First and foremost, this Women’s World Cup tournament has been a pleasure to watch and the quality and level of play has been nothing short of brilliant. The final showcase between the tireless, technical juggernaut that is Japan and the inspiring grit, tenacity, athleticism and physicality of the U.S. squad is a fitting showcase for two very different styles and approaches that have come to define the entire competition.
Japan caught my attention early on with their mechanical, merciless 4-0 thrashing of Mexico in a group stage match that truthfully was far more lopsided than the score would indicate. Japan’s possession oriented style has been garnering comparisons to Barcelona, as their midfield has dictated the pace and tempo of matches in a masterfully metronomic way with precise short passing. According to ESPN’s Michelle Smith, Japan will head into the finals with an impressive tournament high (and very Barca-esque) 76.8 pass completion percentage.
Their quarterfinal match-up against a wobbly German side (a side that seemed unable to handle the pressure of defending their crown in front of their rabid, demanding fans) saw Japan play with an intensity and mental toughness that never wavered over the course of 120 terrifyingly tense minutes. Homare Sawa, hat-trick scourge of Mexico, struck again with beautiful service to substitute Karina Maruyama whose fresh legs allowed her to blaze past the German backline and score the only goal of the match in the 108th minute. I thought Japan carried large stretches of play during this match and earned a honest, well-deserved result. This match was a thriller and easily ranks as my second favorite match of the tournament.
The Japanese steadied themselves after an uncharacteristic early blunder by the exceeding excellent Sawa who gifted a strong Swedish side an early 1-0 lead. Sweden wouldn’t score again and Sawa made up for her unforced error by scoring the go ahead goal in the 60th minute.
The U.S. team came into the World Cup with high expectations amid a persistent narrative of redemption and reclamation stoked by the American media, even though their qualification campaign was hard-fought, shaky and uneven. Like the Germans, the Americans are expected to go to the finals and win World Cups. Period. There is no consolation prize or feel good factor for these women if they ‘just’ place strong and, unlike the Germans, this particular U.S. squad has thrived under the pressure and weight of those lofty expectations. The U.S. played well in the group stages with a 3-0 shellacking of an overwhelmed Colombian side being their most memorable and complete performance.
The match against Brazil is hard to put in words without resorting to the trusty, ever-bountiful store of sports writing cliches. It truly had everything you could possibly want in an athletic event. In his chapter on the 1986 Men’s World Cup in Soccer in Sun and Shadow, Eduardo Galeano wrote of “matches that made your hair stand on end” and this U.S. v. Brazil quarterfinal fits squarely and proudly in that same lineage. Emotion, technical skill, creativity and beauty (Marta’s goal in extra time seemed to defy physics and logic), bad breaks (the own goal which put Brazil at early disadvantage), questionable refereeing decisions, mental toughness, playacting, stellar goalkeeping, and, finally—the cross heard around the world in the waning seconds of extra time. The ball that Megan Rapinoe sent into the box for Abby Wambach was so gorgeous, so inch-perfect and sublime that even after about 300 views…it still seems implausible, like you something daydream about, something you wish would or could happen. Abby Wambach’s aerial physicality is startling. The velocity, accuracy and power with which she headed home that equaliser was stunning, as was the bullet she scored in the semis. The American penalty takers were clinical and composed and Hope Solo took care of the rest.
I was only able to see the 2nd half of the U.S. v. France and the French side were dominant in the early stages until Pia Sundhage inserted Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe (pretty amazed she didn’t start, even though she has been absolutely deadly as a substitute) into the match, wherein they immediately became catalysts who propelled to the U.S. into the finals, playing major roles in both late goals, the second of which Morgan scored in dramatic fashion. France played a stylish, attractive attacking soccer that was beautiful to watch (their demolition of Canada in the group stages stands out) and they deserve kudos and recognition for it.
The one part of the U.S. team that has been subpar is the midfield, which is the unquestioned strength of the Japanese side. The U.S. has been very strong in both boxes (defending and finishing). If the American midfielders don’t raise their level of play, Japan will be able to control the ball and be patient in setting up their attack. Japan have been deadly with their free kicks and have consistently punished teams with intricate set-pieces. If the U.S. are able to win their fair share of possession, then they should be able to utilize their considerable size advantage and superior cutting edge in front of goal . Abby Wambach has been virtually indefensible in the air throughout the entire competition and she will wreak absolute havoc on this undersized Japanese side with proper service. But will the possession, passing lanes and space be there?
It’s match time and I’ll be sad to see this World Cup end. Bravo ladies!