July 16, 2011


United States (#1) vs. Japan (#4)
Frankfurt, Germany (2:45 pm eastern)

Last Meeting: United States 2, Japan 0 (May 18, 2011)

United States
Coach: Pia Sundhage
WC Matches: Defeated Korea DPR 2-0; Defeated Colombia 3-0, Lost to Sweden 1-2; Defeated Brazil 2-2 (5-3 PK); Defeated France 3-1.

Lineup (unofficial):
Goalkeeper: Hope Solo (5 gms, 0.94 gaa, 2 shutouts)
Defender: Ali Krieger (5 gms, 480 minutes)
Defender: Rachel Buehler (4 gms, 1 goal, 335 minutes) or Becky Sauerbrunn (1 gm, 90 minutes)
Defender: Christie Rampone (5 gms, 480 minutes)
Defender: Amy LePeilbet (5 gms, 415 minutes)
Midfielder: Heather O'Reilly (4 gms, 1 goal, 1 assist, 336 minutes)
Midfielder: Shannon Boxx (4 gms, 390 minutes)
Midfielder: Carli Lloyd (5 gms, 455 minutes)
Midfielder: Lauren Cheney (5 gms, 2 goals, 3 assists, 415 minutes)
Forward: Abby Wambach (5 gms, 3 goals, 1 assist, 480 minutes)
Forward: Amy Rodriguez (5 gms, 293 minutes)

Goalkeepers: Nicole Barnhart, Jill Loyden.
Defenders: Stephanie Cox (2 gms, 1 assist, 65 minutes); Heather Mitts.
Midfielders: Megan Rapinoe (5 gms, 1 goal, 2 assists, 219 minutes); Lori Lindsey (1 gm, 90 minutes); Tobin Heath (3 gms, 43 minutes); Kelley O'Hara (1 gm, 17 minutes).
Forwards: Alex Morgan (4 gms, 1 goal, 142 minutes).

Coach: Norio Sasaki
WC Matches: Defeated New Zealand 2-1; Defeated Mexico 4-0; Lost to England 0-2; Defeated Germany 1-0 (ot); Defeated Sweden 3-1.

Lineup (unofficial):
Goalkeeper: Ayumi Kaihori (5 gms, 0.75 gaa, 2 shutouts)
Defender: Yukari Kinga (5 gms, 1 assist, 480 minutes)
Defender: Azusa Iwashimizu (5 gms, 480 minutes)
Defender: Saki Kumagai (5 gms, 480 minutes)
Defender: Aya Sameshima (5 gms, 480 minutes)
Midfielder: Shinobu Ohno (5 gms, 1 goal, 1 assist, 358 minutes)
Midfielder: Mizuho Sakaguchi (5 gms, 465 minutes)
Midfielder: Homare Sawa (5 gms, 4 goals, 1 assist, 473 minutes)
Midfielder: Aya Miyama (5 gms, 1 goal, 3 assists, 479 minutes)
Forward: Kozue Ando (5 gms, 424 minutes)
Forward: Nahomi Kawasumi (3 gms, 2 goals, 103 minutes) or Yuki Nagasato (5 gms, 1 goal, 1 assist, 317 minutes)

Goalkeepers: Nozomi Yamago, Miho Fukumoto.
Defenders: Kyoko Yano.
Midfielders: Rumi Utsugi (2 gms, 11 minutes); Megumi Kamionobe (1 gm, 1 minute); Asuna Tanaka (1 gm, 1 minute)
Forwards: Karina Maruyama (3 gms, 1 goal, 123 minutes); Mana Iwabuchi (4 gms, 121 minutes); Megumi Takase (1 gm, 4 minutes).

It comes down to the two teams of destiny, but only one can win. If you had told me two months ago that this would be the World Cup final, I would have said that the chances were slim and none. But here we are, the underdogs from Japan against the never-give-up team from the United States.

The United States and Japan have already met three times this year. The United States has won all three, a 2-1 decision at the Algarve Cup in March, and a pair of 2-0 victories in May friendlies. In fact, the United States has never lost to Japan. Coming into the World Cup, Japan's only three losses this year were to the United States. They have since lost to England in the group stage.

But this is not the same Japanese team that looked listless in May, in matches played just after the tragic events of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. Japan now has confidence and it has increased with each match. They are playing for a nation.

These two teams are the third and fourth teams to not win their group stage and yet make it to the final. And this is the first time a final is played between two teams that did not win their group. The only other teams to make it to the final without winning their group was Norway in 1991 and Sweden in 2003. Both lost in the final.

The United States is making their third appearance in the final, having won in 1991 and 1999. Japan had never made it past the quarterfinals so win or lose, this will be their best finish ever.

The magic number in this final could well be two. Two is the number of goals scored by four of the five previous winners, with the exception of the 1999 US team that played to a scoreless draw against China, winning on penalty kicks. One might also note that the last four US losses have come by a 2-1 margin. They lost to Sweden in the group stage, to England in a friendly in April, to Sweden at the Four Nations in January, and last November to Mexico, all by that same 2-1 margin.

It will be game of contrasting styles, but between two teams that took nearly identical paths to get here. Both won their first two group games, only to lose their final group match to a European team. Both had very tough quarterfinal matches which went into overtime against a top three ranked team. Both won by 3-1 margins in the semifinals, again both over European teams.

If you just looked at the statistics of this World Cup, you would see that Hope Solo has given up five goals and you might think she wasn't having all that good of a tournament. But when you consider that two were penalties and a third was deflected free kick, you would have to revise that opinion.

Solo can win a game for you and keep you in games that you have no business being close in. She has saved two penalties, although one was called back because a teammate may have stepped into the box too quickly. She will not likely be beaten on a long shot, except if there is traffic in front of her as there was on Sonia Bompastor's goal in the semis.

Heading into this world cup, Ayumi Kaihori was considered to be a weak link on the Japanese team. However, I think 120 minutes of shutout soccer against Germany earns you some measure of respect. She has given up just four goals in the tournament and has performed very well in the last two matches. Sweden tried all types of distractions including placing several tall players in front of her on corner kicks so that she couldn't see. She is very quick, but can still be susceptible to the high ball.

Advantage: United States.

This is one area that both teams were maligned coming into this tournament. The United States defense was said to be slow and not particularly good at man-marking their opponents. But except for a fairly dismal match against Sweden, they have proven to be quite sturdy. Japan's problem on the back line was said to be its size and that problem has surfaced on occasion over the past three weeks, but not as much as most people would have thought.

The big question for Pia Sundhage is who to start at center back, Rachel Buehler or Becky Sauerbrunn. Buehler's suspension for the semifinal forced Sauerbrunn into the lineup and she responded with a very strong game. She also gives the US more height on the back line. Buehler is one of the best tacklers in the world. In the past it would have been unthinkable for her not to be in the lineup, but now?

Christie Rampone is a veteran among veterans. Surprisingly, at age 36, she is still among the fastest American players on the field. Sundhage's subtle move of switching Rampone to the left side to help make up for Amy LePeilbet's lack of pace was very smart indeed. LePeilbet had a nightmare game against Sweden, but has played better since that match. She is a two-time WPS Defender of the Year, but that was at her natural position of center back.

Ali Krieger has had a very good tournament and is the one US defender that is a threat to attack out of the back. Her experience in the Frauen Bundesliga has greatly improved her play over the past few years. Look for her on overlapping runs up the right side.

Likewise, Yukari Kinga is Japan's attacker from the back and she is also at right back. Kinga can be very dangerous when she gets forward and has the passing and technical skills of a midfielder. She can, however, occasionally get caught upfield making her vulnerable to a counterattack.

For the most part, Saki Kumagai and Azusa Iwashimizu have been very solid in the middle. Kumagai may well be the most important defender in this match, because she is the only one above 5-4 and Japan's defense will have to deal with some very tall players, most notably Abby Wambach.

Aya Sameshima is probably considered the most vulnerable of the four, but she has played through five matches and that vulnerability has not been that evident. She can appear almost lacksadaisical at the left back position. If anybody can take advantage of that, it would Heather O'Reilly who is a very tenacious midfielder. Still, this back line has made very few mistakes so far and they have all played every minute of every match. Meanwhile, the United States has given up two penalty kicks.

Advantage: Even.

When playing Japan, it is best to just admit to yourself that they are going to have the majority of the possession and go from there. Sweden was obviously frustrated in the semifinal match, watching Japan put ten, twelve, or even fifteen passes together, while they had to chase and then giving the ball right back to the Japanese after they had finally gained possession. The United States must avoid falling into that trap and getting frustrated.

Japan probably has no peer when it comes to technical skills and passing ability in their midfield. The US were able to defeat France, who would probably be one of the few teams to come close. Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama are simply magicians with a soccer ball.

In her fifth World Cup, Sawa is having her best ever with four goals to her credit. Strangely enough, three of those have come on headers. This could be the crowning achievement of a great career.

Miyama is simply one of the most dangerous set piece takers in the world. She can drive the ball into the penalty area with pinpoint accuracy and can score on anything within 30 yards of the goal. She has already put one in the net, a game winner against New Zealand. Miyama has three assists as well.

Japan's other two midfielders are Shinobu Ohno and Mizuho Sakaguchi. Sakaguchi is quietly having an effective tournament. She is probably the least spectacular of the four midfielders, but very steady. Ohno is a forward by trade and very dangerous in the attack. She often switches off with Kozue Ando, who has been starting at forward. Those two work very well together. Ohno has another commodity that makes her very dangerous, she is extremely fast. She has a goal and an assist to her credit so far.

The United States' two veteran central midfielders, Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx, have nearly 300 caps between them. Boxx can be a strong defender, who is also very good at winning balls in the air. She set up the first goal against Brazil in the quarterfinals. But she doesn't have the stamina she once had and one might keep tabs on her late in the contest.

Lloyd has one of the hardest shots in the business, but her play can be inconsistent. Almost unheard of since Pia Sundhage took over as head coach, Lloyd was subbed out of the last match. However, she is also known for being at her best in important matches. She is also celebrating a birthday on Saturday and the World Cup would be quite a gift.

At outside backs, the United States have Lauren Cheney and Heather O'Reilly. O'Reilly excels at beating defenders with her pace up the sideline and then sending crosses into the middle for her teammates. Her target in this match will be Sameshima and this matchup could determine the outcome of the match. Lauren Cheney is having a surprisingly strong tournament, especially considering she normally plays more central instead of outside on the wing. She has two goals and three assists so far.

The United States probably has the stronger bench in the midfield. Megan Rapinoe sent a perfect cross into Abby Wambach to tie the game against Brazil and will probably be one of the first substitutes to enter this match.

Edge: Japan.

Coach Norio Sasaki made the only change to his starting lineup in the last match against Sweden, putting Nahomi Kawasumi in for Yuki Nagasato. Kawasumi responded with two goals for her team and it sent them into the finals. Kozue Ando, who can also play midfielder, has yet to get a goal at this World Cup, but she has 17 to her credit in her career. Nagasato, the player that Kawasumi replaced in the starting lineup, has over 30 career goals, one of them in this tournament.

The thing is about Japan's starting forwards is that nothing particularly sticks out about them. Nothing except that like the rest of their team, they are exceptionally gifted technicians and are very crafty about making moves to give themselves space for a shot.

In fact, it has been two Japanese substitute forwards that have gained the most attention. Mana Iwabuchi, in spite of not having scored yet, looks to be potentially their most gifted forward and dangerous any time the ball is at her feet. Karina Maruyama may have scored the biggest goal in Japanese women's history with her strike in overtime against Germany. She has a lot of experience and must not be given room near the goal.

The United States has one of the biggest weapons in women's soccer in Abby Wambach. She almost seems to be on a mission in this tournament. Like Maruyama for Japan, she may have scored one of the biggest goals in her team's history with her header in the 122nd minute against Brazil. There is probably only one other player in the world that can come close to her ability in the air, that being Kerstin Garefrekes of Germany. If this match is won on pure determination, I wouldn't bet against Wambach.

The other starting forward for the United States is Amy Rodriguez, who is a having a very quiet tournament so far, something that you really don't want to have said about you as a forward. Sundhage likes to have Rodriguez in the lineup, because her great speed appears to be a perfect match for Wambach's size and strength. It is necessary for her to be at least be a threat in this match in order to free up space for her teammates.

The third US forward is supersub Alex Morgan. She finally got her first World Cup goal in the semifinal to seal the victory over France. She has great pace and always seems to lift the energy level of the team when she enters the game.

Advantage: United States.

Both coaches have a calming influence over their team, but they do it in different fashion. Norio Sasaki never seems to get overly excited, no matter what the situation. His patience and quiet confidence in his team shows on the field and is perfect for the precision-minded, methodical play of Japan.

Meanwhile, Pia Sundhage often uses humor to calm her team and keep them loose. She rarely looks at the negative and is always preaching the positive. She is as loyal to the players as they are to her.

Neither coach is prone to making big changes. Sasaki has only made one change to his starting lineup for this World Cup. Sundhage has made a few more, mostly to deal with Buehler's red card and to keep Shannon Boxx fresh as the US advanced further into the tournament.

Advantage: Even.

This should definitely be a game of contrasting styles. Japan will be patient and employ their tactical and technical superiority in keeping possession. The United States are more of a quick strike team, but they can strike from several different directions. The United States will have to guard against frustration and stay with their game.

Japan will try to exploit space in the midfield, certainly that can occasionally be a problem for the United States. Miyama and Sawa will be the center of attention. The United States cannot afford to give Miyama time and space to make crosses into the box to set up her teammates.

The United States will likely try to play a lot of high crosses into the penalty area, where they can take advantage of Wambach and their height advantage. They should be able to put a lot of pressure on the Japanese back line by getting bodies forward and into the penalty area.

Both sides will want to avoid giving up free kicks and corners at the defensive end of the field. Miyama is deadly with her placement and Japan has already scored off three set pieces in this tournament. For the US, Wambach and Boxx are especially good in the air and will be a problem for Kaihori and her defense.

We should see a lot of attacks up the right side for both teams. Kinga and Ohno will likely try to use their speed to beat LePeilbet on the US left. O'Reilly and Krieger will be doing the same against the supposedly vulnerable Sameshima on the Japanese left.

Japan will try to find players making runs at the US back line to get in one-on-one against Solo, using their speed. Neither keeper can afford to make a mistake, as both teams can be opportunistic.

The United States will have to show patience in the central midfield, hold the ball as long as possible, and dismiss any notion of trying hopeless 35 yard shots, unless they can catch Kaihori off her line.

It is a shame that one of these teams has to lose as both have played so hard and overcome such odds to get to this point. I wouldn't be surprised if either team won, but if I had to make a prediction...

My Prediction: United States 2, Japan 1.