Bruin Lauren Cheney avoids a tackle in the match against France. The US will need to control play through midfield in today's final against Japan. (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
Every four years, nations from around the globe field their best collection of soccer players and come together to compete in a series of tournaments. Those tournaments culminate with a final playoff to determine which country has the best team. Individuals leave their professional teams behind for a time for the honor of playing for their country, and for the right for their nation to claim the title of world champion.
The final game in that tournament is about to begin. The top ranked team in the world, the United States of America, has a chance to reclaim the title it clinched12 years ago as women's World Cup champion. The last four years of hard work and dedication comes down to this.
The U.S. squad always expected to be in this game, though the path to get here was slightly unexpected. A surprise upset against Sweden in group play led to that iconic comeback win against Brazil, and then a solid victory over France in the semifinals earned them the right to play for the championship trophy.
Bruin legend Lauren Cheney started the scoring early against France 9 minutes in with a nice one touch redirect of a ball from Heather O'Reilly, and the Americans carried that 1-0 lead to halftime. But France is known for its strong play in the second half, and this would be no exception. France controlled play early in the second half and tied the game on a long shot that handcuffed keeper Hope Solo who had to account for an attacking forward. However, U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage then made some key adjustments, first inserting Alex Morgan up top of the offense, then later inserting Megan Rapinoe at left midfield and moving Cheney to center. Rapinoe's speed and pressure up the wing and Cheney's steady play in the middle helped regain control for the Americans who were able to resume pressure on the French. The Bruin set the stage again in the 79th minute when Cheney lofted a perfect corner to the far post where the cool killer Abby Wambach nailed the header to give the U.S. a 2-1 lead. A nice through ball from Rapinoe to Morgan 3 minutes later gave the Americans their 3rd goal, and the U.S. was into the finals.
Awaiting the U.S. in the finals is
Germany Sweden Japan. That's right, Japan. Buoyed by support from home and from around the world in the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters in history, the Japanese women's team has given their ravaged country something to rally around and a reason to cheer. Always technically skilled, but typically less athletic than their opponents, the Japanese women seem a surprise finalist. Well, maybe not. Beginning the elimination round with a shocking upset against home favorite Germany in the quarters, the Japanese then dominated Sweden, incidentally the only team to beat the U.S. in this tournament, in the semis. Led by 5-time World Cup star midfielder Homare Sawa, Japan wants to control midfield. Always a very good possession team, Japan has lately has played with more offensive aggressiveness, and it has paid off. Their success has fueled their confidence and they are peaking at the perfect time. That confidence, their recent success, and the inspiration of their country make Japan a very formidable opponent. The U.S. will have to keep Japan from possessing the ball and controlling play, so the onus will be on the Americans defense to dispossess the Japanese and for our midfield to control the ball and transition up the field.
The U.S. and Japan met for a pair of friendlies in May as well as in the Algarve Cup this year, with the U.S. besting the Japanese in all 3 matches. The Americans are hoping that history will repeat itself today. But this is a very different Japanese team this time, and they are no doubt hoping the fourth time is a charm. The Americans will look for Cheney, who has 3 assists so far, to create scoring opportunities, and especially from set pieces, given Wambach's height advantage over the Japanese defenders. Back Rachel Buehler sat out the semis after her red card against Brazil, but will return to the center of the defense for the finals. Japan will rely on ball control and deliberate buildups to try to create scoring opportunities for themselves. Whichever team is more effective in instilling its style will be the ones to hoist the coveted World Cup trophy. The U.S. is playing for national pride and its first World Cup in 12 years. The Japanese women are playing for a little bit more.
Here's your women's World Cup final open thread. Have at it. Go Bruins and Go USA!!