Women's World Cup final: The experts' picks

Our panel of soccer experts from CBC Sports and Rogers Sportsnet weigh in with their picks and predictions for Sunday's FIFA Women's World Cup final between Japan and the United States (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 2:30 p.m. ET).
Japan has never defeated the United States in 22 international matches. (Amy Sancetta/Associated Press)

Here's what our panel of experts have to say about the FIFA Women's World Cup final between Japan and the United States Sunday in Frankfurt, Germany:

Nigel Reed, CBC Sports

It turns out there is no substitute for experience. The U.S. has been forced to use every ounce of knowledge to navigate a path to the final. Japan, too, was in danger of missing the World Cup altogether but a near miss in qualifying has served it well in Germany.

The Americans, full of confidence and swagger, will start as warm favourites. With Abby Wambach finding her form at the right time and Hope Solo proving herself the tournament's best goalkeeper, it is tough to identify a weak link in the American chain.

The Japanese have a saying: "Ants scurrying around elephants' feet". It is an apt analogy of the task facing the Nadeshiko. Japan's swarming teamwork is its best and perhaps only realistic chance of bringing the American giant to its knees.

The U.S. rightly believes it can beat anyone. Japan, led by the irrepressible Homare Sawa, has already toppled the hosts and Sweden en route to Frankfurt. Four months after the devastating tsunami, few would begrudge Japan its moment in the sun.

Prediction: U.S. wins 2-1 in extra time.

Gerry Dobson, Rogers Sportsnet

The FIFA Women's World Cup final offers an intriguing match-up. One team was expected to be there. The other one certainly wasn't. 

And yet in a way you could argue that Japan was more impressive in getting to the final than the United States. Not only did they dethrone two-time defending champions Germany in the quarter-finals, but they were totally dominant in every aspect to beat Sweden to make the final. They are disciplined, well organized, technically sound and make up for their lack of size by keeping the ball on the ground.

The Americans on the other hand continually found a way to win when it didn't seem likely. They have been lethargic at times. But they have found brilliance when they needed it. Abby Wambach's sense of the big moment has been uncanny.

But in my opinion their unpredictability and inconsistency is too much to gamble on. Japan has been dependable, reliable, a team you can count on since the group stage. The Americans have not.

Prediction: Japan wins 2-1.

Jason de Vos, CBC Sports

My heart says Japan.

A part of me really wants to see them triumph, in large part to reward them for their commitment to playing the game the way it was supposed to be played; pass and move for each other, moving as one both in attack and defence.

Unfortunately, my head says that the United States will get the better of Japan.

While the Japanese players are technically superior, the U.S. has an incredible will to win. They simply do not stay down. They pick themselves up and keep fighting, right to the very end. And that, I feel, is going to be the difference on Sunday. The United States will do whatever it takes to win. Japan will play beautiful football, but the United States will go home as champions.

Prediction: U.S. wins 2-1.

Craig Forrest, Rogers Sportsnet

The Americans are physically stronger than Japan, but so were the Germans.

Japan is going to have to ride their luck and play the way they did against Germany where they kept really tight to their opponents. They are excellent passing the ball around, and if they can use their speed and technique they have a chance.

Prediction: Japan wins 2-1 in extra time.

Stephen Brunt, Globe & Mail and Rogers Sportsnet

The Americans have a huge physical advantage in terms of height, but everybody has had that on Japan in this tournament. They have the exact same advantage on Japan as Germany had, and Japan persevered in that quarter-final match.

Japan is great on the ball, probably the best team on the ball in the tournament. They are opportunistic and they have three or four extraordinarily good players.

I do think the Americans are riding a big wave right now, though. They were the No. 1 ranked team coming into the tournament but I think most people had it Brazil and Germany, and then maybe the Americans as the top favourites.

You just sense with the level of confidence they are playing with right now that they are going to be very tough to beat. On set pieces, if they get the opportunity to whip the ball in, they are going to be dangerous against Japan because of that physical advantage.

That said I'm not counting the Japanese out. When I first saw them play in the tournament, I was impressed with their possession and passing game, but I thought they would get overwhelmed by bigger, faster and stronger teams. But they haven't and their success has been a real triumph of skill.

Prediction: U.S. wins 1-0.

Clare Rustad, CBC Sports

I think they're both going to have to be excellent and near perfect to beat each other. They are both at that point where they are peaking at the right moment. Japan had some tough times with England in the group stage and the U.S. had some rough times with Sweden, but they have both recovered very nicely.

The way the Japanese are playing right now they've done a very good job of dealing with [opponents having a size advantage]. I don't think it'll be a factor for them because they've done such a great job of containing teams defensively and preventing crosses and preventing aerial battles.

Obviously they are going to have to be aware of it. For them, they have to dominate possession and keeping the ball will prevent those physical battles from happening. I think they need to avoid any unnecessary fouls around the box so they can avoid having to defend set pieces.

Prediction: Japan wins 1-0.

Kara Lang, Rogers Sportsnet

The U.S. has a huge physical advantage. Their size and strength and athletic ability can't be matched by the Japanese. 

But I also think the Americans are going to run into some problems when it comes to Japan's pressing game. I don't think they are going to have nearly as much time on the ball as they've had in other games. If Japan can manage to cut off the service to Abby Wambach, that size advantage might not make a huge difference for the U.S.

The Japanese know they have nothing to lose. They've already exceeded everybody's expectations and if anything, could probably count on the Americans underestimating them.

For all the talk about the Americans having so much heart and determination, I think that's the case with Japan even more so. We've seen how much potential they've had over the past few years — they have always been a high-level team and across the board had a lot of good players.

Everybody on that team is technically gifted but they've never reached their potential at the World Cup and have underachieved. Maybe what's given them that extra push in this tournament has been the motivation and inspiration that they've taken from the tragedy in their country. I think that's given them a sense of fearlessness in their play.

Prediction: U.S. wins 2-1.

Signa Butler, CBCSports.ca

It's not the final everyone predicted, or what the host nation wanted, but it's an interesting one nonetheless.   The United States are fiery, they have swagger and whatever confidence they were lacking coming into this tournament was extinguished after their thrilling quarter-final victory over Brazil. 

Japan has played the best football at this tournament. Aside from the blip against England in the group stage, the Japanese side has been — along with semifinal losers France — the class of the World Cup. They're organized, calm and technically sharp. 

They've also shown their ability to handle the physical nature of the game, which was the biggest critique of past Japanese teams. They handled two physically-dominant teams in Germany and Sweden by keeping possession and dictating the direction of the game. They'll have to do the same against the Americans.

Japan cannot allow the U.S. to establish an "air game." The Americans are absolutely lethal on crosses and set pieces (see Abby Wambach), so preventing corner kicks and crosses into the box will be a priority. 

One thing that can't be measured is spirit, something both teams have in spades, but especially Japan. Playing for that embattled nation has brought out the best in Norio Sasaki's side and it may just be enough to take them to their first world title. And, wouldn't it be fitting to see Japanese captain Homare Sawa hoist the trophy in her fifth World Cup?  

Prediction: Japan wins 2-1.

John F. Molinaro, CBCSports.ca

I like the way Japan has played in this tournament. Technically sound, well-organized and quick on the counter-attack, the Japanese have been the most balanced team in Germany.

What's especially impressed me about them is they play the game with a sense of fearlessness, especially in the quarter-finals against Germany where they didn't show the hosts too much respect and worried about playing their game as opposed to adapting to the Germans.

That said, I think the U.S. will win. Twice the Americans have looked to be dead and buried, and twice they have come back. Their will to win, never say die attitude and genuine belief that they can't lose — not to mention their experience — gives them the decided edge in this contest.

Prediction: U.S. wins 1-0.