U.S. will rue missed opportunities
For much of this Women's World Cup, destiny seemed to be the United States' constant companion. In Sunday's final it proved fickle, as Japan -- a team riding its own wave of emotion -- claimed its first title, beating the U.S. 3-1 on penalties after extra time finished 2-2.
As has been the case in most of the Americans' World Cup matches, the final proved to be an enthralling contest, but it's one that the U.S. will rue for years to come. The Americans dominated much of the match, and had they been more clinical in front of goal, the game might very well have been a rout.
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Yet in spite of their profligacy, the Americans twice were in prime position to win the game, taking the lead in normal time on a goal by substitute Alex Morgan, and then in extra time on a header by Abby Wambach. But on this occasion it was Japan's turn to come back from the brink of defeat. Aya Miyama scored off a goalmouth scramble in the 80th minute, and then captain Homare Sawa bagged Japan's second equalizer with just more than three minutes remaining in extra time.
In the penalty shootout that followed, it was no contest. Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath both had their efforts saved by Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, while Carli Lloyd missed the target entirely. U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo kept the Americans within touching distance when she saved Yuki Nagasato's shot in the second round, but it wasn't enough. When Saki Kumagai slotted home her attempt, Japan was left to celebrate while the Americans were left in tears.
Given everything that Japan has been through in the past four months in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami, it was hard to begrudge the Nadeshiko its first title.
Before the match, the big question was how the U.S. would cope with Japan's possession game. But the Americans immediately seized the initiative, pressing Japan in its own half and preventing the Nadeshiko from establishing any kind of rhythm in the early going. This served as a platform for plenty of chances, only for the U.S. to be let down by some scattershot finishing.
Lauren Cheney was released by Megan Rapinoe in the first minute, only to make a poor choice to shoot rather than pass. That marked only the beginning of the U.S. assault on the Japanese goal. Cheney went wide again in the eighth minute after more good work from Rapinoe. Rapinoe herself went close four minutes later after Cheney broke free down the right wing.
And so it continued. Rapinoe hit the post from a tight angle in the 18th minute. Lloyd missed the target from inside the box, and Wambach hit the bar with a longer-range effort in the 28th minute.
Japan finally found its feet after half an hour, as Shinobu Ohno began to find some space in transition. She twice tried to slip passes in to striker Kozue Ando, one of which resulted in a shot on target in the 31st minute, but Solo was well positioned to make a comfortable save.
But despite this mild revival, the U.S. was the dominant force in the first half, and no doubt felt it should have been in the lead.
The Americans suffered a blow at halftime, when Cheney was forced out of the match due to an ankle injury, but there was little change in the game's flow. Substitute Morgan hit the post from close range in the 49th minute after good work from Heather O'Reilly.
But Morgan at last gave the U.S. the goal it deserved. Good defensive pressure saw the ball fall to Rapinoe, and her well-weighted long ball found Morgan in stride. The U.S. forward's first touch was excellent, and she rifled the ball past Kaihori in the Japanese goal.
The U.S. then -- not for the last time -- looked poised to close the game out and for the most part limited Japan to long-range shots that were easily dealt with by Solo. But a calamitous series of errors in the 80th minute was ruthlessly punished by Japan. A rare poor ball by Christie Rampone was picked off by Sawa, who quickly got the ball wide. The subsequent cross fell into the box, was cleared by Rachel Buehler straight at Ali Krieger, whose attempted clearance fell right at the feet of Miyama. The Japanese midfielder made no mistake, poking the ball past Solo to get the Nadeshiko back on level terms.
Duly inspired, Japan was brimming with confidence and went close several times late in the match. Mizuho Sakaguchi dragged a shot wide in the 89th minute after a flowing move in transition.
But in extra time the U.S. reasserted itself. Morgan nearly put the U.S. on top in the 95th minute, only to drag her shot wide. But the U.S. forward continued to be a threat, and good work down the left wing ended with her cross being headed home by Wambach.
Once again, the U.S. had one hand on the trophy, but it wasn't to be. And it was from a set piece -- a traditional American strength -- that Japan equalized again. A Miyama corner kick was met with the slightest of touches by Sawa, appeared to take a deflection off Wambach and ultimately handcuffed Solo in the U.S. goal.
Wambach nearly snatched the game at the death, but her shot from Heather O'Reilly's cross was skied over the bar.
That left the match to be decided by penalties, and as so often happens, the momentum was with the team that came back. It's a defeat that will stick in the Americans' craw, but it was also a tournament in which the U.S. delivered many memorable moments. It's just that destiny proved to be Japan's ally after all.
Player ratings (1-10, 10 = best)
G Hope Solo, 6: Could do nothing about the goals. Was sharp in her decision-making, especially when choosing to come off her line. Her handling was solid as well, although there was one cross in extra time that she looked shaky on.
D Amy LePeilbet, 5: Continued her upward trajectory in the tournament early on, as she was effective on the defensive end, and better with her distribution. But she did get caught forward a few times late in the match, and Japan began to have plenty of effectiveness attacking her side.
D Christie Rampone, 6.5: The U.S. defender has been so steady in this tournament, and to see her wayward pass lead to one of Japan's goals was borderline shocking. Used her speed well to defuse some Japanese attacks, especially in clearing a late shot off the line.
D Rachel Buehler, 4: Largely untroubled defensively for long stretches, and was usually strong in the tackle. But her botched clearance helped set the table for Japan's first equalizer, and was beaten by Sawa on the second.
D Ali Krieger, 5: Defensively fine, but the steady erosion in her distribution continued. She played a part in failing to prevent Miyama's goal, as well.
M Megan Rapinoe, 7: Had a huge impact in the first 20 minutes with her ability to get free on the wing. Should have passed rather than shot with a tight-angled blast that hit the post in the 18th minute, but her long pass in the run-up to Morgan's goal was pure magic.
M Shannon Boxx, 6.5: Helped boss the midfield in the first half with quick pressure. Faded a bit at the end, but was strong overall.
M Carli Lloyd, 6.5: Had more jump in her legs than against France, and clogged the passing lanes well. Should have done better with a wide-open shot in the first half, and was almost too eager to shoot thereafter. Her passing was much sharper than in previous matches.
M Heather O'Reilly, 7: Shook loose on the right wing a few times, and put in some telling crosses. Also delivered some unsung work on the defensive end. On another day, she might have had a few assists.
F Abby Wambach, 8: Helped out a ton defensively to upset Japan's possession game and put in her usual hardworking shift up top. Unlucky with a shot that hit the bar in the 28th minute, but her persistence paid off and her header should have won it for the Americans. She'll have nightmares about her late miss, though.
F Lauren Cheney, 6: Put herself in great positions, but struggled mightily with her finishing. Her decision to shoot rather than pass with a first-minute chance was highly suspect. That said, she was a threat, and it was unfortunate that her day ended at halftime due to a right angle injury.
F Alex Morgan, 9: Unlucky not to score when she hit the post from close range in the 49th minute, but wasn't to be denied. Her finish in the 68th minute was sublime, and she set up the Americans' second goal with her hard work and pinpoint cross to Wambach.
M Tobin Heath, 6: Nearly won the match with a late shot inside the box that was blocked. Was among those who fell short in the shootout.
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.
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2011 Women's World Cup
2011 champion: Japan
Topics: Women's World Cup