BEIJING - Carli Lloyd always wanted to be the best player in the world.

Yesterday, she was, at least, the most important.

Lloyd's leftfooted blast from 19 yards blew the U.S. women's soccer team past favored Brazil in the Olympic gold-medal match. It came in the match's 96th minute, during the first of two mandated overtime periods after regulation ended in a thrilling, scoreless tie.

"Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought I would have scored the goal that gave us the gold medal," said Lloyd, 26, of Delran, N.J. "It's an unbelievable feeling."

She wasn't the only American feeling especially unbelievable. Goalie Hope Solo was magnificent. She stopped several wicked shots from solo-monikered Brazilians, who outplayed the Americans for most of yesterday's match. That has been a theme between the teams - lately, anyway.

Brazil did not outplay Team USA in the 2004 Olympic gold-medal game, when the teams also needed extra time to decide an American victory.

Then again, that U.S. team included retired stars Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy; Christine Lilly, on mommy leave for now; and Abby Wambach, the current squad's best threat who scored the winner in 2004 but who missed these games with a broken leg.

Brazil became breathtaking at the World Cup semifinal last year. It waltzed to a 4-0 win over the Americans. Of course, Brazil probably didn't face the best the United States could offer.

Despite riding an epic hot streak, Solo did not start that game. Veteran keeper Briana Scurry was coach Greg Ryan's choice.

Afterward, Solo infamously opined that she would have stopped shots Scurry did not.

The team voted to send Solo home. Upon her return, she was ostracized. Ryan was fired a month after the World Cup.

Swedish legend Pia Sundhage replaced him. Sundhage is a placid sort, who croons to her players and insists on a possession-oriented game. She also made Solo a fixture again.

And Lloyd helped rebuild Solo's confidence.

"I told her a number of times that she is, by far, the best goalkeeper in the world," Lloyd said. "That game today is leaving people now scratching their heads about her."

Solo's close-range save against Marta in the 71st minute will be remembered by the Brazilians as the offensive moment that mattered most.

"Most of the goal was open to my left, so I started leaning to my left. But Marta tried shooting to the right," Solo said. "It was a reaction save, but that's what I get paid for."

Lloyd and the rest of them get paid for filling the void Wambach left. After a hiccupped, opening loss to Norway, they have done so wonderfully.

This wasn't Lloyd's first big Olympic moment. She was the difference in the 1-0 win over Japan in pool play on Aug. 9.

It wasn't Lloyd's only chance in the gold-medal spotlight, either. She hit the post in the 117th minute, too.

She, perhaps more than anyone else on the team, rode a wave of euphoria in a chilling rain as the game wore on - a euphoria borne, perhaps, of putting the World Cup fiasco behind them for good with a gold-medal win.

"Today something felt different. Everything was exciting," Lloyd said.

That made the key shot easier. Lloyd calmly settled Amy Rodriguez' pass, lowered her head and let fly: "I just knew I had to keep it low and hit it hard. It went in."

With Solo in a zone, no Brazilian was able to say that.

"If it wasn't for her, there would definitely have been some goals in the back of the net," Lloyd said.

If it wasn't for Lloyd, there might not have been any in the back of the Brazilians'. *