VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- For almost the entirety of this Women's World Cup, U.S. national team midfielder Carli Lloyd insisted she and her teammates would get better, that they would peak at the right time. Never mind the subpar outings in the group stage. Ignore the seemingly defense-first approach. The U.S. would get it done, she insisted.
Lloyd proved to be as clairvoyant as she was devastating, as her hat trick powered the U.S. to a 5-2 hammering of Japan, giving the Americans their third Women's World Cup triumph and first in 16 years. It also provided a full helping of revenge for the 2011 final when Japan defeated the U.S. on penalties.
It was a match that was expected to be as tense as the two previous major finals contested by these two teams. But this game was completely devoid of drama thanks to the Americans' power and precision on set pieces. With the game not three minutes old, some clever runs opened up a chasm for Lloyd to run into, allowing her to hammer home Megan Rapinoe's low, driven corner. Lloyd was at it again just two minutes later. Lauren Holiday's free kick appeared to be nudged onward by Julie Johnston allowing Lloyd to side-foot home from close range.
The Nadeshiko were reeling and, to the Americans' credit, they went for the kill. A cross from Tobin Heath was headed straight in the air by a Japanese defender. It didn't seem to be a dangerous situation, but Holiday was first to react, volleying past Ayumi Kaihori to make it 3-0.
If the U.S. was in dreamland, it went into rapture just two minutes later. Lloyd collected the ball in her own half, saw Kaihori off her line and proceeded to have a crack at goal from the halfway line. Kaihori could only deflect the ball off the post and in, making the goal arguably the most spectacular in Women's World Cup history.
It was the earliest hat trick ever in a Women's World Cup match of any kind, never mind a final. And Lloyd could have added to her tally but failed to convert on a couple of headers.
The rout seemed so complete for a time that it brought back memories of Germany's 7-1 obliteration of Brazil in the men's World Cup last summer, except Japan showed more resolve than Brazil did that day. Yuki Ogimi latched onto a cross from Nahomi Kawasumi, turned Julie Johnston, and fired past Hope Solo to make the score 4-1 in the 38th minute. The goal ended the U.S. defense's shutout streak at 539 minutes, a minute short of the Women's World Cup record held by Germany. A bit of tension then crept into the match when Johnston's glancing header from a Japan free kick ended up in the back of the net in the 51st minute, making the score 4-2.
It took only two minutes for order to be restored, however. Rapinoe's corner kick was punched only as far as Morgan Brian, whose sharp pass picked out Heath to fire home from 7 yards.
Yet, without question, this game will be remembered as the Carli Lloyd show, and the U.S. needed her goals as well, not only in the final but also throughout the knockout stage. Her six tallies tied for tops in the tournament. The Americans vaunted corps of forwards scored just two goals combined. Put in the context of the U.S. winning the Women's World Cup, such a number would have been unthinkable heading into the tournament.
The sight of Lloyd stepping up is nothing new, of course. She scored game-winners in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic finals, and one is left to wonder what former U.S. manager Pia Sundhage thinks about her former player now. Prior to the tournament, Sundhage told the New York Times that "When [Lloyd] felt that we had faith in her, she could be one of the best players. But if she began to question that faith, she could be one of the worst."
Lloyd certainly had her struggles early on, but she stayed the course and benefited immensely from a tactical switch by U.S. manager Jill Ellis that saw her pushed closer to goal.
Lloyd has prided herself on her fitness in recent years, and insisted she would get stronger while her opponents got weaker. Once again she proved true to her word, and on the biggest stage imaginable.
Now she and the rest of her U.S. teammates are Women's World Cup champions.
Player ratings: (0-10)
G Hope Solo, 6: Could do little about Japan's goals, and otherwise made the plays she needed to make, including a pair of punches from set pieces.
D Meghan Klingenberg, 7: Couldn't quite cut out the service that led to Ogimi's goal, but was otherwise solid. She was a threat going forward and connected her passes.
D Becky Sauerbrunn, 6.5: Wasn't quite to the same level as in previous matches, but still pretty solid. She had one sliding tackle in the second half to snuff out a dangerous attack, but did lose substitute Yuika Sugasawa for a dangerous header.
D Julie Johnston, 4: Kept the play alive on Lloyd's second, but was turned too easily on Ogimi's goal. Her own goal briefly added some tension to the match. She did recover to make a few desperation tackles.
D Ali Krieger, 7: Precise with her distribution, and timed her runs forward well.
M Morgan Brian, 8: Had some difficulty finding the range on her passes early on, but soon settled in nicely, and stifled plenty of attacks. Her sharp pass to Heath resulted in the Americans' fifth goal.
M Lauren Holiday, 8: Took her goal with aplomb, and connected her passes with precision and consistency.
M Megan Rapinoe, 6.5: The birthday girl's smart delivery on Lloyd's first goal opened the floodgates. She showed plenty of grit defensively as well.
M Carli Lloyd, 10: "Big Game Carli" lived up to her name with a performance for the ages. Her goal from the halfway line will be shown on highlight reels for years to come.
M Tobin Heath, 8: On the free kick that led to Lloyd's second goal, and looked as sharp as she has all tournament. Was perfectly positioned to fire home Brian's pass for the fifth U.S. goal.
F Alex Morgan, 5.5: Was aggressive, and created some good opportunities off the dribble, but couldn't quite find the finishing touch.
M Kelley O'Hara, 6: Brought some good energy to the left side of midfield.
F Abby Wambach, 6: Appeared to have one last shot at Women's World Cup glory, but a cynical foul halted her progress. It was her 25th and likely last Women's World Cup appearance, second-most all-time behind Kristine Lilly's 30.
D Christie Rampone, NR: Brought on late in a fitting gesture by Ellis.