The Women’s World Cup final between the United States and Japan will be the third time in three major tournaments that the two countries have clashed in the championship game. Japan took the 2011 World Cup, on penalty kicks; the USA repaid Japan by winning Olympic gold in 2012. We can call this one the tiebreaker.
Since taking over the Japanese team in 2008, coach Norio Sasaki has transformed it from one of the also-rans of world soccer into a powerhouse. With none of the physical advantages that North American and European teams tend to have, Sasaki introduced a style based on quick passing, technical excellence and ball pressure. It was a change of pace in the women’s game, which has traditionally been a contest of speed and athleticism — and it was the key to remaking the Japanese side.
In some ways, this makes Japan the opposite of the United States in Sunday’s game. The Americans can almost always lay claim to being the fastest team on the field and the strongest and the biggest; Japan seldom can claim any of those. Every likely USA starter for Sunday’s final, except for left back Meghan Klingenberg, will be 5-7 or taller; Japan played only one player in its semifinal, center back Saki Kumagai, who is taller than 5-5.
Despite the physical difference, though, the two teams will have similar game plans. Japan, under Sasaki, always has pressed other teams high up the pitch and looked to pass its way through the other team’s defense. The United States, criticized early in this tournament for its continuous, desperate attempts to pump long crosses into the penalty area, came out against Germany and pressed the world’s best team off the field — a performance worthy of a Sasaki side.
Japan has won all six of its games at this World Cup but has done so by either scoring early and holding on for dear life or benefiting from fortuitous bounces late in games — not by dominating games offensively. On the flip side, the USA had its own problems with finishing scoring chances but has been nearly perfect defensively, allowing only a handful of opportunities throughout the tournament. Attacking playmaker Aya Miyama, the key to the Japanese side, and her teammates may have trouble getting near the American goal.
The 2011 World Cup final was all USA, as the Americans hit the post and the crossbar and should have won easily. Conversely, the 2012 Olympic final was all Japan, as a combination of Hope Solo in goal and blind luck on defense was all that kept Japan from scoring four or five. Sunday’s final seems likely to go the way of the previous affairs — and seems destined to again be decided by the slimmest of margins.
• Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to make midfielder Michael Bradley the USA captain for the Gold Cup, instead of forward Clint Dempsey, is yet another sign that the coach plans to make Bradley the centerpiece of the national team.
The 27-year-old is America’s best player, and the national team’s recent wins in the Netherlands and in Germany were confirmation that the team looks best when he’s deployed as the focus of the American attack.
• Look for Minnesota United to announce a signing in the near future. Coach Manny Lagos was clear in his desire to bring in a wide midfield player, calling that his top summer priority, in terms of player acquisitions. Given that a domestic move probably would have happened before tonight’s fall-season opener vs. Carolina and that the international transfer window opens July 8, it’s fair to expect a signing next week.
• Today’s Copa America final between Chile and Argentina is a chance for Chile to win in front of the home fans — but is also a chance for Lionel Messi to finally win a major trophy for Argentina.
Some wondered if the pressure was getting to Messi early in the tournament, with the maestro not his usual unstoppable self, but his three assists in Argentina’s 6-1 semifinal thrashing of Paraguay put an end to much of that talk. Lifting the trophy would also do wonders for Messi in the long-running comparisons to the legendary Diego Maradona — who won the World Cup for Argentina but never the Copa America.
• More emphasis on the MLS Supporters’ Shield, given to the league’s regular-season points leader, would be a boon to MLS. Given that 12 of the 20 teams make the playoffs, the only drama tends to be a race between mediocre teams to clinch the last few playoff berths. It’s hard to get excited about the trophy, though, when the two conferences are so unbalanced; DC United, which has the lead in the Supporters’ Shield race, gets to play 24 of its 34 games against the much weaker East. Short of going to a balanced schedule, it’s hard to see how to fix this.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Copa America: Chile vs. Argentina, 3 p.m. Saturday, beIN Sports. Chile is aiming to be the first team outside Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Colombia to win Copa America since 1979. Argentina, led by Lionel Messi and with most of the match’s star power, is the likely winner — even with Chile playing at home.
Women’s World Cup: Germany vs. England, 3 p.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. England probably has more to play for in the third-place game and will want to end the tournament on a high note after its heartbreaking loss to Japan in the semifinals. A win over powerhouse Germany would cement this as England’s best performance.
MLS: San Jose at Portland, 4 p.m., ESPN2. After falling almost to the bottom of the Western Conference, five wins in six games for Portland have the Timbers up to third place. San Jose, riding its own two-game winning streak, is looking to make its own climb up the standings with a result in Portland.
Women’s World Cup: USA vs. Japan, 6 p.m., Ch. 9. Team USA is the current holder of every major tourney crown — including the Olympics gold medal and the Algarve Cup — except the World Cup title, which resides with Japan. It’s been 16 years since the U.S. won the World Cup; it’s favored to do so Sunday.