VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The wait is over for the United States.
The reign is over for Japan.
On the strength of Carli Lloyd's first-half hat trick and goals from Lauren Holiday and Tobin Heath, the United States beat Japan 5-2 in Sunday's World Cup final. As a result, for the first time since 1999, the United States holds the sport's most important trophy.
It was the second consecutive win for the United States against Japan in the final of a major tournament, following a win in the gold medal match of the 2012 Olympics, and it leaves the Americans in possession of both of the major titles in women's soccer for the first time since 1999, a year that now shares status as the American high-water mark.
The United States becomes the first women's team to win the World Cup for a third time.
There will be more to come from Vancouver as players and coaches speak to the media, but here are three initial observations from a win that was worth a 16-year wait.
1. United States strikes early at long last
No kidding, right? The United States turned a game that is supposed to be a cauldron of tension into a bubble bath for itself and its fans by scoring four goals in the opening 16 minutes, capped by an audacious and unprecedented World Cup final hat trick when Lloyd beat stumbling Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori from just inside midfield for her third goal. But this had been building. All right, not this exact scenario against a classy team that might lose but almost never embarrasses itself in defeat, but something like this had been almost within American reach. And it came to fruition at the absolute perfect moment.
So many times this tournament the United States came within a hair's breadth of scoring in the opening minutes and changing the tenor of games. It never did. There was Julie Johnston's early header against Nigeria that was ruled offside by inches. Then there was Tobin Heath's near-miss and Abby Wambach's offside header in the first five minutes against Colombia. Or it was Amy Rodriguez pulling an open look off the fairway in the second minute against China. Johnston was at it again in the semifinal, coming off a crafty Heath screen on a corner kick in the seventh minute to head a ball that forced a brilliant reaction save from German keeper Nadine Angerer.
But there was no near-miss this time, only Lloyd sprinting through the box and cleanly beating Japanese defender Azusa Iwashimizu to Megan Rapinoe's low screamer of a corner kick in the third minute. It was a play executed to perfection and it unleashed the barrage that followed and put Japan on the canvas for good.
Maybe those near-goals in earlier games wouldn't have led to anything like what we saw Sunday. Maybe the Americans still would have had to work the full 90 minutes for the win. And maybe given the lineup and formation changes that Jill Ellis made as she continued to tinker with her attack, it's a good thing they did. But an early goal from a team that looked remarkably relaxed before this game unleashed the kind of run we have been waiting all tournament -- waiting 16 years, in fact -- to see on this stage.
2. This will go down as Carli Lloyd's tournament
Lloyd didn't win the Golden Boot as the tournament's top scorer on a tiebreaker. One imagines she can make do with winning everything else.
Lloyd was named the Golden Ball winner as the tournament's best player. Already the first player to score the gold-medal-winning goal in back-to-back Olympics, her effort Sunday made her the second player to score in two World Cup finals, ironically joining Michelle Akers, an at-times outspoken critic of the current team during this tournament.
All six of Lloyd's goals in the tournament came in the knockout phase.
There was a lot more to the American improvement in the knockout phase than simply giving Lloyd a few more yards to roam in the attacking half -- and even on that count, a great debt of gratitude is owed Morgan Brian for the job she did with a starting spot she isn't likely to lose until the vicinity of 2030. The United States got better as Alex Morgan grew into the tournament after a long injury layoff. It was always better with Rapinoe on the left and creating as only she can. All of those things were in play Sunday, too (let's not forget the corner kick Rapinoe played to Lloyd on the first goal). So, too was the general productivity of the U.S. midfield, which produced all give goals in the final and 12 of 14 goals (counting Christen Press as a wide midfielder in the opener) in Canada.
But it was Lloyd when it mattered.
A lot of her goals were essentially one-off plays -- penalty kicks in earlier games, a good bounce off a deflected Julie Johnston back heel for her second goal Sunday or the long-range effort that followed. But her presence pushing forward in the final four games, driving at defenses and pulling them out of shape made the chances. Of course the goals, Sunday's haul included, mattered, but she was so much more than just the goals.
Greeted with a huge ovation when she came on late in the game, Wambach got the World Cup title she so craved in her final appearance in the tournament. But at 33 years old, just two years younger than Wambach but showing no signs of slowing down, Lloyd got the title that will define her career. And a title she defined for the United States.
3. This was part sports and part spectacle
A small souvenir stand on the concourse outside BC Place had already drawn a crowd three lanes wide and several dozens of people deep by late morning in Vancouver -- late morning on Saturday, that is, a day before the game between the United States and Japan. By Sunday morning, even then still hours before the doors to the stadium opened, the wait at the same stand was an hour and a half to fork over Canadian dollars for assorted trinkets and clothing. People wanted proof they were present for something special.
As much as what happened on the field Sunday is the main story, it is hardly less a story how many people cared about the games, particularly as it applies in this context to the United States and the crowds it drew in person and on television.
From the first game and the first flood of fans across the border in Winnipeg to a full house in Ottawa to the cacophony in a Montreal stadium otherwise home to echoes to the roar that greeted each goal Sunday, these were World Cup atmospheres. The last time a major tournament, be it World Cup or Olympics, was this accessible for Americans was 2003. With the next two Olympics set for Brazil and Japan, respectively, and the next World Cup awarded to France, it will be at least eight years, and probably longer than that, until such large numbers of fans have an opportunity to make a trip with such relatively reasonable transportation and financial logistics.
The challenge for the national team was never just to duplicate what the 1999 team did on the field but to recapture what it created in the stands and in homes across the country. Beginning in 2011, building through 2012 and concluding with the scene inside -- and outside -- BC Place Sunday, that job is done.