USA midfielder Carli Lloyd (10) celebrates after a goal against Japan during the women's soccer gold medal match in the 2012 London Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
WEMBLEY, England (USA TODAY) - Carli Lloyd, relegated to the bench before the Olympics and forced into action by injury, delivered two goals as the U.S. women's soccer team claimed Olympic gold for the fourth time in five opportunities.
The 30-year-old midfielder scored on a header in the eighth minute, and with a powerful right foot in the 53rd, helping the Americans to a 2-1 victory at Wembley Stadium.
The win will bring scrutiny on a first-half sequence in which the Japanese earned a free kick and the ball appeared to bounce off U.S. midfielder Tobin Heath's arm without a handball call. A penalty would have produced a penalty kick.
Japan and the U.S. played before a crowd of 80,203, an Olympic record for a women's soccer game. A world record 90,185 spectators watched the U.S. women win the 1999 World Cup at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Lloyd was benched in the lead-up to this tournament in favor of Lauren Cheney, who started the opener alongside center midfielder Shannon Boxx, a defensive anchor on coach Pia Sundhage's team. But Boxx injured her hamstring in a 4-2 victory vs. France, forcing Lloyd to assume a defensive role that wasn't her forte. Still, she scored from range against France, and again in group play vs. Colombia.
"If you're not mentally ready to come off the bench, it can't go well for you," Lloyd said after the France game. "I was ready and I took that chance and seized it."
More than a week later, Cheney suffered an ankle injury in the semifinal, bringing about the return of Boxx, and returning Lloyd to her natural habitat.
She immediately showed the aggression Sundhage has asked of her offensive center midfielders, streaking downfield to meet Alex Morgan's left-footed cross in the seventh, beating striker Abby Wambach to the punch and putting the U.S. up 1-0. In the 53rd, she capitalized on a fast break, beating Miho Fukumoto with a strike from outside the box.
Lloyd also scored in the 2008 Olympic final in Beijing with the game-winner vs. Brazil in the 96th minute.
The Japanese answered Lloyd's second goal in the 62nd minute with a Yuki Ogimi goal preceded by a scrum in front of goalkeeper Hope Solo.
Solo made several highlight reel saves in the final, including an 18th-minute denial of Ogimi from point blank range. In the 82nd, she quelled a 2-on-1 breakaway with a diving two-handed stab.
The U.S. women won all six games in this tournament, coming from behind in two. In the victory vs. France, the Americans became the first women's Olympic team to win a game it trailed 2-0.
Three consecutive shutouts followed before the U.S. met regional rival Canada in the semifinal, which threatened to snap the Americans' 26-game unbeaten streak in the series. In the semifinal, Canadian striker Christina Sinclair broke the tie three times with a hat trick in regulation. But the U.S. forced extra time after two Megan Rapinoe goals and a controversial call against Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod which led to an indirect free kick, a handball, and an eventual Wambach penalty kick.
Facing the prospect of more penalty kicks as the second extra time wound down, Alex Morgan rose for a game-winning header of a Heather O'Reilly cross to snatch a berth in the finals. Japan had already earned a trip to Wembley with a 2-1 victory vs. France.
Morgan's goal, an uncharacteristic one for a 23-year-old who usually beats defenders with her feet, gave her 20 on the year and put her in elite company. Only six women in U.S. soccer history have scored at least 20 goals in a season. Michelle Akers was the first, scoring 39 goals in 1991. Wambach was the last with 20 in 2007.
The Americans entered the game with a 19 wins in 2012 and two glaring blemishes - A March loss and an April tie vs. Japan.
Coach Sundhage and her team spent the tournament answering questions about their defense, which lost starting back Ali Krieger to a knee injury during Olympic qualifying. Concerns were amplified by the France game, in which the U.S. allowed two goals in the first 14 minutes.
Hope Solo backed the defensive performance after some critical comments by former U.S. defender Brandi Chastain, lashing out at the '99 World Cup hero. After three subsequent shutouts vs. Colombia, North Korea and New Zealand, Solo said she was "still waiting to be tested" in these Games, and found that test in the narrow victory vs. Canada and Thursday's final.