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Hope Solo saves the day again for U.S.

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LONDON – Hope Solo's personality is pretty unusual, often prickly, and totally unapologetic. And the U.S. women's soccer team could not be happier about it.

The U.S. goalkeeping star kept her best for last at the Summer Games, with a superb performance that included four outstanding saves as the side retained its Olympic title with a 2-1 victory over Japan. Solo is never more impressive than when she has a point to prove. A public spat with national team legend Brandi Chastain at the start of the tournament, then allowing three goals against Canada in a tense semifinal, proved to be the perfect cocktail for a Solo master class at Wembley Stadium.

Just don't expect her to change.

[Photos: Hope Solo comes up big | Athlete page: More on Hope Solo]

"I am who I am," Solo said after her close friend Carli Lloyd scored the two goals that clinched victory for the Americans, who avenged last year's Women's World Cup defeat to Japan.

"I don't care how I am seen. I don't care how people perceive me. I am here to win, and it is not always pretty. You don't know when you are going to be asked to step up.

"I think I know how to play well under pressure, but a lot of great players are like that."

Life, and soccer, is never quiet for Solo, and it was delightfully fitting that an Olympic journey that ended in glory was a predictably tumultuous ride for the U.S. goalkeeper.

Solo's rant at Chastain led to her being kept away from the team's last media session before the final, but on the field, Solo could not be silenced. Several excellent saves in the first half allowed the Americans to withstand Japan's pressure, but it was her diving stop on Mana Iwabuchi that will long be remembered.

Iwabuchi was clear on goal after captain Christie Rampone gave the ball away, and the Japanese substitute struck the ball cleanly, only to be denied as Solo dived to her right and pushed the ball away.

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"Hope saved the day, literally," said forward Abby Wambach, who scored in every Olympic game except the final. "Having [Canada's Christine Sinclair] score three times on her in [the semifinal], she took it personally.

"She wanted to make the difference. Sometimes, in final games, your goalkeeper is that one who makes the difference. She is the best goalkeeper in the world."

The Solo fame train did not gather quite as much steam during this tournament as it did during the Women's World Cup, when she became a cult figure to such an extent that an offer to appear on "Dancing With the Stars" duly followed.

Victory was much sweeter, though, for this team of true champions. The game of soccer and women's sports in general could wish for no finer ambassadors than a group of women who show class and dignity yet the fiercest of competitive streaks.

Many of these players have no club team to call their own after Women's Professional Soccer lamentably folded amid a sea of debt, but as role models for America's thriving youth programs they are exemplary.

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Solo may be the quirkiest of the bunch. She's a loose cannon who says what she thinks, but a true performer nonetheless. At the end of Thursday's medal ceremony, she stood on the podium, tilted her head back and screamed the national anthem with all her might.

Five years ago, Solo was a pariah of women's soccer, kicked off the team for mid-World Cup criticism of teammate Briana Scurry. Now she is one of the central figures in a team that goes down in legend. No longer is women's soccer as severely top-heavy as in its formative years, and there are several highly competitive teams who wish to dominate. Winning three straight Olympics is a serious achievement, and this side deserves its place in history alongside its predecessors.

Thanks in no small part to Hope Solo, the USA's last line of defense, who stood tall and paved the way for a golden triumph.

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