VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The road to the final of the Women's World Cup hasn't always been smooth for the U.S national team. The first 30 minutes against Australia were downright sobering, as the Matildas took the game to the Americans. The subsequent group games and even the round-of-16 match against Colombia were underwhelming.
But thanks to a defense that has hermetically sealed the U.S. goal, not to mention an improving attack, the Americans have been able to find their way into Sunday's final, where they will face familiar foe Japan. The Nadeshiko defeated the U.S. four years ago in a penalty shootout, though the Americans got one back over Japan in the 2012 Olympic final. Sunday's match will be the first repeat final in Women's World Cup history.
What's on the line?
For the teams involved, global soccer supremacy on the women's side is at stake -- at least for the next four years. But for the players involved, there is something more: a chance to go down in the history books as world champions, a permanent star on any player's résumé.
Style and tactics
Japan operates out of a 4-4-2, with a heavy emphasis on a possession-based attack that features a high level of technical proficiency and a mesmerizing amount of off-the-ball movement. Japan has completed 80 percent of its passes, and a tournament-best 61 percent in the attacking third.
Iconic midfielder Homare Sawa is still around, but like U.S. forward Abby Wambach, she has been relegated to more of a leadership role. This is Aya Miyama's team now, and while she lines up ostensibly on the left side of midfield, she is the prime orchestrator of Japan's attack. Miyama was largely confined to that wing in the semifinal defeat of England, but she can tuck inside as well.
Miyama is by no means the only threat for the Nadeshiko. Forwards Shinobu Ohno and Yuki Ogimi are plenty mobile, and Nahomi Kawasumi is a potent force on the right side of midfield. Center midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi can also threaten with her late runs into the box. Look for outside backs Aya Sameshima and Golden Ball nominee Saori Ariyoshi to push into the attack as well.
After spending the vast majority of the tournament operating out of a 4-4-2, U.S. manager Jill Ellis opted for a 4-2-3-1 against Germany and the result was the best American performance in the tournament. With Carli Lloyd operating in the middle of the attacking midfield three, there was much better connection between defense and attack. Morgan Brian has been a revelation in a holding role, allowing central midfielder Lauren Holiday the flexibility to join the attack when the opportunity presents itself. Outside backs Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger will also look to push forward. Let's not forget midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who can threaten from both wide and central positions.
Defensively, the Americans have been impressive. The U.S. hasn't conceded in 513 minutes, and is poised to break the single tournament record of 540 minutes set by Germany in 2007.
Beyond formations, one question is where and how often the U.S. will try to press Japan in its own half. This tactic was highly effective against Germany, but Japan is more adept at breaking pressure. As it did in the semi, the U.S. will need to pick its spots carefully.
Players to watch
For Japan: Aya Miyama, Saki Kumagai, Saori Ariyoshi
Miyama leads the entire tournament with a whopping 22 chances created. The next highest-ranked player -- Germany's Anja Mittag -- has 15. Kumagai has been a stalwart in the center of defense for Japan, and she'll lead the effort to contain U.S. forward Alex Morgan. Ariyoshi is a danger with her runs out of the back, and will be forced to deal with Rapinoe on the defensive end.
For the U.S.: Ali Krieger, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan
The responsibility for containing Miyama will largely fall to Krieger, who has been solid defensively. Lloyd as cemented her reputation as a big-game player in this tournament, with her attacking game improving with each outing. The finishing touch has eluded Morgan the past two games, but her timing and link play improved against Germany. She'll need to put the entire package together for the final.
What we can expect
This is the third major final in a row in which these two teams have played each other and if the previous two are any indication, this is will be a tight, tense game that will go down to the very end.
Japan will do everything it can to dictate the tempo, the better to starve the U.S. of the ball and try to wear it out by defending for long stretches. This will also help Japan avoid the kind of physical confrontations in which the stronger, more powerful U.S. team clearly has an edge. England effectively neutralized Japan's attack in part by committing 17 fouls, and the U.S. won't be reluctant to foul if that is what is needed.
The U.S. will look to have its spells of possession as well, but will do so by attacking the flanks. In the semifinal, the runs of England right back Lucy Bronze forced Miyama to drop very deep to help out defensively, and the Americans will try to do the same through Krieger, who is extremely willing to get forward. The U.S. will also look to get Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe on the ball in the attacking third, the better for them to combine with Morgan.
Set pieces are one area where the U.S. would appear to have an edge, especially through Lloyd and Julie Johnston.
There has been a lot of talk about the U.S. exacting revenge for 2011, despite its Olympic triumph over Japan in 2012. But this match is more about the here and now, and represents one last opportunity for Abby Wambach and some veteran U.S. players to hoist the Women's World Cup trophy.
The Americans seem to be riding a bit more momentum thanks to their 2-0 victory over Germany, while Japan has tended to scrape by, doing just enough.
Then there is the crowd. The U.S. has enjoyed immense fan support throughout the tournament, and Sunday will be no different. When legs and minds are tired, the emotional boost provided could be critical.
Which team will win?
This seems to be the Americans' time. Look for the U.S. to prevail, 2-1.