Japan and United States meet Sunday in World Cup Finals


United States women’s national team coach Pia Sundhage seems to be pleased with her starting lineup. She’s only made two major changes since the World Cup started: Lori Lindsey replaced midfielder Shannon Boxx against Colombia, and Becky Sauerbrunn replaced defender Rachel Buehler against France because Buehler received a red card. However, after the Colombia game Boxx was inserted back into the starting lineup and we can be sure that Rachel Buehler will return to the starting lineup in the finals. Sundhage has confidence in her team, and it shows. She has continued to start players that have not had a huge impact in games, like Amy Rodriguez, who has not scored from her forward position. Sundhage has also put faith in the players that have struggled or had bad games, such as defender Amy LePeilbet, who caused a penalty kick and scored an own goal in the game against Sweden, and Abby Wambach, who remained very quiet the first two games of the tournament.

But this is the World Cup Finals. There is no time to rely on the players that haven’t performed and it won’t be safe to make late substitutions when things aren’t working out. Rodgriguez has had five games to make her mark, but she hasn’t made an impact on the games and she has continually been subbed out in the second half of games. Maybe it’s time for Sundhage to start another forward, like Alex Morgan, who has come into games late and put pressure on the defense, and scored against France. Inserting Morgan into the starting lineup against Japan will keep Japan’s defense in the defensive third. Japan’s outside backs like to push up the flanks. Morgan likes to keep pushed up against the defensive back line so she can use her pace to run onto flicked on balls. Morgan will force Japan’s outside backs to stay back. She is fast and tall and will give Japan trouble if Sundhage places her into the starting lineup.

Another change Sundhage made that has been extremely effective was switching her inside defenders, Christie Rampone and Rachel Buehler, to allow Rampone to help cover for the slower LePeilbet on the left side. Japan is a very quick team and they like to push up. The U.S. defense will have their work cut out for them when eight Japanese players push forward on every attack. Not only will Japan have almost every player forward on their offensive attacks, but they move extremely well on and off the ball. They dribble with precision and every touch is strategic. They are technically the best team in the World Cup. The United States has had some practice facing technically gifted teams having faced Brazil and France in the quarterfinals and semifinals. The Brazil game came out very closely in the end, and France outplayed the U.S. for almost the entire game. The U.S. has had trouble keeping possession of the ball, especially in the middle of the field. Japan is known for keeping possession and passing to create openings. Japan maintained 60 percent possession in their game against Sweden. Boxx and Carli Lloyd will need to maintain possession in the middle of the field and anchor the offensive attack. Allowing Japan to keep the ball in the midfield will force the U.S. to chase Japan.

Japan does not have a single stand-out player or a goal scoring target like the U.S. has in Abby Wambach. The U.S. will have an advantage because their defense will not have to double team a target player and it will free up more players to counter attack and push forward. Japan’s goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori was not tested in their game against Sweden. Sweden scored one goal, but only had one shot on target after their goal. Kaihori does not have a lot of height and she is known to have unsure hands when she comes out for balls. The U.S. need to exploit their height and power and attack over the top of Japan’s defense and goalkeeper. The Japanese team has height average of 5’4″. The United States will have a major height advantage and need to send high crosses in over the heads of the Japanese defense.

One advantage Japan will have is on set pieces. Midfielder Aya Miyama is very dangerous on set pieces and has scored on them before. She is deadly accurate and will be a threat to the U.S. if they give up free kicks around the box. It will be important for the U.S. to make smart tackles around the box and not give up too many free kicks because Japan could make them pay. Lucky for the United States, they have the best goal keeper in the world on their side: Hope Solo. Japan has not faced a goalkeeper like Solo. If the U.S. do give up free kicks, Solo will not make it easy for Japan to score. In the game against Sweden, Japan scored two goals on misplays by Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. Solo will not make the same mistakes or misjudge the ball like Lindahl did. Solo did not have her best game against France, but you can bet that she’ll be on her A-game for the World Cup finals.

The United States will need to mark up on Japan midfielder Homare Sawa, who has scored four goals for Japan in the World Cup and is chasing the title for the golden boot. She is Japan’s anchor in the midfield. Sawa is a smart and mature player and Japan’s offense moves through her. If Boxx and Lloyd can keep her touches on the ball minimal, the U.S. will keep better possession of the ball.

Japan has surprised many by making it to the World Cup finals defeating two time defending champion Germany and Sweden, winners of their group. The United States will have their hands full with Japan’s speed, agility and technical skill. Japan will have difficulty with the United States height and power and the skill of goalkeeper Solo. Both teams have been playing with heart and determination and both will leave their hearts on the field. I think the United States will have the edge. They’ve proved time and time again that they can pull out a win even under the worst circumstances. Wambach has been the hero in the last two games and I predict that she will score a goal in the finals.

Japan and the United States meet in the World Cup finals Sunday.

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