Photo credit: Christof Stache/AFP
This is a final where having a winner felt unfair. Set up as a clash of styles, a clash of feel-good stories, a clash of very separate footballing (and social) cultures, the final between the USA and Japan delivered on what objective observers could want in a final: excitement, good play, and drama at the end. FIFA could take notes for the men’s next WC in 2014, as this final was better than the Netherlands-Spain final in Jo’burg last summer.
The USA started on the attack early, but could not finish somewhere between eight and ten solid first-half chances despite controlling the run of play and stopping the Nadeshiko from establishing their passing game, reducing them to waiting for a counterattack. It was a victory in and of itself for Japan to keep the score sheet clean in the first half.
Come the 69th minute, the US finally made good on its chances: Megan Rapinoe found sub striker Alex Morgan (on for an injured Lauren Cheney at half), and she pocketed the finish. From there, the Yanks made a tactical error, going too early to a prevention mode to try and see out the rest of the half and stoppage time rather than attacking.
There is an adage in American football that applies to football of all kinds: when you play prevent defense, you are preventing yourself from winning — and Japan reinforced it again when a total howler occurred. Maruyama had broken through and wrong-footed both Rampone and Buehler in the US box. Buehler was able to tackle, but couldn’t clear, and Miyama tapped it past Hope Solo in the missed communication between keeper and center halves.
1-1 at full time meant extra time, and at the 105th minute, it appeared the magic had struck again for the U.S., as Morgan found the godhead of Abby Wambach, who put it in the back of the net. The Japanese kept fighting back in the possession war, adding attackers and scoring on the most unusual of methods against a USA team much taller: a corner kick that found captain Homare Sawa.
We found 2-2, and we found ourselves in penalty kicks, and it all came apart for the USA there. Tired legs, tired bodies, and frayed from having blown a lead twice, the Yanks tapped into their English ancestry in an unfortunate way. Shannon Box, Carli Lloyd, and Tobin Heath missed the first three kicks, which wound up being too much for Hope Solo to countenance.
Japan’s first ever win over the US came on the biggest stage, under the biggest lights, and with the force of drama behind it (although I would prefer it if the American commentators would stop with the whole “healing a nation” trope for the Nadeshiko, we don’t really know how true it is.) They played with the spirit often attributed to the Americans after the Brazil victory; fighting to play from behind against a team taller and stronger (but not so much stronger as many would have you believe; the gap between #4 and #1 in FIFA rankings is not that wide.)
The American women gave a fine effort with few major errors, but the Nadeshiko earned the victory by playing to come back, adjusting its attack to bring attackers forward in crunch time, and nailing shots from the spot when it counted.
Well played, ladies.