Japan has grown since losing to U.S. in May
What a difference a few weeks make.
The U.S. beat Japan twice over a five-day span in mid-May, by identical 2-0 scores. Two months later, the teams will play again on Sunday — in the Women's World Cup final.
"When we played in May, the U.S. team was already in regular shape, good condition while the Japanese team had just assembled," coach Norio Sasaki said on Saturday through a translator. "The team has developed game by game and become better and better."
Japan is playing in the first final of a major tournament after stunning two-time defending World Cup champion Germany, the pre-tournament favourite, in extra time in the quarter-finals. The Nadeshiko then made easy work of Sweden in the semifinals.
But a final is much different than any other game. The pressure increases, and so do the nerves.
"It is the biggest match of my career," said Homare Sawa, who is playing in her fifth World Cup.
The Nadeshiko have never beaten the Americans, with draws in 2000, 2003 and 2004 the best they've been able to manage in 25 games. They have three losses this year alone to the U.S., including that pair of defeats in warm-up games a month before the World Cup.
But the victories over Germany and Sweden have given Japan confidence. Japan had never beaten Germany before the World Cup. It hadn't had a lot of success against Sweden, either.
"Why shouldn't we be confident?" Sawa asked. "If you look that, we have plenty of chances tomorrow."
The Americans will have a significant height advantage on Japan, with five of the expected starters taller than the five-foot-six Saki Kumagai, Japan's tallest player. But the Japanese had no problems challenging bigger and stronger Germany, getting whistled for four yellow cards — the only yellows they've received this tournament.
Japan's ball-handling skills are exquisite, drawing comparisons to Barcelona for its lightning quick passes and slick combination play.
"They have some good players, regardless how tall or short they are, and they do it together," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "Everybody praises them for the way they attack, keep possession. It's a pretty good way to defend. They are very organized, and get numbers behind the ball."
Sundhage has tried to implement a more possession-oriented style with the Americans, wanting plays to develop through the midfield rather than simply sending long balls up to the forwards. But it remains a work in progress, and the U.S. resorted to its old ways after falling behind Sweden. It got bogged down in the midfield against France until Sundhage brought Megan Rapinoe on, putting her on the left flank and moving Lauren Cheney inside.
The move gave the Americans more flow and creativity, perfectly illustrated by their third goal, when Rapinoe found a streaking Alex Morgan with a cross that was placed perfectly behind the defence.
"We are disappointed in the kind of soccer played in last few games. It's just not the kind of soccer we want to play," said Abby Wambach, who has scored on headers in each of the United States' last two games. "Sometimes games turn into what games turn into and you have to deal with what you've got and somehow find a way and figure it out. And that's what we did and that's something to be proud of and that's what we take away from it.
"But against Japan, we want to do and play the way we've been training. We don't want it just to be a dogfight. We want it to be a game people can watch and be excited about."
Japan is clearly driven by a greater purpose, hoping its success at the World Cup can provide some emotional relief for a nation still reeling from the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. They display a banner reading "To our Friends Around the World — Thank You for Your Support," after every game, and Sasaki inspired his players before the quarter-final by showing them pictures of the devastation.
"They're playing for something bigger and better than the game," U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "When you're playing with so much emotion and so much heart, that's hard to play against."