“V” is a symbol commonly associated with victory. But for the U.S. Women's Soccer Team, it's all about vindication.
After a turbulent year that saw a major falling-out between a star goalie and the team, a coaching change and key injuries, Team USA put its best forward with a 1-0 overtime victory over Brazil on Friday to bring home the Olympic gold medal.
“All of a sudden, we became a true team in every sense of the word,” veteran defender and co-captain Kate Markgraf told TODAY co-host Meredith Vieira.
Ironically, it was nearly a year ago, at the World Cup against Brazil — also played in China — that things began to fall apart for the team. And after Carli Lloyd’s goal in extra time secured the 1,000th overall gold in U.S. Olympic history, the symbolism was not lost on anyone.
“Yeah, [beating Brazil] feels really good,” Markgraf added. “The World Cup was just such a great learning experience for all of us, and we all had to take stock of what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong.
“We had to go as a team and then with the new coach,” she said. “We just wanted a new culture, physically, mentally and with how we played.”
The big rebound
Although it was the third U.S. gold medal in four Olympic women’s soccer tournaments, the team splintered at the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Hope Solo was the starting goalkeeper for the U.S., yielding just two goals in the first four games of the tournament. That run also included consecutive shutouts of Sweden, Nigeria and England.
But for the semifinal match against Brazil, former U.S. coach Greg Ryan benched Solo and started 36-year-old veteran Briana Scurry. Although she had not played a complete game in three months, Scurry was apparently chosen because of her history of strong performances against the Brazilians.
Unfortunately, Brazil romped the U.S. 4-0, ending a winning streak of 51 regulation-timed games.
Solo, who was an alternate for the U.S. in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, publicly criticized Ryan’s tactics after the game, saying, “It was the wrong decision, and I think anybody that knows anything about the game knows that. There's no doubt in my mind I would have made those saves. And the fact of the matter is, it's not 2004 anymore. It's 2007, and I think you have to live in the present.”
Solo was ostracized from the team, as many saw her comments equally as critical of Scurry as of the coach. Ryan announced that Solo would not continue with the team for the third-place game in the World Cup. And captain Kristine Lilly said that decision was made by the team, as a whole.
For the post-World Cup tour, Solo was still on the U.S. team’s roster. But she didn’t attend the first workout prior to a first game against Mexico. In fact, she didn’t play in any of three games against Mexico.
Ryan said Solo and the team were “initiating a process of reconciliation.”
Ryan’s contract was not renewed last December and Solo began training with the team in January. After some healing and “soul searching,” as Markgraf called it, Solo was finally announced as the starting goalkeeper for the Beijing Games in June.
Poetically, Solo was absolutely dominant against Brazil in the Olympic final, saving six shots on goal, including a brilliant block with her right hand off a shot from Brazilian forward Marta in the 72nd minute.
Solo told Vieira that the trials and tribulations of the year were much ado about nothing, once Team USA had made it back to the Olympic final for gold.
“There was no pressure going into the game, other than it being an Olympic final,” she said. “But other than that, there was no pressure.
“Our team had stuck together this entire year. It’s been a hard year for everybody. I mean, we’ve come so far in 10½ months. So I think it was a different team, a different coach and a different feel going into this. We just went into this with so much confidence.”
Just for kicks
There was even more delicious irony with the winning goal coming off the foot of Lloyd. The midfielder just happened to be the one player who stuck with Solo the most when she was, well, solo.
She said scoring the winning tally before a crowd of 51,612 at Workers’ Stadium — with Kobe Bryant and Pele among them — was the pinnacle of her career.
“I knew you’ve got to capitalize on any chance you get,” Lloyd told Vieira. “And you practice shooting all of your life and it definitely came in handy at that moment. But my teammates were the ones that were behind me, and they have been around through all of it.”
Markgraf lauded new coach Pia Sundhage for her direction, especially with star attacker Abby Wambach sidelined with a broken leg. The coach, who is Swedish, would constantly challenge their mental approach to the game, but made it fun, occasionally singing to them.
“Oh, my gosh, she’s changed the culture,” Markgraf said. “You know, I think any other coach might have been, ‘You have to win, you have to win!’
“But she kept it really, really calm — because your nerves can get the best of you. She was able to manage our feelings and keep us motivated and keep us together at all points of the game.”
As for the future, the U.S. women’s national soccer team probably won’t let too much time slip before the dynasty focuses on more world competitions. But more immediately, Markgraf and veteran teammate Christie Rampone are ready to get back to motherhood.
“I think we’re both going to give them big, huge hugs,” she said. “We’re so ready to be full-time moms again.”