Two goals each from the veterans Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd gave the US Olympic bronze in a scintillating 4-3 defeat of Australia.
There are few players you would expect to grab a second career Olympic goal direct from a corner (known, fittingly, as an Olimpico) but few players rise to challenges like Rapinoe on the biggest stages. After the team’s bruising semi-final defeat by Canada she had said the players had struggled to play with joy. “Football always needs joy,” she reflected.
Perhaps it was the idea of the tournament favourites going home empty-handed that spurred them to find their missing joy on the patchwork-quilted turf of the Kashima Stadium, or perhaps it was that the game could prove to be the swansong of the 36-year-old Rapinoe, 39-year-old Lloyd and/or 36-year-old defender Becky Sauerbrunn.
If there had been questions asked of the US’s ageing starting XI, with five players born in the 1980s compared with one for Australia (Clare Polkinghorne, born in 1989), they were quickly put to bed by the veterans who had unfairly borne the brunt of criticism for the team’s tournament sluggishness.
Rapinoe will steal the first-half headlines but former Manchester United forward Christen Press provided the impetus that would rattle the Australia backline. The left-back Crystal Dunn went on a driving run before playing across the box to Press, whose blistering shot was poked over by the goalkeeper Teagan Micah at full stretch. From the resulting corner, after eight minutes, Rapinoe hooked the set piece straight in, the ball grazing one of Micah’s gloves on the way.
The US forward line was playing with swagger and pressing high, and with the game burst open by Rapinoe’s goal the cagey affair that sent both teams into the knockout stage in the final game of Group G felt a world away.
Sam Kerr drew Australia level three minutes later when a defensive error allowed Caitlin Foord two slip a pass into the path of the forward, who clipped the ball first-time under the goalkeeper Adriana Franch, who had perhaps been expecting an extra touch.
Rapinoe would provide the reply. Again, Press was at the centre of things, popping the ball into the box and forcing a mix-up between Polkinghorne and Alanna Kennedy, with Rapinoe volleying the stray ball in.
Australia’s manager, Tony Gustavsson, a former assistant coach to the US, had been asked before the match how much they would miss suspended 21-year-old Lyon full-back Ellie Carpenter. “You know that US tried to get behind us a lot and lacking one of the fastest players in the world in the backline is obviously going to have an impact,” he said.
Rapinoe appeared to have absorbed the message and was able to delight in the space left in the absence of the dynamic Carpenter, with Polkinghorne not up to the task of filling in. Careering up and down the pitch Rapinoe rolled back the years, powering away a cross from Kerr while slotting back in place of Dunn.
On the stroke of half-time Lloyd got her first goal, having pulled the back three of Kennedy, Polkinghorne and Steph Catley all over the place, allowing her teammates to run riot. The midfielder Lindsey Horan robbed Kyah Simon and played in Lloyd, who coolly slotted home.
Lloyd grabbed her second not long after half-time to put the US 4-1 up and make her the highest-scoring USWNT Olympic footballer of all time. Another testing ball from Press put Kennedy under pressure and the centre-back headed back towards goal, straight into the run of Lloyd, who slid the ball past Micah.
Gustavsson had praised Australia’s “never-say-die” spirit and it reared its head two minutes later with an unmarked Foord heading in a cross from the right at the far post. Kerr then went agonisingly close to reducing the deficit to one with a header that bounced off the inside of the post and rolled across goal before being put out for a corner.
Emily Gielnik did strike late on, lashing in from distance, but it was not enough.