Destiny became USA's unstoppable force

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

BEIJING – With just seconds of extra time remaining in the Olympic women's soccer final, Brazil goalkeeper Barbara sunk to her knees and pleaded to the heavens as her teammates sought a final chance to equalize from a corner kick.

She needn't have bothered. The Brazilians were up against the team of destiny, and nothing could save them.

Sure enough, seconds later, after the United States survived its latest and last onslaught, the final whistle blew to seal the Americans' 1-0 win Thursday night and an improbable tale for a group of players who blocked their ears to all the doubting voices.

Coach Pia Sundhage's side won gold because it never stopped believing it could, even when everyone else, this writer included, thought it could not.

The Beijing version of the U.S. side was supposed to be a program on the wane. It started horribly with a 2-0 opening loss to Norway and was slow to get better, only narrowly scraping through to the final even after being handed the choice half of the draw.

It didn't even play the best soccer in the gold-medal game, let alone in the tournament.

But this is now a U.S. squad of players immune to criticism. It is not as glamorous or exciting or star-studded as its predecessor, yet it is now protected by a golden shield that cannot be penetrated by prophets of doom.

Sundhage will never be a dynamic tactical genius. What she did prove is that she is a true leader of women. Part psychologist, part mother and part friend, she succeeded in unifying a fractured group left behind by former coach Greg Ryan.

She and her players got it done when there were no more second chances, when failure loomed as a seemingly irrepressible threat.

"We would tell each other all the time that 'You gotta believe,' " substitute Natasha Kai said. "We would say it in the huddle, in the hotel, whenever."

Sundhage has only been on the job since November, but she has proved herself to be an astute reader of personalities. She suspected what others could not or would not see, that the bravery and spirit of her group would be strong enough to conquer both its own demons and best of the women's soccer world.

The manner of victory could not have been sweeter for this impressive collection of women, who rid their minds of the ghosts of the 2007 Women's World Cup.

Carli Lloyd's strike from the edge of the penalty area in extra time was the difference against a Brazil team that was stronger and more powerful than the one that beat the U.S. 4-0 in the World Cup semifinal.

It had been a long and difficult road that was survived, not conquered, but the end result is just the same.

The steps on to the podium at Beijing Workers’ Stadium came at 10 minutes past midnight local time and signaled the end of a journey around China and through difficult times. When the moment of victory came, Kai ripped off her shirt a la Brandi Chastain, Hope Solo sported a homemade giant gold medal, and various players held aloft the children of Kate Markgraf and Christie Rampone.

For Solo, it was a form of closure on a tortured 12 months following her outburst at the World Cup, when she lambasted Ryan's decision to drop her for the semifinal. Her reaction save against Brazil superstar Marta in the 72nd minute was vital, as a goal for the South Americans at that stage could have iced the contest.

No longer is Solo a pariah on this team, which has shed some experience and quality but retained its character.

"I can look into the eyes of my teammates and know they have my back," captain Rampone said. "I can't begin to tell you how important that is for us."

Once star forward Abby Wambach was ruled out through injury two weeks before the Olympic tournament, the U.S. was always going to have to find a different way to win, one that didn't rely on a big-target striker. Even Sundhage, who is a compulsive optimist, could not put a positive spin on that one.

In the end, though, she and her players found a way. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't always entertaining.

And it doesn't matter.

"When Pia came in as coach, this gold medal was the goal," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "Mission accomplished."