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Tuesday, July 12, 2011
Five things to watch in semifinals

By Joanne C. Gerstner

FRANKFURT, Germany -- The ultimate prize in soccer is looming closer and closer. After two weeks and four tough games, only two more matches remain to be won to take the FIFA Women's World Cup.

But sailing through Wednesday's semifinals and into Sunday's final probably won't be an easy task for Sweden, Japan, France and the United States. These four teams have had to employ their skill, toughness and survival instincts in making it this far.

Here are five storylines to watch in the World Cup semifinals:

1. Running on adrenaline

You can't ask for more excitement than what France and the U.S. successfully endured in the quarterfinals. Both made last-minute comebacks to tie their games and then hung on to outlast, outwit and outplay in the penalty-kick round. France ran quarterfinals opponent England into the ground and showed fresher legs and a stronger outlook to earn its first trip to the semifinals. The U.S. played one of the most memorable games in women's national team history and endured the drama to defeat Brazil.

Two amazing wins. And now the survivors get to play each other in Moenchengladbach. But the question lurks: What's going to be left in their physical and emotional tanks for the semifinals?

2. Big vs. small

It will be a study of contrasts in the Frankfurt semifinal as Japan takes on Sweden.

Japan is the Mighty Mouse team that slays the giants. The Japanese are the shortest team left, standing an average of 5-foot-4, but that doesn't stop them from playing big. Japan plays very precise soccer, relying on pinpoint passing and speed to drive opponents batty. Germany learned that firsthand in the quarterfinals as the Japanese pulled off the biggest upset in the tournament by winning 1-0 in extra time.

Sweden also plays disciplined, smart soccer. And Sweden likes to grind down opponents, too, launching devastating scoring strikes. The Swedes had the easiest trip of the four semifinalists, neatly dispatching Australia 3-1.

3. Establishment vs. newcomers

There is something to be said for experience, and both the U.S. and Sweden carry loads of it. The U.S. has left its mark on the World Cup, winning two titles. The Swedes have been among the world's top teams but want to prove they are able to take it all. They came close in 2003, finishing second to Germany. This team believes it has the right blend of newcomers and veterans to advance to the final.

Japan and France sit on the other end of the spectrum, heading into their first semifinal in WWC history. France already reached new territory in the quarterfinals, marking the first time Les Bleus advanced out of the group round.

Will nerves and anxiety grip France and Japan? Or will they ride the wave of enthusiasm and not succumb to the big moment?

4. Pick a side

It will be interesting to see who the German fan base decides to adopt as its team. Two-time world champion Germany is out, fan favorite Brazil is gone and other teams with nice bases, such as Mexico and England, aren't here either.

The U.S. has had strong fan support throughout the tournament, thanks to U.S. military personnel and expats living in Germany. Plus, Sunday's triumph over Brazil made scores of new fans, impressed with the American effort.

Japan and Sweden have ardent fan bases, with native supporters making the trip to Germany. Japan's fans chant, clap, bang drums and make themselves known, starting 30 minutes before the game. Sweden's legions dress in blue and yellow, making themselves quite visible in the stadiums.

And France? Well, there were some excited fans in Leverkusen, but most of the crowd seemed to be pro-England. France and Germany have a historically complicated relationship. We'll see whether it carries to the pitch.

5. Have fun

All four teams have talked extensively about their desire to have fun and show "the beautiful game" philosophy to the world. Japan is playing to bring comfort and hope to the earthquake and tsunami-devastated northern areas of its country.

The quartet of teams also understands that success and joy on the field could influence future generations of girls -- and boys -- to play soccer and dream big around the world.

And that should be our mission, too, as fans: Enjoy the semifinals.