US women have shot at redemption

This is the match the US’s women’s national soccer team has been thirsting for some time. Thursday’s Olympic final isn’t just about the gold medal: this is the US’s chance for redemption.

The US is considered the best team in the world — but don’t have the world title to back it up. They lost to Japan in the Women’s World Cup in 2011 and this is their chance to prove that they can beat the highly-skilled Japanese when it matters. Moreover, after two roller-coaster tournaments, this is the Americans’ best chance to put their mark on a sport they have long dominated.

Last year, Japan was a compelling Cinderella story, having completed a dream run to a world title while their nation was recovering from the tragedies — the tsunami and following Fukushima nuclear disaster — that hit their nation. As much of a gut-punch as it was to watch the US lose on penalty kicks, there was also a sense that the nation of Japan needed something to celebrate, and its team played like it wanted to provide that.

A year later, it’s clear that the Japanese are not an overachieving team riding a wave of emotion. The Japanese are good enough, their soccer is technically brilliant and they have the work rate to match. They are a team that is so gifted they have led US head coach Pia Sundhage to readily acknowledge that the United States could learn quite a bit from them, and need to be more like them.

Sundhage has worked to make the US a more technical side, and heading into Thursday’s final, you can certainly argue that the current US team is a better team than the one Japan downed at the World Cup. The additions of Lauren Cheney and Tobin Heath to the starting lineup, coupled with Megan Rapinoe’s increased role, have made the USA team more versatile in attack.

But can the United States beat Japan? That’s the big question. No other team has caused more problems for the Americans in the past two years, and the three meetings between the teams since the World Cup have shown that Japan is capable of causing very real problems. Japan beat the Americans in the Algarve Cup in March, and tied the USA at the Kirin Challenge Cup in April. The US did beat Japan, 4-1, when they met in an Olympic tune-up match on June 18, but the Japanese were still early in their tournament preparations and clearly not at their best.

Japan started slowly in these Olympics, getting a win and two scoreless draws in the group stages. Nonetheless, they turned it up in the knockout rounds, comfortably beating Brazil in the quarterfinals before holding off a strong France side in the semifinals.

Japan’s strength is in midfield, where Homare Sawa is their catalyst. Her tireless movement, vision, passing touch and nose for goal make her one of the most complete attacking threats in the world. American fans will remember her as the player who delivered the heart-breaking equalizer late in the World Cup final that sent that game to penalty kicks. The US will need to find a way to try and contain her while also making sure not to leave too much freedom from Japan’s other attacking star, Aya Miyama, who also scored against the US in the 2011 World Cup Final.

The Japanese attack will look to exploit the US on the counter, something they have done well in the tournament and something that Canada also showed can be a problem for the Americans. Transition defense is a weak spot for the Americans, and Japan has the playmakers to capitalize if central midfielders Cheney and Carli Lloyd get caught out of position.

Offensively, the Americans will count on the attacking trio of Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach and Rapinoe to lead the way. When those three have been clicking — and when Rapinoe is at her best — the US attack becomes virtually impossible to stop. It is no coincidence that the US team’s least impressive showings at these Olympics were during the games where Rapinoe played her worst.

Where the US will have the edge is with Wambach, who has the physical presence to cause problems for a Japanese side that has had its issues dealing with physical forwards. If Rapinoe and Heath can provide effective service, Wambach will be tough to stop. Plus, if the Japanese pay too much attention to Wambach in the final third, it will free up Morgan to generate chances — something the youngster has done very well throughout the Olympics.

Thursday’s final should be a great battle, with the two best teams in the world trading attacks and the winner ultimately being determined by the team that finishes chances better. The Japanese are known for their outstanding finishers, and will take full advantage. The Americans are bound to create a good number of chances, but it will be up to players like Morgan, Wambach and Rapinoe to put them away.

The US knows that it is fortunate to have this chance to ease the pain of last year’s loss, the opportunity to earn the title of best team in the world. And they must also know that if they lose to Japan again, there will be no tournament to look forward to next year. There will only be years of disappointment knowing that they wasted their chance for redemption.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the US National Team.