History no help for US against Japan
Don’t be surprised if Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final looks a little familiar.
Sure, it is the first major final that Japan has appeared in, but it is the seventh for the United States, which has been to all four Olympic gold medal games (winning three) and now three Women’s World Cup finals. The US reaching this point of a major tournament is the rule, not the exception.
The same cannot be said for Japan, Despite being ranked No. 4 in the world, Asia's champions are very much a surprise finalist. They played a near-perfect quarterfinal to oust host and favorite Germany before dismantling a perplexed Swedish side in the semifinal.
In the other half of the draw, the United States was living up to their billing as the Heart Attack Kids. First came Abby Wambach’s header at the death of extra time, lifting the Americans to penalty kicks and, ultimately, victory over Brazil in the quarterfinals. In the semis, late goals from Wambach and starlet Alex Morgan gave the US another victory over France.
In that match, the US was grossly outplayed. If not for some gutsy (and at times, frantic) defending, the up-and-coming French squad would be playing on Sunday. Neutrals have to feel the French were a bit unlucky to lose a match where they outshot the United States 25-11.
Although the US was outshot, outplayed, and even outclassed throughout much of the match, the Americans were not outworked, and they were certainly not outcoached.
Sunday’s final could be a repeat of that match. Japan is a team that possesses the ball very well and is extremely composed, especially on defense. Even while losing to England in group stage and enduring the Germans, Japan has never looked nervy.
|May 18, 2011||USA 2, Japan 0|
|May 14, 2011||USA 2, Japan 0|
|March 2, 2011||USA 2, Japan 1|
|August 18, 2008||USA 4, Japan 2|
|August 9, 2008||USA 1, Japan 0|
Keys to Japan's ability to dominate the ball, midfielders Aya Miyama and Homare Sawa have put Japan on their backs, carrying the team through the tournament. While neither can match the pace of French stars Louisa Necib or Gaëtane Thiney, the duo has superior skill on the ball. Miyama is deadly on free kicks from any distance and Sawa serves as both a playmaker and a scorer (tied for a tournament-leading four goals).
Led by Miyama and Sawa, Japan will likely control the majority of possession, but without a go-to goal scorer up top, Japan will struggle to create (and convert) opportunities inside of the box. That disadvantage will be offset not only by a superior midfield but also a strong defense, with center back Saki Kumagai anchoring the back four. Ayumi Kaihori has also exceeded expectations in net, although both she and her defense will still suffer from a serious height disadvantage when defending balls in the air.
So with an edge in midfield complemented by a defense that will help in possession, Japan's well-positioned to dictate play on Sunday. The United States will need to continue to defend with numbers, just as it has the past two games. Against France, it took stingy defending (and a bit of luck) for the Americans to hold France to one goal.
But for all the on-field match-ups that are likely to decide this match, one factor that's unlikely to have an impact is history - a talking point entering Sunday, but one that has nothing to do with the two squads that will play on Sunday.
True, the United States is 22-0-3 all-time against Japan and has already beaten head coach Norio Sasaki’s team three times this year. And the US dominated Japan in two exhibitions in May, winning both games 2-0 in what were two of the more convincing US victories leading into the World Cup.
But Japan wasn't at full strength in May, still regrouping after the tragic natural disasters their home country endured in March. Two months removed from those pre-tournament tune-ups, Japan's regained their confidence through an undying determination to play for a hopeful nation.
“(They're) much better than when way we played them (in May),” US head coach Pia Sundhage said of Japan. “I think they are more sophisticated going into the final third, so still very good on the ball and between boxes, but now they look a little bit more dangerous. And a player like Sawa, so far she has had a very good tournament.”
But as always, despite tired legs and, at times, a comparative lack of creativity, the US women will show their grit and determination, led by Wambach and captain Christie Rampone. No opponent needs to be reminded that there's no counting out the Americans.
The US is built for one-off, pressure situations like the World Cup's knockout stage, a trait that feeds right into the team's latest marketing slogan: “Pressure Makes Us."
No, the US has not been the best team in every game this tournament, but as the last two matches have shown, being the best team doesn't always lead to wins.
Instead of folding, the Americans have thrived under the pressure of needing late heroics. That could again happen on Sunday when two seemingly immovable forces meet in a head-on collision.
One side's claim to being a team of destiny will come crashing down.