The United States women are champions. They had one of the most dominant performances ever in a Women's World Cup final when they beat Japan 5-2 in Vancouver, but the win meant a lot more to them than taking home their third title. Leading up to the final, the USWNT had some pretty big demons hanging over them -- but now that they've won, they are all gone.
Four years ago, the USWNT lost to Japan in the World Cup final. Twice they took the lead. Twice they threw it away. Then penalties came, and the first three United States women who stepped up to the spot all missed, all but handing Japan the win. That set off a bizarre four years for the national team, a period that saw them mix success with frustrating periods of transition and struggle that marred much of the time between World Cups.
They've had three managers in that time. They've had to try to figure out ways to work in new players while keeping the old guard involved. They've struggled to find effective tactics and personnel groupings at times, and especially leading up to this past World Cup. Those struggles haven't just been limited to this year, though -- they've twice failed to win the Algarve Cup, a competition they've dominated for over a decade, including a shocking seventh place finish in 2014.
The United States team has too often found issues trying to score, with injuries and poor form plaguing Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, while the sad reality of time and age ravaged the once-significant contributions of Abby Wambach. Those struggles continued into the World Cup, where only once before the final they managed to score more than two goals, and were once shut out entirely by a Sweden side that never particularly convinced defensively in any of their other three matches in the World Cup.
And then there's Japan. Ah, Japan. After falling to them in the 2011 World Cup final, many considered Japan to be the bogey team for the United States. If they met again in the World Cup this year, would the U.S. be able to put that demon behind them? Or would the Japanese continue to embody the oni of their folklore and torment the USWNT?
Sure, the US beat Japan in the 2012 Olympics final to win gold, but the Olympics aren't seen as anywhere near the World Cup in terms of importance or competitive level. What would happen on the biggest stage?
Quite a lot, it turned out.
The USWNT absolutely thrashed Japan, putting them on their heels from the first moments of the match and not letting up until the scoreline was out of reach -- which took all of 16 minutes to achieve. Even after that, they made sure that Japan never had a realistic chance at victory, controlling enough of the match to keep Japan from having enough chances to score to make up the gap.
With each of the five goals that the USWNT scored on the day, you could see more and more weight falling off their shoulders. Every layer of frustration and pent-up anger that the last four years have generated slowly dropped away, leaving in its place a team full of confidence, skill, and, most importantly, belief in themselves and what they can do.
That belief helped the United States lift the World Cup trophy for the third time, a record in the women's edition of the world's top football tournament. Just imagine what that belief can do for them over the next four years, now that all those ghosts and all those demons are firmly in the past.