Praise the Lloyd: Carli and Team USA Put on a Show in Vancouver

Mike Hewitt - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images

We were barely a sixth of the way through the Women’s World Cup final and we had run out of “is this really happening?” facial expressions. We stared at each other, jaws slack, wondering if the American flag temporary tattoos that were scattered around all the bathroom sinks at Vancouver’s BC Place weren’t laced with something. Sixteen minutes had passed and everything felt altered: The score was 4-0, the air was thick with a smoky haze, and we’d witnessed not only a hat trick, but one that included a goal scored all the way from midfield.

Soccer has always been the guest who arrives right on time, wine in hand — its pregame anthems are brisk and the kickoff takes place precisely when the invitation says it will. But in this U.S.-Japan game, a rematch of both the 2011 World Cup final and the Olympic gold-medal contest a year later, that fastidious punctuality was taken to an extreme. Anyone who had gone to grab a beer in the early going wound up missing the party of the century.

The night’s guest of honor was Carli Lloyd, an eccentric South Jersey native whose commitment to distraction-free focus is such that she banned her fiancé from attending the match. Her three goals in the first 16 minutes in front of a heavily American crowd (sample sign: “I LIKE MY SUSHI DEEP-FRIED. #MURICA”) left fans reeling in maniacal disbelief.

Lloyd’s first goal was what happens when an unstoppable force meets a movable object. She barreled in from outside 20 yards like a perturbed bull, and the result was something out of Terry Tate, office linebacker, or that recent Vine of a dude being body-slammed out of a canoe. Two minutes later, she scored again, this time off a free kick. And after Lauren Holiday put the U.S. ahead 3-0 when she took advantage of the understandably rattled Azusa Iwashimizu’s ill-advised up-for-grabs header, Lloyd struck a third time, this time in a way that was trippy even for a place with medicinal marijuana dispensaries all over town.

[protected-iframe id=”86aac2dd75d309f9c06fc954b8233d6a-60203239-57734549″ info=”” width=”600″ height=”600″ frameborder=”0″]

It was like watching a video game character already lit up by a “She’s on fire!” flame, enhanced even further with a cheat code. Lloyd didn’t pause to brush dirt off her shoulder, or blow on her fingernails, or coolly pull off a standing backflip, but she didn’t need to. The goal — all three goals — was already all of those things put together. “Audacious,” is how Megan Rapinoe would describe it. “Bodacious” would work, too.

For the millions of viewers back in the States watching the game on Fox in bars and living rooms, there were two eternally lasting images of this unpredictable and inexplicable first half: (1) Lloyd’s post-goal primal screams, and (2) an eagle-headed woman in a blue U.S. Soccer kit pumping her fists in the stands and menacingly flapping her American flag wings.

Just hours earlier, though, even that aggressive masked eagle had been just like the rest of us: standing at the bar, describing herself as “anxious.”

USA v Japan: Final - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

“When I wear the eagle head, no one notices,” said Rhiannon O’Harra, laughing, several hours before kickoff as she sat at Doolin’s Irish Pub in downtown Vancouver, the official pregame meeting place of the American Outlaws. She and her recent fiancée, Kelly Farrell, were in matching American flag spandex pants, but it was Farrell getting all the attention — her 6-foot-1 height made that giant bald eagle mask highly visible above the packed crowd.

“I found it online,” Farrell said. “Just Googled ‘bald eagle mask.’” Also representing the winged kingdom at the gathering was a guy in a similar mask wearing a stars-and-stripes suit and someone dressed up as a turkey standing on a windowsill and boogieing for the benefit of the people standing in line outside.

Farrell, who along with O’Harra competes in a Los Angeles roller derby league called the Derby Dolls — Hurt LockHer is her stage name — used to play goalie for Xavier University’s soccer team. She and O’Harra decided more than a year ago to book tickets and flights to Vancouver for the World Cup final, figuring there was a good chance the U.S. team would make it. “We were making a big gamble,” Farrell said. “When we saw the [group round] bracket come out, we were like, well, we hope they make it through!” When I asked if she was nervous about Japan, she thought for a moment and said the better word would be “anxious.”

Across the bar, a group of American Outlaws leaders sat at a table hollering chants; one of them, Phoenix chapter vice-president Ryan Shirah, was dressed as George Washington and banging happily on a drum. He showed me photos of him and his girlfriend, Megan, both of whom had gone to a party the night before dressed as Julie Johnston, complete with sky-blue headbands and blonde wigs.

Nearby, a group of about six or eight guys, in various states of patriotic dress and face paint, huddled around a table as part of the bachelor party weekend celebration for their buddy Dimitri Perera. They’d come to Vancouver on Thursday night, most of them from Seattle.

Last year, after getting into the men’s World Cup frenzy, Perera had looked up the women’s competition, said, “Oh shit, it’s in Canada!” and asked his fiancée, Elizabeth, if she wanted to go to a game. She suggested he make a bachelor party out of it. In the month leading up to the weekend, the trip’s expected epicness levels — and thus Perera’s moods — rose and fell with the performance of the U.S. women.

“During the group stage I was super-depressed,” Perera said, referring to the U.S. team’s subpar play early in the tournament, which caused many to assume they’d be knocked out well before the final. During the semifinal game against Germany, he said, he’d been stuck in a meeting, reduced to sneaking peeks at text-message updates from his fiancée’s cousin, NamThien Vu. He pumped his fist silently at the news that Celia Sasic had missed a penalty kick, and as soon as the meeting ended he ran to a bar across the street to catch the final 10 minutes. Now he and his friends were in Vancouver, having a hell of a time, and the match hadn’t even begun.

About two hours before kickoff, the bar began clearing out for the 10-block march to BC Place. When I took part in the march in Edmonton before the group of 16 match against Colombia, we were a ragtag crew of misfits that filled one, maybe one and a half subway cars en route to the stadium. This time, it was a cast of thousands that almost entirely shut down a main Vancouver thoroughfare, save for a few intrepid buses that inched their way through.

“Our house,” a few marchers hooted, “in the middle of our street.”

People on the sidewalk paused to take pictures of the stream of fans, from the women dressed as three gold stars to the parents and their kids conga-line dancing up the block to the gals holding huge hand-markered portraits of various members of the national team with faces contorted into screams. It was like a day-late Fourth of July parade hopped up on Red Bull and amphetamines; what it lacked in a procession of antique cars it made up for in enormous foam cutouts of players’ heads.

At the entrance to BC Place, security guards politely asked fans to check their selfie sticks at the gate while protesters held up small signs seeking to “End the Ban on Women in Stadiums in Iran.” Inside the building, the signs were less politically charged: WISH I COULD PLAY LIKE A GIRL, one said. ALEX MORGAN IS BAE, read another. And, most presciently: PRAISE THE LLOYD.

USA v Japan: Final - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015Dennis Grombkowski/Getty Images

The semifinal game against Germany had been a nail-biting affair; even when the U.S. took the lead, there was the sense that one false move could spell trouble. That’s exactly what had happened in the 2011 World Cup final, when twice the Americans took a step up on Japan, and twice Japan evened the score. When Japan won the championship in penalty kicks, the oh-so-marketable faces of the U.S. team — Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach — were helpless and stricken, their eyes big with the unanswered whys and hows.

Last night’s game was bonkers, and madcap, and almost entirely tension free. It’s telling that the scariest moments came when an own goal by Johnston narrowed the U.S. lead to a still-dominant 4-2 — accounting for the first two goals the Americans’ strong defense had given up since the opening game of the tournament — and it’s even more telling that the score remained that way for all of two minutes before Tobin Heath scored to give the U.S. a three-goal lead again.

The healthy cushion allowed for some touching theater at the game’s end. Megan Rapinoe was taken out for Kelley O’Hara, and she beamed and clapped at the crowd as she trotted off the field. Abby Wambach went in, and when she did, Lloyd ran up to her, ripped the captain’s armband off her own biceps, and wrapped it onto Wambach with lovely ceremonial deference. (Speaking of which, the small dap between Wambach and Japan’s elder stateswoman, Homare Sawa, playing in her sixth and final World Cup, was the sweetest example of mutual courtesy and respect between two legends that I’ve seen outside a tennis court.) And with a few minutes left, 40-year-old Christie Rampone, the only member of the team to have been on the field the last time the U.S. won the World Cup, in 1999, was put into the match to happy chants and major applause.

Much is (properly) made of that 1999 team, with its household names that still endure — when ESPN’s Julie Foudy took her press seat just in front of the section I was sitting in, parents pointed her out to their kids and she was showered with cheers — and its cinematic, shirt-stripping finish. Last night’s game may not have ended in edge-of-your-seat penalty kicks, but it had everyone out of their chairs long before. It was not so much a competition as it was a coronation.

USA v Japan: Final - FIFA Women's World Cup 2015Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At the game’s end, Wambach hugged and kissed her wife as the latter hung happy and limp from the stands. Defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg did a lap around the stadium with a flag flying between them. Rapinoe engaged in a long group hug with two Japanese players, then stood in line waiting for her medal and totally breaking it down to a song whose lyrics proclaimed, Baby I’m worth it. The only drag was the line of vixens in slinky black dresses on hand to present the medals. There’s still progress to be made, but at last it was clear to everyone who had watched that the game itself was the true eye candy.

Ambient smoke from a forest fire outside Vancouver had been clouding the city all day long, and it cast onto one corner of the stadium a late-day golden haze. Things only got more strange as the crowd gleefully booed a cadre of FIFA officials (sans Sepp Blatter, that canny coward) who took the field to hand out the trophies. Alex Morgan pulled on a champions T-shirt and pointed proudly to the third star on the chest. Rampone, to whom the captain’s armband had at some point been transferred by Wambach, brought her daughters up to the podium for photos while a group of players made snow angels with Shannon Boxx’s kid in piles of gold confetti, romping in the glittering riches like ponytailed Scrooge McDucks. Joe and Jill Biden took the field to congratulate players; the big video screen caught the veep exclaiming “Holy mackerel!” to a few of the women.

I’m 32 years old, and I grew up in a town whose high school eschewed football in favor of soccer and soccer only. And still, it wasn’t until I was in fifth grade that an all-girls travel team was finally formed; before that, if you were any good, you had to try out to play with the boys. The kids in the stands at BC Place last night, and the ones watching at home, have grown up in a different era, one in which the existence of women’s sports in the U.S. is a baseline assumption and not something innovative and new. The only thing missing for them was recent proof of the system working the way it should. They have that now, and more importantly they have role models, in Lloyd and in her teammates, of women who apologize to no one for who they are and how they do.

Slowly, one by one, the U.S. players finally left the field and headed to the locker room. They’d shown up to the party right on time, and now they were leaving with confetti stuck to their butts and the world’s finest goodie bags hanging from their necks — the sign of a pretty baller fiesta. The night was still young, and the real celebration was only beginning.

Filed Under: Soccer, 2015 Women's World Cup, USWMNT, Julie Johnston, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Abby Wambach, Becky Sauerbrunn

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes