Four years ago, in the 2011 Women's World Cup final, the United States lost to Japan on penalties. Alex Morgan scored the opening goal in the 69th minute after the USA had dominated play to that point. Against the run of play, Japan came back to equalize in the 81st minute when the USA defense failed to clear a cross into the box. With the score tied at 1-1 after 90 minutes, the match headed to overtime.
The USA took the lead through an Abby Wambach header, and held a 2-1 advantage until just 3 minutes remained in the extra period of play. Japan levelled the score when Homare Sawa headed into the back of the net from a corner. Tied at 2-2, the match was decided by penalty kicks, and Japan lifted the trophy when the USA missed three of its four penalties. Needless to say, it was a painful loss for the USWNT.
A year later, Japan and the USA met again--this time, in the gold-medal game of the London Olympics. On that occasion, the USA prevailed 2-1. While the loss in the 2011 Women's World Cup final is providing extra motivation for the USA as it prepares for today's rematch, the Japanese are hoping to avenge their loss in the Olympics. According to Japanese captain Aya Miyama (as reported in the LA Times),
"I never forgot the day we played the final in the Olympics... I wanted the gold medal. The bitter feeling I had back then has stayed with me."
In spite of Japan's victory in the 2011 Women's World Cup final, it remains Japan's sole win against the USWNT in 30+ matches. And while Japan has been very efficient in progressing through this tournament--beating each of its opponents by a single goal--Japan has faced relatively soft competition in those matches. Japan's first four opponents were World Cup debutants (Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador and the Netherlands), and its opponents in the quarterfinals (Australia) and semifinals (England) had no history of success in the knockout stage of a World Cup. Furthermore, Japan was unimpressive against both Australia and England, with the Japanese advancing to the final only after England surrendered an injury time own-goal.
On the other hand, the USA finished first in the so-called "group of death," beat Germany--the top-ranked team in the world--in the semis, and has not allowed a goal against any of its knockout stage opponents in advancing to today's final. Although the USA started slowly in the tournament, the Americans have grown stronger as they've progressed through the bracket.
Coach Jill Ellis has been criticized (mostly unfairly) for both her team selection and her tactics. However, since she reshuffled her personnel and changed her preferred formation when Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday were unavailable (due to yellow card accumulation), the USA has been more solid defensively and has enjoyed more possession. The key change was adding Morgan Brian to central midfield. Although she's not a natural holding midfielder, Brian has shown defensive discipline, sure tackling, and tidy passing. With Brian in midfield, Holiday and Lloyd have more freedom to push forward, which is where they are at their best.
Although I've pretty consistently failed to anticipate Coach Ellis' starting lineup, my suspicion is that it will be very similar to the starting XI against Germany. That lineup gives the USA a single striker (Alex Morgan) flanked by two wingers (Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath). Given Japan's strength on the left flank (Aya Miyama), I would be tempted to replace Heath with Kelley O'Hara, as she is a stronger defender and can help Ali Krieger on that side.
Japan is extremely well-organized and disciplined in defense. However, because Japan lacks height and pace, they are vulnerable to set pieces and long balls. Although Abby Wambach is unlikely to start, I expect her to see action at some point today. Her size and strength can create real problems for Japan. But with Coach Ellis probably wanting to press Japan high up the pitch, Wambach is a poor fit for that plan.
Japan have the highest pass completion percentage of any team in the tournament at 80%. This is partly a consequence of Japan's seemingly infinite patience in attack. Japan is happy to pass the ball around in its own half as it probes for openings, and it also uses this tactic to control the pace of the game.
There are several key players for Japan. Aya Miyama is a creative playmaker, but she's been used primarily on the left flank with the freedom to cut inside to support strikers Shinobu Ohno and Yuki Ogimi. Ohio is more valuable for what she does off the ball than with the ball. She's good at holding up play and creating space for her teammates.
Defensive midfielder Rumi Utsugi will have the responsibility of keeping track of Carli Lloyd. Since Lloyd has become an increasingly important attacking option for the USA, Utsugi's performance today may be critical in determining the outcome of the match. Lastly, although she doesn't start, Mana Iwabuchi is an impact substitute who adds energy and pace to Japan's attack in the latter stages of games. She scored the game-winner against Australia and revived the Japanese attack in the closing minutes of their match against England.
According to the folks at FiveThirtyEight, the USA has a 67% chance of winning the 2015 Women's World Cup today. And in a different analysis, Nate Silver makes the case that the USWNT may represent the greatest World Cup dynasty. His argument is persuasive. In seven World Cup appearances, the USWNT has never finished lower than third. During that time span, the USWNT has appeared in four World Cup finals and has two championships. That record compares favorably with two other World Cup dynasties: Brazil's men's team (1938-70) and Germany's men's team (1966-90). Brazil is the only country with three World Cup titles in a seven tournament period, and the USWNT can match that accomplishment with a victory over Japan today.
Finally, in case you still aren't sufficiently excited about today's final, there's this:
USA vs. Japan
Kickoff: 4:00 PM PDT
Location: BC Place Stadium, Vancouver
United States Coverage: Fox Network, NBC Deportes En Vivo Extra, Fox Soccer 2Go USA, Telemundo
USA vs. Japan, Women's World Cup 2015: Start time, TV schedule and team news - SB Nation http://t.co/k1LgFmFrOk— TV Weekly Plus (@tvweeklyplus) July 5, 2015
Third Place Match Result
Please enjoy this 2015 Women's World Cup championship game thread with your fellow Bruins.
Go USA! Go Bruins!