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Vancouver sees stars (and stripes) in World Cup final

Carli Lloyd's incredible hat trick leads U.S.A. in a romp over Japan

There was smoke covering the sky and stars and stripes covering the streets Sunday in Vancouver for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final.

The city acted as good hosts and good neighbours yesterday, welcoming a stadium full of supporters of the United States national women’s soccer team for a championship clash against Japan at BC Place.

And the Yanks, one day removed from their Independence Day, put on another huge fireworks show, blowing out Japan with four goals in the first 16 minutes. U.S.A was led by a brilliant hat trick from attacking midfielder Carli Lloyd who went on to earn the Golden Ball trophy as the tournament’s best player. The 5-2 win earned the United States their third World Cup trophy and first since 1999.

“I was on a mission today,” Lloyd said in a press conference after getting the confetti shower with her delirious teammates. “I’m so proud and so zapped at the same time. It’s a surreal moment. It’s been amazing — I mean, we just wrote history today and brought this World Cup trophy home.”

In the end it wasn’t a classic soccer matchup but there certainly was a lot of action for the 53,341 fans in the stands — most adorned with stars and or stripes — to get excited about. With the sun glowing red and the air tinged with smoke thanks to wild fires burning in the Vancouver area, it was the U.S. women who came out scorching hot, led by flame-throwing Carli Lloyd. Her first goal came in just the third minute and it was a dazzling first-touch strike off a brilliant set piece corner kick, the pass coming in low and hard from Megan Rapinoe.

Two minutes later Lloyd bulled her way through the box to muscle in her second goal and send the crowd into hysterics. In the 14th minute Lauren Holiday made it 3-0 with a superbly taken volley and then just two minutes later Lloyd ended all suspense with an awesome, audacious, incredible half-field blast that skidded off the fingertips of Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, nudged the left post and nestled into the back of the net.

It was a goal that will live forever and a big-game performance that will go down as an all-time great — Christine Sinclair’s bittersweet hat trick in a loss against these same Americans in the 2012 Olympic semifinal also comes to mind — for Lloyd who proved to be unstoppable in the first half of Sunday’s final.

Funny thing is, after the game she said she saw herself putting in a performance like that. Even better, in fact.

“I dreamed of, and visualized, playing in a World Cup final and visualized scoring four goals,” Lloyd said with a laugh. “There was something different in the air in our team, within the team these last few days. There was no hesitation, no doubt. We were just super excited, super anxious to start this game, to play it.”

The well-deserved win for the U.S. national team — they scored more goals in the final than 14 of the World Cup teams scored in the entire tournament — ended a tournament that began just days after a massive FIFA corruption scandal broke. The competition played out over a month in six Canadian cities and was unique for its size and surface — it was the first time 24 teams took part in a Women’s World Cup and the first time artificial turf was used in any senior World Cup.

The total attendance of 1,353,506 for the tournament set a record for a Women’s World Cup, a number that was bolstered by several huge crowds at BC Place, including the biggest draw of the event, 54,027 for England’s 2-1 quarterfinal win over Canada.

In the United States the final also posted the highest ever Nielsen rating for a soccer game broadcast on a single network, according to Fox, the network that carried the game south of the border.

The tournament also presented a rare opportunity for Canadian soccer supporters to see elite women’s soccer up close, with B.C. soccer fans particularly starved following the dissolution of the Vancouver Whitecaps women’s team in 2013.

Several lucky young players from the North Shore were even closer to the action. A group of North Shore Girls Soccer Club players acted as ball girls at BC Place throughout the tournament, including the final, while others from the West Vancouver Soccer Club carried flags for pre-game ceremonies at BC Place. What they saw Sunday was a team playing at its absolute best.

“These players were born for big moments, this is what they relish,” said U.S. head coach Jill Ellis. “To me it’s no surprise. As the (opponents) get harder and the pressure gets bigger, this team gets better because that’s what they’re about. That’s how their DNA is engineered.”

It was Lloyd, however, who put on a clinic for fans young and old around the world.

“Ms. Lloyd, she always does this to us,” Japanese head coach Norio Sasaki said after the match, through a translator. Lloyd’s resumé now includes scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win over Brazil in the 2008 Olympic final, both of her team’s goals in a 2-1 win over Japan in the 2012 Olympic final and Sunday’s legendary hat trick. 

“I’ve dedicated my whole life to this,” said Lloyd. “Everything (else) comes second, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”