July 17, 2011

Japan Wins World Cup

Japan finished off an unlikely fairy tale, twice coming back from a goal down to defeat the United States in World Cup Final by penalty kicks. The US twice squandered leads, once late in regulation and again late in overtime.

For a nation that has had what could only be called a tragic year, this was indeed a bright and shiny moment of hope. The Japanese team entered this tournament as longshots, but came out standing alone as champions.

As for the United States, one statistic told the story. They attempted 27 shots on the day, nearly one every four minutes, but only five of those shots were on frame. They absolutely dominated the first 70 minutes of this match, but they let Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori off the hook time and time again by not forcing her to make saves.

The United States got their first chance in the eighth minute. A Megan Rapinoe cross found Lauren Cheney at the near post, but she redirected it wide from inside the six. Seconds later, Abby Wambach put a 25 yard shot over the crossbar. Just two minutes after that, Carli Lloyd's uncontested shot from 16 yards also went just over the bar. A minute after that, Lauren Cheney beat the Japanese defense on the right side and crossed to Rapinoe whose shot from eight yards went wide of the right post. Four golden scoring opportunities in the first 12 minutes and not one found the net.

For the entire half, Japan rarely had possession anywhere near the US penalty area. Japan's first shot of the match was an effort from Shinobu Ohno that went well wide of the goal from over 30 yards in the 22nd minute.

The United States very nearly struck in the 28th minute. Abby Wambach drove a hard shot from the 18 that had Kaihori beaten, but hit the bottom of the crossbar and bounced away.

Japan created their best chance of the half when Ohno pushed a nice ball through to the left side of the US penalty area with Kozue Ando running onto it. Ando's shot from 10 yards was at a tough angle and it rolled right to Hope Solo.

In the 35th minute, Lauren Cheney had an uncontested header from the penalty spot with Kaihori off her line and put that over the crossbar. By halftime, it's not an exaggeration to say that the United States could easily have had three or four goals, while Japan was yet to truly have one dangerous attempt.

Pia Sundhage made her first substitution at the half, but it was forced by injury. Lauren Cheney had injured herself in the opening half and Alex Morgan was sent into the match.

It didn't take long for Morgan to get into the action. In the 49th minute, a Heather O'Reilly cross from the right side found Morgan making a run at the near post. Morgan was inside the six when she pushed the ball off the post, then the ball rebounded off Kaihori and landed one yard from the goal line, before Japan was finally able to clear. Just four minutes later, Wambach had Kaihori off her line, but skied the ball over the goal from 25 yards.

Japan's first real chance of the second half came in the 61st minute as Yukari Kinga broke into the box on the right side, but her looping shot went well over the net.

A couple of minutes later, Kaihori made her first big save of the match. O'Reilly sent the ball into the penalty area and Wambach's header appeared to be heading into the net just under the crossbar, but Kaihori was able to tip it over.

Japan's first two substitutions were Karina Maruyama and Yuki Nagasato for Ohno and Ando in the 66th minute.

The United States finally broke through in the 69th minute. Megan Rapinoe sent a long ball from well inside her own half, up the middle of the field. Alex Morgan beat the defender gathered the ball just outside the penalty area, and touched it just once to set up her shot. She drilled the ball into the lower right corner of the net and the US was on top 1-0. And one began to think that maybe, just maybe, with the US ahead by one and in control of the match, that they might be heading for their third title.

Japan, however, had other ideas. For the first time all day, they started to create some chances. Homare Sawa was able to get off a shot from 25 yards, straight at Solo, but it was a sign that Japan wasn't going to let this go easily. Japan started to find gaps on the right side and it resulted in some challenging foot races for American defenders.

In the 81st minute, United States made a turnover in their own end and it handed Japan the opportunity they had been waiting for. Nahomi Kawasumi intercepted a pass and sent the ball forward to Nagasato into the right corner. Nagasato cut back against Amy LePeilbet and crossed the ball into the penalty area. The United States made a mess of the clearance with the ball falling right to Aya Miyama's feet and she touched it in from just five yards out to tie the match.

Japan had one late chance to take the lead, but Mizuho Sakaguchi's shot from 18 yards went well wide of the net. At the other end, O'Reilly put one over the crossbar from 20 yards in stoppage time.

Morgan had the first scoring opportunity of the overtime, but fighting off two Japanese defenders, her shot went wide of the left post in the 95th minute.

Just before the end of the first overtime, the United States once again took the lead. After Japan had blocked a couple of shots, Morgan gained possession and drove to the endline. Then she chipped it perfectly to the six, where Wambach easily put her header in the back of the net. It was 2-1 for the United States heading into the second overtime period.

In the 108th minute, Japan crossed the ball in and once again the United States made a mess of the clearance, but in this instance, they finally managed to clear after a weak Japanese shot. In the 112th minute, the United States made yet another adventure of it as Aya Miyama crossed the ball into the area, with the ball deflected past a diving Solo. The US once again escaped as the ball was finally cleared and further danger averted.

The United States made their second substitution in the 114th minute, putting in Tobin Heath for Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe had played a very strong match for the US.

The US escaped yet again in the 115th minute as Yukari Kinga once again got behind the left side of the American defense alone. Solo came out to cut of the angle, but Kinga chipped it over her with the ball heading right at the left post. Christie Rampone took no chances and cleared the ball away. But when you play with fire too often, you finally get burned.

After Solo was treated for an injury on that play, Aya Miyama took the corner from the left side. Her inswinging kick found Sawa at the six, actually running away from the goal. She reached up with her right foot and deflected it toward the goal. The ball may have touched a US player on its way in, but it zipped past Solo to tie the match. The United States had given Japan just one too many opportunities and the Nadeshiko had taken advantage.

The US had two chances left in them. O'Reilly crossed the ball from the right side in the 120th minute, but Wambach's sliding attempt went over the bar from the six. Then Alex Morgan was taken down just outside the penalty area, with Azusa Iwashimizu getting a red card for the play. The US attempted to play the ball into the six and had two players there, but the ball deflected away and Heath's shot was blocked.

After such excitement, the penalty shoot out was almost anticlimactic. The United States failed on their first three attempts. Kaihori stopped both Shannon Boxx and Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd missed her attempt badly over the bar. Clearly, Kaihori's play in the last three matches made a big difference for Japan.

Meanwhile, Aya Miyama put Japan in the lead converting the first Japanese attempt, before Solo was able to stop the second by Yuki Nagasato. Solo was able to get her hand on Mizuho Sakaguchi's attempt, but it deflected into the net to give Japan a nearly insurmountable 2-0 lead with just two kicks to go.

Abby Wambach made her penalty to keep the United States alive, but only temporarily. Defender Saki Kumagai placed the ball into the upper left corner to give Japan a 3-1 victory in penalty kicks. Japan were the 2011 World Cup champions.

It had been an amazing road for the Nadeshiko. They squeaked by New Zealand 2-1, before a dominating performance in a 4-0 victory over Mexico in the group stage. They then had a very lackluster effort in losing the final group stage match to England, forcing them to play Germany in the quarterfinals.

But they slew three giants in the knockout rounds, first with an overtime victory over Germany, then another dominating performance over Sweden, and finally a come-from-behind victory over the United States. Homare Sawa scored five goals in the World Cup and she captured both the Golden Boot and Golden Ball trophies as the leading scorer and best player of the tournament. She had climbed the mountain in her fifth World Cup.

As for the United States, they may have played their best and most dominating match of the tournament in the final. But in the end, they didn't take advantage of their many chances and Japan did. The United States has now finished in the top three in all six Women's World Cups. This was the first time that they had ever lost their final match of the World Cup.

Hope Solo was received the Golden Glove as the best goalkeeper and the Bronze Ball for the third best player in the tournament. Abby Wambach received the Silver Ball for being the runner-up to Sawa as the best player in the tournament.

Congratulations to the Nadeshiko!