So, we meet again
Can the U.S. women erase last summer's Japan pain by winning the Olympic gold?
Ever since losing last year's Women's World Cup final to Japan, the U.S. has made no secret of using that disappointment as fuel for its Olympic quest. As much as manager Pia Sundhage tried to downplay it, the memory of that penalty-shootout defeat drove her players on fitness days, during qualifying and well into the tournament itself.
"It definitely lingers for the team, and it's a constant discussion in a positive way," U.S. captain Christie Rampone said before the Olympics. "Remember the feeling, keep pushing, wanting to get back to the final and end it the right way."
After navigating through the tournament to the tune of five consecutive victories, the U.S. has that chance. On Thursday, the Americans will face their World Cup nemesis at Wembley Stadium, one of the cathedrals of the sport, with a gold medal on the line.
On the surface, things couldn't be lining up much better for the Americans. The goals have been raining in for the U.S. to the tune of 14 in five matches. Although forward Alex Morgan has garnered plenty of headlines thanks to her extra-time winner in Monday's classic semifinal against Canada, she has been aided and abetted by front-line partner Abby Wambach, who has scored in every game.
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Other players have stepped up as well. On any other team, Megan Rapinoe's creativity and long-range shooting would make her the breakout star of the tournament. Plus Tobin Heath has repaid the faith of Sundhage with some stellar displays on both sides of the ball. Such potency on offense has nearly everyone predicting a U.S. victory.
"Wambach and Morgan have got to be one of the greatest forward combinations in U.S. soccer history," said former U.S. national team manager Tony DiCicco. "They're just, right now, unstoppable. As long as the U.S. plays a reasonably good defensive game, I think they're going to get good chances, and I don't think anyone can shut them out."
Yet there is no guarantee that the U.S. rear guard will play up to the level required. For most of the tournament the team's defending from front to back has been excellent, so much that goalkeeper Hope Solo could have set up a lawn chair in her own penalty area and still made the saves asked of her.
However, that all changed in the semifinals. The Canadians not only scored three goals thanks to a breathtaking performance from Christine Sinclair, but they effectively outnumbered the Americans in midfield by deploying three central midfielders along with one of Sinclair or Melissa Tancredi dropping into space between the midfield and back lines. Combined with some poor marking in the box, it's clear to see that the U.S. defense is looking plenty suspect.
"It was terrifying because it reminded me of the Achilles' heel of the U.S. team," University of North Carolina women's head coach Anson Dorrance said. "If our defenders are exposed by poor midfield defending, scary things are going to happen."
Of course, Japan is a very different team from Canada, and while striker Yuki Ogimi has enjoyed an excellent tournament with two goals, she isn't nearly as dynamic as Sinclair, particularly with regard to her aerial presence. Japan doesn't have the kind of speed to get in behind the U.S. defense either, and that should make life easier for the Americans.
Yet Japan's attack is plenty capable of hurting the U.S. side. Despite not being the most physical or aerial team, Japan has showed an uncanny ability to score from set pieces over the past year, as witnessed by the goal Homare Sawa scored against the U.S. in last year's World Cup final as well as Mizuho Sakaguchi's header against France on Monday. The team's technical ability means it is capable of playing its way through even the most organized defense. Yet Japan also has an unpredictability that allows it to flood the midfield just as Canada did.
"I think sometimes when you play against small strikers, you are pushed back as a back four," said former Norway and Canada national team manager Even Pellerud. "The U.S. team keeps the back four very tight and together, so they will give space away in front of them. That can only be compensated by a midfield that is tighter than it was against Canada. I think that will be a crucial thing."
That will require better defensive coordination from central midfielders Carli Lloyd and Lauren Cheney, with one of Heath and Rapinoe tucking in centrally to provide more support. And although Sawa remains one of Japan's key attacking pieces, the U.S. will need to make sure it keeps tabs on captain Aya Miyama, who lines up ostensibly on the left side of midfield but has license to float into central positions.
"Miyama is their best final passer; she takes their free kicks, she can score herself," DiCicco said. "She's really a crafty player, and she finds little seams to playmake out of."
To compensate, the U.S. might look at how France played against Japan in the semifinal. While Les Bleus were oddly timid for three-quarters of the match, once it ratcheted up the high pressure and played more direct soccer, Japan was on the back foot. Had it not been for a missed penalty by France midfielder Elise Bussaglia, the Nadeshiko might not have even made it to Thursday's final.
"Don't give Japan a chance to connect passes and find the midfield," former Brazilian international Sissi said. "Put them under pressure, and I think the U.S. will have success."
The U.S. will need to be selective in that regard, as Japan has proved during the Olympics that it's adept at soaking up pressure and threatening teams on the break. Sitting back also might allow Japan to reduce the space behind its back line, thus limiting the opportunities for Morgan to use her blazing speed.
That said, there seems to be no slowing down the U.S. attack, one that can play short when teams sag back and long when opponents press higher up the field.
"I hate to say this, but it might not matter if the other team scores if Wambach, Rapinoe and Morgan continue to attack the way they've been attacking," Dorrance said. "But I thought that last year."
So did the U.S. players. This time, they're expecting a very different outcome.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is 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.
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