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Lloyd leads U.S. women to World Cup title

Kevin Baxter Los Angeles Times

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – For a time when she was younger, Carli Lloyd wasn’t sure she belonged on the U.S. national team.

And just two weeks ago she wasn’t sure where she fit into the U.S. attack in this Women’s World Cup.

But on Sunday she finally found her place – in the record books – after scoring three goals in the first 16 minutes of the championship game, leading the U.S. to a convincing 5-2 win over Japan before an overwhemingly pro-American crowd of 53,341 at BC Place.

The five goals are the most scored by one team in a Women’s World Cup final while for Lloyd the hat trick, the quickest ever by an American in a World Cup, gave her a tournament-best six goals – including game-winners in the last three games.

Almost as important, the performance chased away the stubborn ghosts of 1999, which have haunted the U.S. women since they last won a World Cup.

“It’s been a lot of years in between ’99 and now. And I think it’s time,” said defender Christie Rampone, the only woman to play for both teams.

“I hope it’s not compared to ’99 anymore. I hope it’s leading on to the next team that wins the World Cup,” said Rampone, who made her 19th World Cup appearance in the closing minutes.

“That’s the standard.”

Lloyd might have set a new standard Sunday. Her first two goals came on similar set pieces – the first on a corner kick by Megan Rapinoe and the second on a free kick by Lauren Holiday. On both plays Lloyd started at the edge of the penalty area then charged into the box unmarked to recover loose balls on the edge of the goal, redirecting them into the net.

But her third goal was clearly the best of the tournament. As she dribbled toward midfield, Lloyd looked up to see Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori had strayed dangerously far from the goal line. So Lloyd fired a right-footed shot from 50 yards out.

Kaihori, backpedaling furiously, got the fingers of her right hand on the ball but that wasn’t enough to stop it, with the ball hitting the turf, then kissing the left post before going in to give the U.S. a 4-0 lead.

Japan offered a murmur of protest in the 27th minute when Yuki Ogimi scored after defender Julie Johnston tumbled to the turf as they battled for possession of the ball. But even that was newsworthy since it was just the second goal the U.S. had given up in this World Cup.

Japan’s second score, in the opening minutes of the second half, again came courtesy of Johnston, who headed the ball into her own goal. But midfielder Tobin Heath quickly got that back in the 54th minute.

That goal also brought an early end to the largest and longest Women’s World Cup ever, one that saw 24 teams play 52 matches across a continent-sized country in the course of a month.

It was a tournament that brought Abby Wambach her elusive World Cup title, the only thing that was missing from a resume that includes two Olympic crowns, a world player of the year award and the most international goals – 183 – in history.

In this World Cup, the 35-year-old Wambach has been a part-time player, starting just three of the seven U.S. games while Lloyd has assumed the mantle of team leader and star.

Lloyd now wears the captain’s armband as well. And to complete the changing of the guard, Wambach entered the field first for warmups on Sunday – with Lloyd following a few yards behind. Much of the rest of the team waited in the tunnel.

When Wambach finally entered the game in the 79th minute, one of the first players to greet her was Homare Sawa, Japan’s all-time leader in games and goals who, at 36, has also been a bench player in her final World Cup.

Sunday’s victory also provided a measure of redemption for troubled goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was suspended from the team last winter and this month faces an appeal of a judge’s decision to dismiss two domestic assault charges against her.

In between she had a brilliant World Cup, posting five shutouts and 540 consecutive scoreless minutes. And she was at her best Sunday, making five saves, some of them acrobatic stops. She earned her second Golden Glove award as the outstanding goalkeeper of the World Cup.

Still, the victory might have been most satisfying for coach Jill Ellis, who believed in her game plan even as the U.S. stumbled through group play. It’s a confidence she learned from her father, John, a former national team coach who sent her daughter the same text message every day during this tournament.

“It says: ‘Three deep breaths and keep going,’ ” Jill Ellis said. “I know he’s there with me in spirit.”

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