The perfectly unpredictable ending to the U.S.'s confounding World Cup win

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Even the Americans themselves couldn't quite believe what was happening. Mouths were agape and eyes grew big. Even to them, what they had just done was dumbfounding, stupefying and astounding. But given the utterly confounding Women's World Cup they had just played, it was probably a fittingly unpredictable climax.

After the disconcertingly difficult year they had had, it of course took them just 16 minutes to score twice as many goals as anybody ever had in a Women's World Cup final.

[Eric Adelson: Carli Lloyd leads U.S. to first World Cup title in 16 years]

Given their struggles early on in this tournament, it was natural that 12 minutes was all they would need to get the three goals they wound up requiring to defeat Japan 5-2 – avenging their penalty shootout loss to the Japanese in the final four years ago and snapping a 16-year drought to win a record third World Cup.

And sure, it had to be Carli Lloyd, who had fallen so far below her usually lofty levels in the group stage but took just over a quarter of an hour to become the first man or woman to score a hat trick within the 90 minutes of regulation time in a World Cup final.

[FC Yahoo: Women's World Cup's winners and losers]

Recall, after all, how meek the Americans had seemed early on in this World Cup. How flattered their 3-1 victory over Australia in the opener had looked – when a less-than-towering performance from Hope Solo might have doomed them to an early 2-0 deficit. How flat they were in their 0-0 draw with Sweden. How it had taken a clutch score from the old war horse Abby Wambach to vanquish Nigeria 1-0.

Remember how much trouble they had with Colombia in the round of 16 before coming out on top 2-0. And how a single goal had set them apart from China in the quarterfinals.

[FC Yahoo: USA vs. Japan – Look back on the action as it happened]

But then keep in mind, too, how things had suddenly and inexplicably gotten easier in the semifinal with their strongest foe of all – Germany – yielding a deserved 2-0 win. And, how, finally, they steamrolled the defending world champion Japanese, who had dazzled in Canada with their technical possession-based soccer at times.

The U.S. plodded and labored through the easy bit, then cruised through the hard part.

But then this third World Cup title came on the back of a strange and confusing year. After a worst-ever seventh-place performance at the 2014 Algarve Cup, head coach Tom Sermanni had been fired without warning. Jill Ellis was installed, but things hardly got better. The USA was humbled at a tournament in Brazil in December. And France and England simply looked better during friendlies in February. Ellis's promised tactical revolution, meanwhile, never quite came off.

U.S. head coach Jill Ellis ended up silencing her critics. (Getty Images)
U.S. head coach Jill Ellis ended up silencing her critics. (Getty Images)

Difficult questions were justifiably asked about whether this team was really as good as it was supposed to be. Whether the Americans' status as tournament favorites was justified. Whether this would all just end in disappointment, as it had at the last three World Cups.

But they had strikers. They were supposed to bail them out in Canada. In Wambach, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Christen Press and Amy Rodriguez, the U.S. had the deepest corps of forwards in the world – perhaps ever. But that fivesome would score just three of the 14 goals the USA would produce in seven games.

Instead, the defense would prove to be the Americans' biggest asset, even though it looked a tad iffy when they traveled north. It was unclear who would line up beside Becky Sauerbrunn in central defense, the 40-year-old and hobbling Christie Rampone – the last holdover of the 1999 championship-winning team – or the inexperienced Johnston. Left back Meghan Klingenberg was untested. Right back Ali Krieger was injury prone. Yet the back line strung together five straight shutouts.

Tactically, the team looked stale when the stakes were at their lowest, trudging through games in an outdated 4-4-2 formation, which didn't really seem to suit any of the midfielders and few of the strikers. But when the games grew complicated against savvy opponents who could pass them into submission, namely Germany and Japan, the Americans suddenly proved masterful strategists in their 4-5-1 setup, leveraging their physicality and cunning into the results they needed.

And then there was Lloyd, who had consistently been the team's best player for the last year or two but was suddenly badly out of sorts. Ahead of the Sweden game, Pia Sundhage, the former USA coach now in charge of the Swedes, claimed that the midfield metronome withered when she didn't feel important and trusted by the team. It seemed to have gotten into the head of Lloyd, who was uncharacteristically ineffectual in the first three games.

But then, to Lloyd's relief, she scored on a penalty against Colombia before reeling off game-winners in the quarterfinals and semifinals and delivering said hat trick in the final. Lloyd was awarded the Golden Ball after the final as the tournament's best player. And rightly so.

All of it was startling. All of it was unexpected.

When the Americans won their third Women's World Cup, it was paradoxical and, in the end, a tad absurd. Throughout the tournament, the track-suited Ellis had mostly sat on her bench, looking stoic.

On Sunday, with the clock ticking down to bedlam, Ellis smirked. A surprising culmination to a carnival of the unforeseen.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.