U.S. faces tough test against Japan
When the U.S. women's national team beat Japan twice in a four-day span in May, the impression left was that one of the teams on display was a potential Women's World Cup finalist, while the other was a Women's World Cup pretender.
What a difference two months can make.
While the U.S. has largely lived up to its pre-tournament expectation of Women's World Cup contender, Japan's performance has exceeded its wildest hopes, and now the teams are set to meet in Sunday's final in Frankfurt.
That the Nadeshiko has played some of the prettiest soccer in the tournament isn't a surprise. Japan has long been one of the most technically adept teams in the world. But it would invariably fall short against bigger, more physically imposing teams. The two losses to the U.S. in May, as well as a 2-0 group-stage defeat to England, only reinforced that perception. The latter result left Japan with a sobering 0-8-1 record against European sides in World Cup competition.
But since then, Japan has become more adept at translating its possession-based style into victories against the more athletic teams. The Nadeshiko defeated prohibitive favorite Germany 1-0 in the quarterfinals and took out Sweden in the semis, 3-1. These wins weren't flukes, either. Granted, Japan benefited from a disastrous performance by Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl, but it carried the play in both matches. Not only have mainstays such as Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama been operating near their peak, but players such as Shinobu Ohno and Nahomi Kawasumi have been making vital contributions to the attack as well.
So what has been the difference? In the eyes of U.S. players and coaches, Japan's ascendance has been equal parts tactical and mental.
"They are more sophisticated going into the attacking third," said U.S. manager Pia Sundhage during Thursday's conference call with reporters. "They're still very good on the ball between the boxes, but now they look a little more dangerous."
And more varied. Rather than relying solely on clever combinations, Japan hasn't been afraid to hit crosses into the box, where Sawa's underrated leaping ability has caused plenty of problems. In fact, three of the four goals she has scored in the tournament have been with her head.
But there has also been a psychological element to Japan's revival. In May, as the team trained in Columbus, Ohio, ahead of the first match against the U.S., the mental scars from the tsunami and earthquake that occurred in March were evident. Yet even then, head coach Norio Sasaki felt that his side could channel that emotion in a positive direction.
"The people want us to overcome these difficulties," said Sasaki at the time with the help of a translator. "We want to show a good performance from our side to encourage the victims. From the victims, we get power. Now it's time to give them power back."
The Nadeshiko has done that and more. "They're playing for something bigger and better than the game," said U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo of Japan. "When you're playing with so much emotion and so much heart, that's hard to play against. They're already a brilliant team on the attack. They put numbers forward, the pass the ball around, they're starting to take more outside shots than they have in years past."
This combination of factors makes Japan a far more difficult matchup than it initially appears to be. Against the U.S., both Brazil in the quarterfinal and France in the semifinal absorbed the shock of giving up an early goal to eventually gain control of the midfield. Maintaining possession became a real point for the Americans, and it was almost their undoing. A miracle goal from Abby Wambach and the penalty shootout heroics of Solo rescued the U.S. against Brazil, while some tactical adjustments from Sundhage helped turn the tide against the French.
The two victories pointed to the Americans' own brand of self-belief and drive. But Japan has the personnel to replicate the same level of midfield dominance shown by Brazil and France. Sundhage is well aware of this, and she admitted that the U.S. will need to change how it goes about things come Sunday.
"First of all, we need to continue to have good defense," Sundhage said. "The back four has done a very good job so far. But I think the key is transition. When we win the ball, I think sometimes we're too eager to play that big ball because there is so much space. But in the final we need to be smarter than that. We need to include players and add numbers into the attack and be a little bit more unpredictable because they are organized, and they get numbers behind the ball. When they do that and if they do that, we need to be patient in the attacking third and we need to have players coming from behind and add numbers."
That doesn't necessarily mean the Americans have to win the possession battle, but it will require the presumed central tandem of Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx to do more to control the tempo. That will allow the U.S. to get the ball wide more often and better utilize its power and strength advantages through attackers like Wambach and Lauren Cheney.
If the U.S. can turn the game from a midfield contest into a battle of the boxes, the history of last May should repeat itself.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.