New England Soccer Today

Finishing With a Bang

Photo credit: Denise McCooey/Prost Amerika

Photo credit: Denise McCooey/Prost Amerika

It’s not how you start, but rather, how you finish.

After kicking off the 2015 Women’s World Cup tournament with a set of unspectacular performances, the U.S. saved its best for last after crushing Japan 5-2 in the Final on Sunday evening.

The book on Japan was to beat them in the air, and the Japanese were expecting the U.S. to try and turn Sunday’s affair into an aerial duel. So when Megan Rapinoe put the ball on the ground for the first corner kick of the game the Japanese defenders froze and let Carli Lloyd run into the box, where she touched the ball with the outside of her left foot and guided it into the back of the net inside of three minutes.

Two minutes later, minutes later Tobin Heath was fouled just outside the box, setting up a Lauren Holiday free kick. Instead of whipping in a curling cross, Holiday kept it on the rug to set up Julie Johnston, who stood at the front post and heel flicked it backwards. It bounced around and Lloyd, showing her aggressiveness once again, ran onto it and scored while the pro-U.S. crowd was still buzzing about the first goal.

The U.S. continued to step on the pedal, and in the 14th minute, they turned that approach into paydirt a third time. A ball intended for Alex Morgan was cleared poorly by Saori Ariyoshi, who headed the ball up in the air for the taking. Holiday didn’t hesitate as she sprinted into the box and volleyed it right at keeper Ayumi Kaihori, who failed to stop the U.S. midfielder’s high-velocity shot.

Proving that her match was far from over, Lloyd had the cheekiest goal of the tournament in the 16th minute. She stole the ball at the halfway line, took a step, and chipped Kaihori from 56 yards to cap her hat trick with a flourish. This goal essentially put the rest of the match on cruise control for the U.S., which seemed to take their foot off of the gas for the rest of the match.

Japan, to their credit, did not go down without a fight. They made a pair of attack-minded substitutes by introducing Homare Sawa and Yuika Sugawasa in the 35th and 39th minutes, moves that saw the Japanese go from a standard 4-2-2 to a bold 3-4-3. It was a necessary transition if they had any hopes of climbing back into the match.

Yuki Ogimi scored in the 27th minute because of a breakdown on communication. Ogimi slipped past her mark and found herself with plenty of space about 10 yards from goal. She took a left-footed shot and scored past a diving Hope Solo. Even so, the U.S. still had a comfortable three-goal lead.

Japan got another when Julie Johnston headed home an own goal in the 52nd minute. She was trying to clear the ball but was on her way down when meeting the ball and leading to an inadvertent redirection into her own net. It was an unfortunate moment for a player who has had a stellar tournament.

It’s often said that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer, but after Johnston’s own goal, the U.S. sprang back to life. They marched down the field and Lloyd slid the ball to a wide open Heath, who scored the U.S.’s fifth goal of the game in the 54th minute. With the three-goal gap restored, the U.S. started to slow the pace of play, and turned their attention to possession. Even so, they were still very dangerous in the counter attack.

It was disappointing to see that Sawa was not shown a red card for her 82nd minute tackle on Abby Wambach. The Japanese forward made a late tackle from behind on a goalscoring opportunity. Wambach beat her around the edge, and Sawa clipped her legs. She didn’t intend to play the ball; it was a foul on a defenseless player, and there was no need to tarnish the World Cup final on a challenge as rash as Sawa’s.

As much as the players shined on Sunday, some of the credit has to go to U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who had her side employ some trickery to unhinge Japan right from the start. Everyone was preparing for Rapinoe and Holiday to whip balls in the air for crosses. Instead, they kept it on the ground to flummox their foe. The U.S. then rode the momentum of the early two-goal lead, and scored two more in the following 10 minutes before Japan could recover.

The U.S. should be incredibly pleased with their results this tournament. At times, we wondered if they could actually beat Sweden and Germany. But they moved on, in spite of the criticism, and played their best soccer in the final two matches. It was the kind of ending befitting for a squad as motivated and talented as this collection of U.S. stars, who’ll forever be remembered in the same manner as the inspirational ’99 side that won it all.

Well done, ’15ers.

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