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U.S. soccer breaks the ceiling with Women's World Cup win

It was 16 years of frustration poured out in 16 minutes across stunned Japanese players strewn upon the Canadian turf, a storm of empowerment, a statement of self.

With a blaze that cut through the final shadow-filled hours of the Fourth of July weekend, it was American sports at its toughest, America's team at its best, the women's World Cup trophy welcomed back to the first nation that won it.

Scoring four goals before one could blink, finishing with an effort few will forget, the USA women's national soccer team defeated Japan, 5-2, Sunday in Vancouver to win its first Women's World Cup championship since 1999.

"I'm speechless," said a tearful Carli Lloyd in a televised postgame interview.

Lloyd, theAmerican star who set a women's title-game record with three goals, may have been the only one without a voice. The victory was cheered not only by the pro-American crowd of 53,341 at BC Place, but also by millions nationwide in what was expected to be among the most watched televised women's soccer games in history. The women's team, which has long dominated the world stage and now holds the record with three World Cup championships, is celebrated not only as a powerful sports franchise, but as an affirmation of America's commitment to gender equity on the playing fields.

On the day baseball's All-Star starting lineups were announced, more folks were watching soccer. In a week when the NBA free agency dominated the headlines, the most revered athletes were women.

"I'm so happy for every little girl who dreams about this," said USA Coach Jill Ellis in a televised postgame interview.

Some on this team were little girls when the Americans last won this trophy, in 1999 at the Rose Bowl in a penalty-kick victory over China after which Brandi Chastain famously tore off her shirt in celebration. Most have spent their entire soccer careers in that shadow, which darkened considerably four years ago when, in another World Cup final, another Japanese team overcame two deficits to kick the Americans into a devastating loss.

Those Title-IX fueled fireworks quickly blasted revenge and redemption everywhere Sunday, beginning just three minutes into the game, when Lloyd sprinted past her defender and used her left foot to poke in a corner kick from Megan Rapinoe.

Two minutes later, Lloyd again charged through confused defenders, only this time using her right foot to knock in a loose ball that came from a free kick from Lauren Holiday.

Nine minutes later, Holiday booted an errant Japanese header out of the air and into the goal for a 3-0 lead, but the best was yet to come.

In the 16th minute, in one of the most impressive goals in women's World Cup history, Lloyd blasted a 50-yard shot past a stumbling, stunned Japanese goalie Ayumi Kaihori to essentially end the game almost before it started.

"I called her my beast, she's just a beast, man," said Ellis of Lloyd. "She's a rock star."

In some ways they were all beasts, and for the next couple of weeks they will all be rock stars. But, in the end, as usual, the American women won not as individuals but in their signature team way, their dominant strength equaled by their endearing sentiment.

After scoring her second goal, instead of running to the stands to be showered in applause, Lloyd ran directly to the American bench to hug the reserves. Later, after team leader Abby Wambach entered her final World Cup game, Lloyd made the unusual gesture of removing her blue captain's armband and giving it to Wambach. In the final minutes, in another similar tribute, Ellis inserted into the game the only current player who was also on the 1999 team, Christie Rampone.

It was Wambach and Rampone, not Lloyd, who were given the honor of raising the World Cup trophy for the first time amid a storm of fluttered gold confetti. It was the other players who danced across the stage and then jumped to the turf to make snow angels in that confetti.

"This doesn't feel real, this hasn't sunk in," said Lloyd, 32, a veteran from south New Jersey who became the first American woman to score in four consecutive World Cup games. "We just made history, and we're part of it."

In a sign that this team has earned the respect of the hardcore American sports fan, that history included being soundly criticized for lackadaisical play early in the tournament. The Americans seemed to sleep walk through the first four games and heard about it from fans and commentators who used to treat them much more gently, before Ellis finally answered the critics by placing midfielder Lloyd in a more attacking position.

The result was a strong 1-0 victory over China in the quarterfinals, then a resounding 2-0 victory over top-ranked Germany in the semifinals, leading to Sunday's rout.

"We had a game plan, we started off slow, but we finished stronger than ever," said Lloyd of Sunday's win.

Afterward, for the first time, those American tears were not only of joy, but relief, as the U.S. women are now properly held to the same high standards as America's other sports dynasties. They are now expected to win, which means the team has come a long way from its first World Cup championship in 1991. Back then, few Americans even realized the women had won, with only three people meeting the team plane when it landed back in the United States from host China.

On Sunday, through televised images of huge watch parties and screens of trending tweets, it seemed as if the entire country was watching. In honor of the symbolism of the accomplishment, some of those fans put an empowering twist on a familiar soccer cheer, one that pretty much says it all.

"I believe that she will win," America screamed, and did she ever.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter: @billplaschke

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