Japan’s precision will test England’s emotional momentum in semifinal

It’s no surprise No. 4-ranked Japan has made it through to the 2015 Women’s World Cup semifinals. The defending champs sailed through group stage play and are even better than 2011, when they came back twice against the United States in the final to claim Japan’s first World Cup title.

All that stands in Japan’s way from a return trip to the finale is merry ol’ England — a hot team playing with house money. The Three Lionesses, ranked No. 6 in the FIFA World Rankings, eagerly downed host-country Canada 2-1 in the quarterfinals and now have all of England rooting for them. Heck, even Prince William is on the bandwagon, as are soccer stars Wayne Rooney, David Beckham and Phil Jones.

Is this England’s time to experience the power and glory of World Cup success? Against Japan in 2011, the Three Lionesses beat Japan 2-0 in group stage play — marking the last time Japan have lost a World Cup match. This time around, the England women have already done more than their male counterparts have over the last 50 years — and star defender Lucy Bronze & Co. will take this momentum into Wednesday’s match at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.

The matchup will test England’s patience, as Japan continue to be the most technically brilliant side in women’s soccer. The Nadeshiko are all about passing and ball control, which is aided by the fact that 17 of their players were on the 2011 World Cup winning team, including midfielders Aya Miyami, Rumi Utsugi and Mizuho Sakaguchi. 

"I think we are better, as the empirical value of each of the players is higher and we also now have spent a lot of time together with the same group of players," said Miyama, the captain.

"It means we know each other’s game even more. I think this is a great advantage, especially when we are in the knockout stage, where we will have close games and a strong mentality is needed. I believe our players can maintain the strong motivation which is something we’ve gained by experience," she added.

Attacking midfielder Homare Sawa is playing in her sixth World Cup, a record she shares with Brazil’s Formiga. Sawa, the star of the 2011 team, is now 36 and playing in her final World Cup, but her presence even off the bench is inspirational to her teammates and her country.

In 2011, Japan’s victory was uplifting for a country suffering from the effects of a devastating tsunami and nuclear reactor meltdown. While coach Mark Sampson’s side has no such dramatic backdrop to propel England forward, the team has unleashed a wave of enthusiasm back across the pond.

Could an England victory and appearance in the final make this World Cup a turning point in women’s soccer in Great Britain? England started off the tournament with a 1-0 loss to France, but have now won four in a row, all by a 2-1 margin, over Mexico, Colombia, Norway and Canada.

"We’re going to bring it. We’re going to really front up this Japanese team and make their life as difficult as we can," England coach Mark Sampson said.

England captain Steph Houghton was equally emphatic.

"We always said that we had one aim when we came. It was to inspire a nation, and if the mums and dads have let their young girls watch the game late in England, I think hopefully we’ve got a lot of young girls playing football at an early age, and in the next few years, we have a stronger English national team," she said.

England’s midfield is led by Fara Williams, 30, who has 145 caps and controls the Three Lionesses’ pace. Her story is one of true determination: As a teenager, Williams was homeless for seven years — a fact she hid from her national team coaches and teammates as she moved from youth hostels around London. 

One big question for England is the status of goalkeeper Karen Bardsley, who had to come off the field against Canada in the 52nd minute due to an allergic reaction that effected her eye.

Backup Siobhan Chamberlain came on without any warmup and had one save. England is the only side that has not recorded a shutout in this World Cup.

Japan’s skill and teamwork will be very difficult for England to break though. Against Canada, the Three Lionesses capitalized early on two horrendous defensive breakdowns by Lauren Sesselmann. Japan will not make that kind of mistake, making this match a showdown between England’s stated desire to attack and Japan’s endlessly impressive passing and ball control.