Vancouver, BC (July 5th, 2015) – Christie Rapinoe remembers. “We definitely have 2011 in the back of our minds. With that said, this is the third time we’ll meet Japan in a final, which is pretty amazing for both federations. They are very composed on the ball. They like to get into the offensive third and get into a good shape, knock the ball around and make the other team defend.”
2015 Womens World Cup Final: USWNT Ready to Face One Last Challenge
In that 2011 World Cup final, the US took a 2-1 lead in extra time, and seemed to have control of the game. Then, in 117′ minute, Homare Sawa tied the match, sending the game to penalties, and the rest is history. For this permutation of the USWNT, this tournament has been about erasing that lingering memory. It hasn’t always been the prettiest of soccer. In fact coach Jill Ellis has come under fire for not having the tactical creativity needed to guide her team to win their third World Cup title, and their first since 1999. However, it was a formation change that contributed to the victory over Germany. When asked about it, defender Ali Kreiger said, “Having a different formation helped us against Germany because of those wide spaces. I was able to get forward and into the attack a little bit more. My first focus was staying defensive because they were such a strong team but I think that it doesn’t really matters what formation you play. It’s just up to the personnel you have on the field to recognize the spaces they are going to give us. If Japan does clog the middle, then we need to go out wide, if they give us space in the middle then we have to take it. In the first few minutes we’ll have to see what they give us. But the focus has to be on us and how we can break them down.”
As the tournament has worn on, Ellis’ team has gained momentum, and begun playing as a unit. The change has been palpable, especially in their semi-final victory over Germany. Abby Wambach, who scored the extra time goal in 2011’s WWC Final, noted the difference during Saturday’s press event. “I feel an air of confidence with this team right now. We don’t overlook Japan for one second because they are a very organized and good team. The best team will be left standing on Sunday night and of course we hope it’s us. We know it’s going to be a hard fought battle and we have to play well. We have to put together good combinations, good sequences to get goals. I am really proud of the way we have played and got better throughout this tournament. I think our last match against Germany was our best performance.”
Wambach’s role in this World Cup is much different than four years ago. She has mostly been used in limited minutes off the bench, providing a late game spark, especially since the group stage. It’s a role that she has been more than willing to take, according to coach Ellis. “Abby wants to win a World Cup and she’s committed to doing whatever it takes. She told me early on whatever role is needed she would deliver. She has amazing experience and ability in terms of being a prolific goalscorer. We’ve needed her on the field in big moments but also needed to allow other players the opportunity and time to continue to develop. Abby has been exemplary in terms of what she’s given this team and how she’s conducted herself. It’s still the same mindset for her: whatever we need, she’ll deliver.”
Midfielder Heather O’Reilly also talked about the roles everyone has been playing. “Obviously this is a very deep team, a very talented team. The coaches did a good job at the beginning talking about how this is going to take 23 players and every one of us has the same goal. We all want to win this thing and everybody is doing everything that they can to make sure that the team does that. As a veteran player I try to give bits of advice to some of the younger players that maybe haven’t been here at this level. But mostly I just try to carry myself with a positive attitude for the team and I’m ready for any role.”
But, the real story of this tournament has been the USWNT defense, anchored by Becky Sauerbrunn and the aforementioned Kreiger. Through the tournament, the US Women have only allowed 1 goal, in the opening frame against Australia. Since that tally, the US back four, along with the help of the focused Hope Solo in net, have been lights out. Up to this point, Solo has only had to make 12 saves through five matches. Kelley O’Hara was asked about it yesterday. “(The backline) have been able to build a relationship and that’s huge when you’re playing on the backline. It’s all about how you work with who is in front of you and who is next to you. This group works extremely well together. In general, when this team goes into big tournaments, the collective defending is always a big part of how we do. I think the team defending has been exceptional this World Cup and it starts from the forward line and works its way back. But as the backline they are the last line of defense. They’ve been great.”
Coach Ellis spoke about the strength of the US defensive play, and mentioned the backline’s relationship with Hope Solo. “Our players have to be defenders first but I definitely want our outside backs to be able to get forward and want our centerbacks to be comfortable on the ball technically. A big part of it is mentality. You have to be a beast back there, sacrifice your body and do whatever it takes. And the relationship with our goalkeeper is critical,” she said.
In any case, the defense will, again, need to keep up the dominant play against a Japan side that has historically given this team difficulty.
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Featured Photo: Bill Twomey/Bill Twomey Photography