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Wednesday, July 13, 2011
Japan's possession game will challenge U.S.

By Michelle Smith

MONCHENGLADBACH, Germany -- In the moments after the 3-1 victory over France that vaulted her squad into the team's first World Cup final since 1999, U.S. coach Pia Sundhage did not want to talk about the next opponent.

At that point, it was going to be either Sweden or Japan, and she didn't want to play the '"What if?'' game.

"No," Sundhage said. "I want to enjoy this win with the team tonight. I'll discuss our opponent tomorrow."

Turns out she'll be talking about Japan. The Japanese team has gone from the upstart, the pleasant surprise of this tournament, to a finalist after defeating Sweden, 3-1, on Wednesday night in Frankfurt.

The Japanese players jumped into each other's arms after the victory in celebration of their first World Cup final appearance. With the win over the Swedes, the team that might have been considered overrated at No. 4 in the world now has everyone's attention.

Led by midfielder Homare Sawa, playing in her fifth and final World Cup tournament, Japan has reached the championship for the first time, despite having qualified for every World Cup.

The Japanese are a precision passing team and have beaten their opponents with their possession game throughout the past three weeks.

Japan came into the match with the highest pass completion percentage in the tournament (76.8). Sawa has the highest pass completion percentage by an individual player at 82.4 percent.

"Japan is a phenomenal technical team," U.S. forward Lauren Cheney said. "It will be a battle. We've played them before and we know them well, and we have to focus on their game."

The U.S., the top-ranked team in the world, will be the favorite. Japan has never beaten the U.S. in 25 matches (22-0-3). The Americans have won nine in a row in the series, including all three matches in 2011. The U.S. holds a 77-13 goal advantage.

The Americans will be the bigger, more physical team, and it would stand to reason that Abby Wambach should be able to dominate in front of the net on high-ball opportunities. But the U.S. has to improve its midfield play after Wednesday's shaky effort against France or risk a very busy night for goalkeeper Hope Solo.

The Japanese have played inspired soccer and have carried the hope that they could lift their beleaguered nation after the tragedies of last March, the earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000, and the subsequent nuclear disaster.

The team has carried a banner at every site, thanking the world for its support. The players stood behind that banner again Wednesday night.

Even Solo admits she has a special place in her heart for the Japanese and what they've accomplished.

"Sentimentally, I'm cheering for Japan because of everything their country has been through. I think they are a sentimental favorite," Solo said.