New England Soccer Today

Japan Prevails on True Grit

The U.S women’s national team learned a difficult lesson in their extra time loss on penalty kicks to Japan in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final: not finishing valuable scoring opportunities will come back to bite you.  And bite them it did.

The U.S squandered a host of chances in the first half hour that could have decided the match.  Boston Breakers midfielder Lauren Cheney helped the U.S attack in the first half, slotting next to Abby Wambach as a forward while Meghan Rapinoe worked on the left wing with Carly Lloyd and Shannon Boxx in central midfield.

Cheney gave the Japanese defense a headache in the first half, often finding herself in behind and setting up chances for the U.S.  In just the first minute, Cheney rounded her defender and entered the penalty area with enough space to lineup a shot.  Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori pushed the shot out of play to keep Abby Wambach from poking in a rebound.  Cheney then set up Rapinoe in the 18th minute, her shot coming off the near post.  The U.S then hit the woodwork again in the 28th minute as Wambach broke free of her marker after taking the ball off of Cheney’s feet and firing a shot from just inside the penalty area off the crossbar.

While the U.S were pleased with their first half attacking momentum, the Japanese were content with going into halftime with the score level.  In fact, Japan never really built up any potent attacks at all.  Most of Japan’s chances came against the run of play or off defensive mistakes on the part of the U.S.

Cheney was benched at halftime due to an ankle injury and was replaced by Alex Morgan.  And Morgan picked up from where Cheney left off, being a reliable target for midfielders and adding extra venom to the U.S attack.  Meanwhile, Japan continued to drop back and counterattack.

But ironically, it was a Japanese counterattack that led to the U.S scoring the opening goal of the match in the 69th minute.  After Japan failed to challenge the U.S goal, Rapinoe took hold of possession and launched a counterattack of her own, springing Morgan in behind the defense with a 50 yard pass from just outside the American penalty area.  Morgan, who just moments before had hit the post, controlled Rapinoe’s long pass and fired a shot into the back of the net after taking two touches.

True to their form, Japan created a scoring opportunity off a U.S defensive lapse and capitalized on it.  Homare Sawa took hold of possession just outside the penalty area off a defensive giveaway by the U.S.  Rachel Buehler cleared Sawa’s cross only as far as Ali Krieger, who deflected the misclearance right to Aya Miyama.  Miyama was right in front of goal when the ball fell to her and volleyed the defensive gaffe into the back of the net in the 81st minute.

Japan were livelier in the waning minutes of regulation but were put off by the U.S to force extra time.  USA 1999, which was won by the U.S, was the only previous Women’s World Cup final to go into extra time before Sunday’s match.  In 1999, the U.S won on penalty kicks without their veteran leader Michelle Akers, who was substituted out due to injury.  But against Japan, the U.S had the benefit of having their most influential leader, Abby Wambach, healthy and ready to lift the team.

Wambach’s moment came in the 104th minute.  Morgan’s endline cross found Wambach open in the middle of penalty area, her diving header flying into the back of the net to give the U.S the 2-1 lead.  The goal was Wambach’s fourth of the World Cup and the thirteenth of her World Cup career, making her the best American scorer in Women’s World Cup history.

But the U.S were again victimized for not controlling the ball when the game was theirs to close out.  Japan had a chance off a corner cleared off the line in the 112th minute.  Five minutes later, Homare Sawa headed a corner toward goalkeeper Hope Solo which deflected off of Wambach on the way and went into the goal.

The U.S, who fell for Japan’s style to score on the back foot, closed the rest of the game out in hopes that Solo would lead the team to victory in a penalty shootout.  In the dying seconds of extra time, referee Bibiana Steinhaus red carded Azusa Iwashimizu for a foul from behind on Morgan in the penalty arch.  The ejection left Japan with ten players for the final play of the match, a freekick which Lloyd hit to O’Reilly, whose shot at the edge of the penalty area was blocked on its way toward goal.

Japan had the advantage of seeing the U.S take penalties in their quarter final victory over Brazil last Sunday.  Shannon Boxx (saved), Carly Lloyd (high), and Tobin Heath (saved) were the first three penalty takers for the U.S.

Solo managed to save Nagasoto’s penalty kick (Japan’s second kick) and Wambach put away her shot.  But Saki Kumagai buried Japan’s decisive penalty kick, their fourth, into the upper left corner of the net past Solo.

As Japan lift their maiden World Cup trophy, the U.S sit on what has been a twelve year drought since their last World Cup finals victory.  Any loss for the U.S would have been an upset, with the team ranked first in the world going into the tournament.  And even though Japan was ranked fourth in the world, few saw them beating hosts Germany and powerhouse Sweden on their way to beating the U.S for the trophy.

The U.S, who played better than Japan for nearly the entirety of the match, will have missed their chance to shine at the World Cup stage and lift the trophy for an unprecedented third time.  While the sting of losing Sunday’s final to Japan will continue for the next four years, the national program can celebrate the fact that this tournament helped open American ears to Women’s soccer.  Players who made a name for themselves in Germany will come home to their Women’s Pro Soccer teams and larger crowds waiting to catch a glimpse of the skill seen during their World Cup run.

The players of tomorrow could be in the stands to be inspired by the current pool of American talent, waiting for their chance to deliver on what this U.S team could not: lift the World Cup again.

Leave a Reply