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august 09, 2012 • 08:41 PM

American love affair with soccer darlings grows

The U.S. team pose with their gold medals after winning their women's soccer final against Japan during the victory ceremony at Wembley Stadium during the London 2012 Olympic Games August 9, 2012.
Foto: Mike Blake / Reuters
 

The United States women's basketball team has the records, the Dream Team has the fame but it is the women's soccer team that has the hearts of American sports fans and an another Olympic gold medal.

There is little warm and fuzzy about the Americans, who play the beautiful game with more beastly aggression than flair but there is no denying their appeal at home and abroad as a Games record crowd for a women's soccer game of over 80,000 streamed into Wembley Stadium on Thursday to watch the U.S. cap a perfect Olympic run with a 2-1 win over Japan.

American women basketballers, unbeaten in Olympic play since 1992, will go for a fifth straight gold medal on Saturday while the U.S. men and their all-star NBA lineup are widely expected to bring down the curtain on the London Games with a successful defense of their title on Sunday.

But it is only the scrappy soccer team that will return home to a hero's welcome with a victory tour of matches across the United States.

"We don't realize now but I feel like we're writing history," said U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd, who had both American goals. "The 1999 team did a phenomenal job kind of turning the game around and I think now we're doing that.

The U.S. were both hosts and winners of the women's World Cup in 1999 and the team's success drew huge crowds to the games including more than 90,000 for the final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.

"It's a different game now. There are so many good teams; the style of play is different," Lloyd said.

The U.S. have claimed four-of-five gold medals since women's soccer joined the Olympic program in 1996 but have hardly had it their own way on an increasingly competitive international stage.

A year ago at the World Cup final in Germany, it was Japan leaving with the trophy beating the U.S. on penalties, setting up Thursday's classic rematch between reigning world and Olympic champions.

Success did not come easily in London, the Americans reaching the final with a rough-and-tumble extra-time win over Canada.

GRITTY EFFORT

It is that type of gritty effort and never-say-die spirit that had increasingly endeared the women's soccer team to the American public.

"You cannot win at everything you attempt at in life," said U.S. striker Abby Wambach. "You have to be willing to fail and fall flat on your face in order to get gold.

"We did that last year in our opinion. We have to give Japan credit but anything less than winning for us is a failure. We worked tirelessly to prove we are still champions."

Professional women's soccer leagues have come-and-gone but when the national team takes to the pitch their popularity rivals any team the men can field.

Keeper Hope Solo is arguably the United States best-known soccer player appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated and naked inside ESPN's body issue while Wambach, second on the all-time scoring list with 143 goals in 188 international matches, is one of women soccer's greats.

Christie Rampone is a mother of two while two players have fathers who are cardiac surgeons and another Lauren Cheney, had open-heart surgery.

Shannon Boxx won a gold medal in softball at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and now has one from soccer as well.

But it is Solo, a big personality capable of producing the big save, who attracts the spotlight on and off the pitch.

When not sneaking celebrities into Olympic athletes villages as she did in Beijing for a bit of Games partying or performing on Dancing with the Stars, Solo has shown, as she did against Japan, that her best moves are made on the field.

"Hope saved the day five times," gushed Wambach. "Sometimes in these final games your goalkeeper can make that difference and she proved that tonight.

"She's the best goalkeeper in the world because she makes those big time saves when we needed her to."

(Editing by Nigel Hunt; For all the latest Olympics news go to http://www.reuters.com/london-olympics-2012)

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