USA-Japan: Six Storylines To Watch
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- After 50 games of the 2015 Women's World Cup, the two finalists have been determined at last: The United States will square off with rival Japan on Sunday. The teams have combined to go 11-0-1 during the tournament, the Americans' 0-0 tie with Sweden during the group stage the only blemish on their combined records.
Here are six early thoughts to ponder ahead of the match:
1. Two heavyweights meet again
Sunday's final will mark the third major tournament in a row in which the United States and Japan have met in the final. In the 2011 Women's World Cup final, the Nadeshiko twice rallied from a goal down to prevail 3-1 in a penalty shootout. A year later, the two sides contested the 2012 Olympic final with the Americans claiming gold with a 2-1 victory thanks to two Carli Lloyd goals.
In both cases, it could be argued that the better team on the day lost. In 2011, the United States had the upper hand for most of the match only to be undone by some defensive frailties. In the Olympic final, the reverse was true. The U.S. women won, but Japan played the better brand of soccer, proving again that in the world's biggest games, you don't always get what you deserve.
2. Nadeshiko try to match history, Americans try to make it
Japan is trying to match the German teams of 2003 and 2007 as the only country to successfully repeat as Women's World Cup champion. The Nadeshiko will also try to join the United States and Germany as the only countries to have won the Women's World Cup twice.
The U.S. women are trying to win a Women's World Cup for the third time, which no country has done. It will have been a long wait to get there as well. The Americans haven't taken the top spot on the podium since 1999, when it beat China 5-4 on penalties after extra time finished goalless.
3. Clash of stingy defenses
The match will feature arguably the two best defenses in the tournament. The U.S. team has been impenetrable since Lisa De Vanna scored for Australia in the Americans' tournament opener. Center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston have been mostly stellar, and on the rare occasions when they haven't, goalkeeper Hope Solo has been there to snuff out any chances.
Japan's stinginess comes in a different manner in that it uses its possession game to starve opponents of oxygen. It has completed a tournament-high 80 percent of its passes compared to the Americans' 74 percent. That said, center backs Azusa Iwashimizu and Saki Kumagai have been impressive when called upon. So far the Nadeshiko have conceded just three times in six games, and one of those goals was due to a dreadful individual error from goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori.
4. Key matchup
Japan midfielder Aya Miyama vs. U.S. defender Ali Krieger and midfielder Morgan Brian. With Homare Sawa's influence on the wane, Miyama has taken over the primary playmaking duties. Japan's captain has created 22 chances during the tournament, easily outdistancing Germany's Anja Mittag, the runner-up in that category with 15. Miyama lines up ostensibly on the left side of midfield, and it will be up to U.S. right back Krieger to stop her. England had some success in the semifinals by forcing Miyama to track back to defend, and Krieger is certainly capable of getting into the attack. Miyama likes to venture into central positions as well, right where Brian sets up shop.
Brian has been near perfect in recent weeks, doing plenty to protect the U.S. back line with her timely interceptions, well-executed tackles and precise distribution under pressure. If Krieger and Brian can team up to neutralize Miyama's attacking forays, it would go a long way toward the United States' hoisting the World Cup trophy.
5. The X factor
Save for their round-of-16 match against Colombia in Edmonton, the U.S. women have enjoyed raucous support wherever they have played, including a crowd of more than 52,000 at their group-stage finale against Nigeria at Vancouver's BC Place, the site of Sunday's final.
Japan knows a thing or two about playing in front of partisan crowds, however. Norio Sasaki's charges defeated 2011 hosts Germany in the quarterfinals of that tournament, a result that spurred them on to their first Women's World Cup title.
6. Veterans try to go out on top
Sawa and the United States' Abby Wambach were once the attacking forces that their respective teams revolved around. They have now been limited to bit status in terms of minutes, but their leadership roles haven't been diminished. Both players will try to exit this tournament with a winner's medal, but there is one important difference. Sawa is already a world champion, while Wambach is desperately trying to fill in the last gap in her trophy cabinet.
Based on the respective lineups that took the field in the semifinals, 13 players who saw the field in the 2011 Women's World Cup final could also be in the starting lineup come Sunday.