It showed in the intelligence and quality of the first American goal, where instead of blindly whacking at a low Tobin Heath cross into the box, Alex Morgan deftly controlled it, took it the byline, turned, and lofted a pinpoint cross to the back post. That cross so wrongfooted the Japanese defense that Carli Lloyd's biggest obstacle to putting it away was her own teammate, Wambach.
It showed, vividly, in the performance of Lloyd. The rugged New Jersey girl scored the extra-time game winner to defeat Brazil in the 2008 gold medal match, but still began this Olympic tournament firmly on the bench. That changed within half an hour of the first game, as Shannon Boxx suffered a hamstring injury and Lloyd came on to score a dazzling long-range goal that put France to bed. She never did come out of the starting lineup after that, and though Her tournament wasn't perfect -- she and central midfield teammates Lauren Cheney and Boxx never did have quite the impact in possession coach Pia Sundhage would have wanted -- no one will remember any of that. They'll remember Lloyd putting her head to the ball to put the U.S. up 1-0 on the Japanese, and they'll remember her rocket of a strike, the U.S.'s goal of the tournament, that would prove to be her second gold medal-winner in as many Olympics.
(What, ultimately, was the difference between the two teams? As expected, Japan didn't have the strikers to turn their incisive passing and midfield advantage into goals. The U.S. had Carli Lloyd. It was that simple, in some ways.)
But where it showed the most was on the scoreboard: U.S. 2, Japan 1. And on the field of the legendary Wembley Stadium, where in front of the largest crowd ever for a women's Olympic soccer match they paraded back and forth with American flags across their shoulders and joy on their faces. And on the podium, where the gold medals were hung around their necks--the third in the careers of Christie Rampone, Boxx, Heather O'Reilly (the deliverer of the cross that beat Canada) and Heather Mitts.
You simply don't win one gold medal, much less three, if you don't love winning them. As Americans, that's what we want most out of our Olympians, isn't it? Wambach and Morgan and Solo and Megan Rapinoe have become crossover stars in large part because they're tremendously engaging athletes, simultaneously approachable and larger-than-life. But all the charisma in the world wouldn't do a thing for them in the American sports consciousness if they didn't also despise losing, if they and their teammates weren't so willing to put everything they have on the field, if they didn't play with the desire we demand of all our sporting heroes.
They're not flawless. One look at Rampone's 83rd minute -- 83rd minute! -- howler of a giveaway 18 yards from her own goal is proof enough of that. (We're betting she's buying Solo's drinks for a while after her keeper saved her from becoming women's soccer's answer to Bill Buckner.) They have their weak points. They like their drama.
But none of that has stood in their way of becoming what they are today: the most recognizable, most successful, most beloved American women's soccer team since Brandi Chastain was pulling off her jersey at the Rose Bowl.
They love to win, they play to win, and they win. Everything else is forgiven, always.