Print and Go Back News & Opinion [Print without images]

Saturday, July 16, 2011
Updated: July 17, 1:45 PM ET
Five things to watch in the final

By Joanne C. Gerstner

FRANKFURT, Germany -- It's taken three weeks, 30 matches, 16 teams and nine cities around Germany to reach this point: the Women's World Cup final.

Sunday's matchup, the United States versus Japan, is likely to carry a lot of emotion. Both teams are fan favorites, thanks to showing their heart and determination to reach the final.

Here are five storylines you need to know for the World Cup final:

1. Playing for a cause

This is unknown territory for the Japanese. This is their first World Cup final, and they are only the second Asian team to reach the championship. China in 1999 was the first. Interestingly, as most soccer fans know, the Chinese also had to face the U.S. for the World Cup, with the Americans taking the title in penalty kicks.

The Japanese are quite excited to have made it this far. Before the tournament began, in wake of the March 11 tsunami, earthquake and nuclear disasters that struck their homeland, the players decided to play as a source of inspiration and pride for Japan. The emotion has been clear in the Japanese, as they really want to bring happiness back to their country. Winning the World Cup would make them national heroines.

2. Keeping calm

Japan and the U.S. have shown quite the survivalist flair to get to the final.

Japan had to defeat Germany on its home turf, scoring in extra time to advance out of the quarterfinals.

The U.S. had to get a last-second goal in extra time from Abby Wambach to get to penalty kicks against Brazil in the quarters. The Americans surged ahead in the PKs, but it was a nerve-racking ride.

Both had easier finishes in the semifinals, showing off a killer instinct. These are two teams that know how to keep calm, think clearly and go for the win when the pressure is the highest.

But the stress and nerves will be even higher in the final. Who will respond the best?

3. Watch the stars

The final will have a slew of talented women to keep your eyes on. Watch U.S. goalie Hope Solo make big saves, Wambach go for her headers and midfielder Megan Rapinoe's play to match her spiky-cool hair with a flair for the dramatic.

Japan's captain, Homare Sawa, plays with a keen savvy and grace, and midfielders Aya Miyama and Nahomi Kawasumi have both demonstrated dangerous scoring ability.

It's going to be the athleticism of the Americans versus the aggressive midfield pressure of the Japanese.

But as we've seen in many a big game, there's always room for a new star to be born. Who will step up? Or will someone crack under the pressure?

4. Go, team!

The U.S. and Japan have their share of amazing individual stars, but in the end, the onus remains squarely centered on the team effort as a whole. U.S. coach Pia Sundhage continually talks (and sometimes sings!) about the team winning together, enjoying each other and being supportive of the collective effort. Japanese coach Norio Sasaki preaches along the same lines, asking his players to always play as one.

Both squads have bought into their coaches' all-for-one philosophies. These houses are definitely not divided, with their sound foundations and team construction leading them into the finals.

5. Making history

U.S. captain Christie Rampone is the only player in the final to already have won the World Cup.

No matter the outcome, there will be a new crop of freshly minted champions, from coaches down to players. As Solo put it, "It's the once-in-a-lifetime chance you want to seize."

Only three teams have had the privilege of winning the Women's World Cup since its inception in 1991: Germany (2007 and '03), U.S. (1991 and '99) and Norway (1995).

Expect a packed FIFA Women's World Cup stadium in Frankfurt, with sizable support for both the Japanese and the Americans. It's going to be a rollicking finish to a wild 22-day ride.