Most American soccer fans remember where they were for the last World Cup final…and not for the best of reasons. After taking the lead twice over the course of regular and extra time, the USWNT fell to Japan 3-1 in a penalty kick shootout that featured misses from the likes of veterans Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd, as well as the youngster Tobin Heath. The Americans will be out for blood after being denied their record third World Cup in 2011, and this team seems poised to take it all.
After encountering a slew of criticism, Jill Ellis managed to convincingly lead the United States to a 2-0 victory over top ranked Germany in their semifinal match earlier this week. It was a match which even Alexi Lalas had picked the Germans to win, believing they had too much firepower for the USWNT to overcome, even with their formidable defense. The opposite proved true, as a formation change and the return of Megan Rapinoe from a suspension were the harbingers of the Germans’ undoing.
It is interesting to note that Jill Ellis made many of the changes her critics wanted to see leading into the match and was able to secure the win as a result. Throughout the tournament to that point, the USWNT’s offense just didn’t seem to come fully online and their ability to make the final, let alone win it, was in doubt as early as their first match this tournament.
Questions about Jill Ellis as manager, including her stubborn fidelity to the 4-4-2 formation with Abby Wambach as a starter, left many wondering if she was the right kind of tactical mind to pick apart upstart teams in a much more competitive women’s national team environment.
Combined with off-the-field drama for Hope Solo, suspensions for several key players after the Round of 16, and comments about the officiating which put into question whether Abby Wambach would receive some sort of suspension herself, this edition of the USWNT could have easily lacked the focus and composure to get to this point in the tournament.
Germany never really presented an attacking threat to the United States, with most of their attempts to put the ball past Hope Solo coming from low-probability shots outside the penalty area. In a match that was deemed “fit for the final,” the United States proved they are better than their group stage and early knockout stage play. The major question for the USWNT at this point is whether they can hit a higher gear and take it to a Japanese side that has flown under the radar this tournament, despite their unquestionable skill.
The United States and Japan have met three times in a final match of an international tournament: the USWNT lost the 2011 World Cup in Germany, but bounced back in the 2012 Olympic Final to take the Gold Medal 2-1. In a sense, this final is about more than a third World Cup triumph—it’s about settling a score and asserting that just because the rest of the world is catching up doesn’t mean the USWNT has been eclipsed by other powers.
Japan is led once again by Homare Sawa, winner of the Golden Boot at the 2011 World Cup, as her side seeks to reclaim World Cup glory and pull even with the United States and Germany in all-time World Cup trophies. The stakes are just as high for the Japanese women as they are for the USWNT, and with several key players having a successful tournament so far, it’s hard to see this match being anything other than a tough battle between two world class teams.
Japan is gifted technically, but the USWNT excels with raw power, athleticism, and talent. There are arguably 4 or 5 attacking options for the United States that likely have the Japanese managers awake at night wonder how to cover them for 90 minutes. Carli Lloyd has had an amazing tournament since for USWNT coach Pia Sundhage’s comments on the team before the match between the United States and Sweden. She has responded by scoring three goals in the knockout stage to lead the USWNT to this point in the tournament.
As the rest of the attacking pieces have slowly come online for the USWNT, the team has looked more and more dangerous. Players like Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux-Dwyer, and Tobin Heath haven’t yet looked their best and have still been able to place immense pressure over the course of the tournament. Now that the United States seems to have found it’s footing in the 4-3-3- formation, it’s likely they will come out in similar fashion against Japan.
In a match for supremacy in the women’s game, the USWNT looks like a team that could win it all…will the Americans be rejoicing Sunday evening or wondering what else they could have done? Tune into FOX Sunday July 5 at 5pm to watch the USWNT end their campaign for a third star and an end to their World Cup drought.
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