STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The United States women's soccer team now has its third consecutive Olympic gold medal. The U.S. played Japan yesterday in London. When those teams met last year in the World Cup, the Japanese won a tie-breaking shootout. This time, the U.S. scored early and held on, 2-1. NPR's Howard Berkes was there.
HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: At the moment of victory...
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING CROWD)
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: The USA, 2; Japan, 1. USA are the Olympic champions.
BERKES: American superstar Abby Wambach walked over to midfielder Homare Sawa, embraced her, and leaned in to say something over the roar of the crowd of 80,000.
ABBY WAMBACH: I told Sawa, thank you for letting us have this one. I couldn't have been more proud to play against Japan because in our opinion, they're the other best team in the world.
BERKES: Wambach spoke with an Olympic gold medal, and American flag, draped around her neck. Some of the American players wore T-shirts with the phrase "Greatness Has Been Found." That was after the game but early on in it, in the eighth minute of play, an unexpected greatness began.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD)
BERKES: American forward Alex Morgan dribbled the ball just inbounds near the Japanese goal, then shot the ball across her body and toward the front of the goal. Abby Wambach was there and raised a foot to kick it, but Carli Lloyd flew past, butting it in with her head.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING CROWD)
CARLI LLOYD: I saw that one coming and, you know, I was hovering around the box. And I just took off on a sprint and sprinted past Abby, and just made sure it went in. And it was a great feeling.
BERKES: Now, here's the thing about Carli Lloyd - she was a benchwarmer before the Olympics; not quite ready for prime time. Another player was injured, and she was called up. And to underscore the wisdom of that, in the 54th minute, Lloyd did it again; firing a shot from just outside the penalty box, and beyond the outstretched body of Japanese keeper Miho Fukumoto. American coach Pia Sundhage.
PIA SUNDHAGE: Carli Lloyd, from being out of the team, sitting on the bench; coming in - and made the difference. And she went all the way to be a little bit more attacking, and scored two goals. She has proven that I was wrong before the Olympics. And I'm really happy that she is more clever than I am.
BERKES: But there was much more to the game than this. Japan dominated possession - controlling the ball close to 60 percent of the time, launching attack after attack, and scoring in the 63rd minute. American goalie Hope Solo had a very busy night blocking shots, and saved the game for her team with nine minutes to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF ROARING CROWD)
BERKES: Japanese forward Mana Iwabuchi had stolen the ball, and fired it toward the American goal. Solo stretched out and dove across the box, knocking the ball away. She was matter-of-fact about it later.
HOPE SOLO: At the time, it wasn't my best save. But I guess when you look at it as the final against Japan, in the final minutes, I guess it is a big save. But at the time, it was - you know, what I trained for; a little bit routine. It's a bigger deal now. Let's put it that way.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Ladies and gentlemen. Gold medalists and Olympic champions, representing the United States of America.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS)
BERKES: With thousands of cameras flashing, the women of USA soccer leaned down one by one, as gold medals were draped around their necks. They've medaled in all five Olympics featuring their sport. But the Japanese are still the World Cup champions, and as playmaker Alex Morgan said after the game, the Americans are excited to play them again.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.