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American spirit on display in women’s soccer victory

LONDON — Someone got the T-shirt slogan wrong.

Greatness never has been an issue with women’s soccer in the United States, a side that most of the world has chased for 20 years now. Greatness wasn’t found in iconic Wembley Stadium on Thursday night. Resiliency was.

No sport reflects a nation’s personality more than soccer, a country’s culture, its identity, its passion, its ebb, its flow.

It’s the reason the U.S. won gold for a third straight time before an Olympic record gathering and the largest to ever witness a women’s match in Great Britain.

Those in blue played like Americans.

They beat Japan 2-1 before 80,203, executing in a way they neither desired nor are particularly good at, grinding away for most of 90-plus minutes and refusing to be denied a victory they waited a year to get.

It won’t completely remove the sting of a World Cup finals loss to the Japanese in 2011, but how the Americans managed to win was as satisfying as the atmosphere was scintillating.

You can’t overstate the level of patriotism that resonated from both countries throughout one of the most storied stadiums in the world, nor could you be more impressed with the tenacity and grit of U.S. players three nights after playing 120-plus minutes against Canada in the semifinals.

Japan plays beautiful, rhythmic, sophisticated soccer. It possesses the ball, is tactically brilliant and, much like its homeland, conservative in its approach.

It also wouldn’t allow the U.S. to attack in its usual aggressive manner, forcing the Americans to defend for much of the game and win by denying chances more than creating them.

"Phenomenal," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "Japan made us change our game plan in a way that was unique for us. And yet we still found a way to win. That’s not easy. Just wonderful."

Americans work hard to overcome adversity and prove others – sometimes coaches – wrong. Carli Lloyd is the poster girl for that today, having scored both goals for the U.S. (in the eighth and 54th minutes) after losing her starting spot before the games began.

"I am glad," Sundhage said, "she proved to be more clever than me."

Americans have egos and are a determined lot. Hope Solo is the world’s best goalkeeper because of those two traits, and her two terrific saves of close-in shots proved a huge difference.

Americans rise to the occasion, and after making foolish news early in the tournament with controversial tweets toward members of the 1999 World Cup champion team from the U.S., Solo’s play spoke loudest.

Then, in typical Solo fashion, she did afterward.

"I don’t care how I am perceived," she said. "I am who I am. I was here to win the tournament."

Americans are tough. Shannon Boxx injured a hamstring in the tournament’s first game and had played just 17 minutes before Thursday, but coaches took a huge risk and started her at defensive midfield.

She stood in front of the back line and stuffed Japan time and again, allowing Lloyd to attack when presented an opportunity.

Twice, she converted with scores.

Americans have good fortune. Instead of a 1-0 advantage held by the U.S., a fair halftime score would have been 2-1 for Japan, which was the better side for at least 30 of the opening 45 minutes.

The U.S. also had an obvious handball by Tobin Heath in the box that wasn’t called, cleared two balls off the line and held its collective breath as two Japanese shots hit the crossbar.

"They had a lot of chances during the game, and we got lucky some," U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. "But this was our day. This is what the Olympics are all about – two great teams that have a mutual love and respect for each other. We knew it would be tough. But I knew if we believed in each other, we could do something very special here."

Americans can celebrate with the best of them.

The final whistle blew, and the party began, and red, white and blue flags were waved throughout this historic site while little girls with their faces painted squealed for their newfound heroes.

Gold medals were placed around necks, and pictures were taken, and "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen blared over loudspeakers, and the 52-year-old Sundhage performed an impromptu air guitar routine best saved for outside public view.

The T-shirts read: "Greatness Has Been Found."

Not really. The great part has been there for decades.

America, in the sport of women’s soccer, defines it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on "Gridlock," ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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