Defense Paves The Way In U.S. Women's World Cup Run

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- For as good as she felt about her team's state of mind and play entering Sunday's final, even U.S. coach Jill Ellis wouldn't have been so bold as to predict five goals.

Frankly, it was at least as much as her back line deserved after a month of carrying the load.

The U.S. women beat Japan 5-2 to win their first World Cup title in 16 years on Sunday, and it didn't matter that, for the first time all tournament, the United States allowed multiple goals in a game. The math there isn't difficult to do because the team had allowed just one goal in its first six games, that by Australia's Lisa De Vanna early in the first half of the opening game.

After the 3-1 win against Australia -- Hope Solo's work in goal was the major reason Australia didn't score more -- the U.S. defense posted five consecutive clean sheets as the back line of outside backs Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger and center backs Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn dominated. The work include one scoreless draw and a pair of 1-0 wins, games in which any slip by the defense might have cost the United States points or even its very place in the tournament.

A goal from Japan's Yuki Ogimi on Sunday that cut the deficit to 4-1 in the 27th minute ended the shutout streak at 539 minutes. The United States finished well short of the record for overall such streak, held by Germany at 679 minutes spanning three tournaments, but the Americans came within eight seconds of matching the arguably more relevant record for a single tournament that Germany set en route to a title in China in 2007.

"That is just like a dagger to my heart, the only thing that's kind of keeping me down a little bit," Klingenberg joked of missing history by seconds. "I'm just so proud of what we did because it's an incredible accomplishment, regardless of whether we break the streak or not. We held some really incredible and potent attacking teams to zero goals for a long time. Obviously, Japan is a world-class team with world-class talent, so it's a credit to them getting in behind and getting those goals back. But being a part of that line, with Hope and then with the team shape and team defense, it was just something special to be a part of."

The defense didn't turn in its best performance Sunday, although defending with a four-goal lead against a team with as much pride and attacking talent as Japan was not what any of the defenders could have envisioned their task would be Sunday.

Still, the fact remains that the United States, for all the talk about its offensive evolution over the course of the tournament, most likely wouldn't have played in Sunday's final were it not for a back line that had barely played together when the World Cup began -- had never played together before the Algarve Cup this past spring.

"I think it's been a progression since the Algarve Cup because that's when we maybe ironed out the details," Krieger said. "It has been a progression of just trying to be consistent and confident and making sure that we have great communication. I think that's why we've done so well together. We've stayed compact, and if we do make a mistake, it's all of us making that mistake together. It's not just one of us.

"I think that we've really been doing well because [of] our communication and our confidence on the ball and just our collective pressure-cover balance."

They were outstanding collectively. They also were easy to embrace for their individual stories. Each traveled a long road to get here. Klingenberg and Krieger trekked literal miles, honing their games in Europe before returning to earn places on the national team. (Krieger attracted a scrum of German reporters after the final and delighted them by again fielding questions in their language, such was the extent of her time in that country.)

Johnston had a forgettable day with an own goal on a free kick her foul created, but she also leaves Canada secure in a place in this lineup for a decade to come. That from someone who is barely 12 months out of college and made the qualifying roster as a last-minute replacement. Sauerbrunn, the most capped of the quartet, nonetheless spent the first World Cup in which she was a starter quietly, reliably and flawlessly doing what she has done for years at this and other levels.

It is a group that entered the World Cup as a question mark and left a championship asset.

So the United States will enter the 2019 World Cup as defending champions.

It will also head to France with a 38-minute shutout streak, just in case anyone is counting.