The women’s World Cup title game, between the U.S. and Japan, in Frankfurt, kicks off at 2:45 Eastern time today. Here are five things to watch for in of the most highly anticipated games in U.S. soccer history.
1. Can the U.S. Play the Possession Game?
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage has indicated that the U.S. will try to play possession soccer against Japan. That means the team will look to control the ball and show off their technical soccer skills – short passing, movement – rather than try to just outrun the defense with long passes downfield. Another benefit of playing possession: the more time you spend chipping the ball to one another, the less time you spend chasing the offensive team all over the field, tiring yourself out.
In the semifinal victory against France, the U.S. proved it’s in real good shape. If the players were going to lag in any game, it would be that one, which came just three days after the dramatic overtime quarterfinal victory over Brazil. Still, the U.S. coaches are concerned about fatigue, so the Americans will try to keep the ball on their feet.
The challenge: possession soccer is one of Japan’s strengths. It’s difficult to keep the ball on offense if the other team has it all the time.
(PHOTOS: Stunning Women’s World Cup Action)
2. Height Advantage
Japan, with an average height of 5-foot-4, is one of the smallest teams in this World Cup. The U.S. has just one player under 5-foot-5, forward Amy Rodriguez. The Americans will look to take advantage of this height disparity on set pieces – those corner kicks and free kicks, which come after the opponent is whistled for an infraction. Star striker Abby Wambach, 5-foot-11, uses her size as a weapon: her last two goals have both been headers, which she completed after leaping over smaller defenders.
3. Stopping Sawa
Japan midfielder Homare Sawa is playing in her fifth World Cup. But she’s no aging vet. Despite not being know for her scoring, Sawa, 32, has four goals during this tournament: she’s tied with Brazil’s Marta for tops in the tournament. “She’s just been tremendous,” says Julie Foudy, the ESPN analyst who won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals as a player. “She’s playing some of the best soccer she’s ever played. And she’s one of the more classy players out there. She’s one of those people that everyone speaks highly of.”
It’s hard not to cheer for Sawa, and for the entire Japanese team, in fact. The team is trying to lift a country still reeling from the March earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 15,000 people. Before Japan’s 1-0 quarterfinal victory over the host team, Germany, coach Norio Sasaki showed his players images of the devastation, to remind them that they’re playing for something bigger than themselves. A fired- up Japanese team, not normally known for its aggression, received four yellow-cards. If Japan carries this fight into the finals, the country could be cheering a championship.
4. Super Sub
Against Brazil, U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe checked into the game in the 55th minute: in the final minute of the extra session, Rapinoe fired a perfect left-footed cross to Wambach’s head. Wambach’s goal tied the game at 2-2, and the U.S. won on penalty kicks.
In the semifinal against France, Rapinoe came off the bench in the 66th minute, during a laggard stretch for the Americans. Her energy changed the tone of the game, and it’s no accident that the U.S. broke a 1-1 tie on another Wambach goal 13 minutes later. “She put the French on their heels,” says Foudy. “She was super aggressive. Sometimes, you need someone to say, ‘enough.’ Megan provides a great, great spark.” If the U.S. is struggling against Japan, feel free to shout “put in Megan!” at your TV. (UPDATE: U.S. coach Pia Sundhage has decided that Rapinoe is so effective that she’s listed as a starter in today’s final.)
5. Singing Sundhage
Nothing fires up your troops like soft-rock melodies. At least that’s the philosophy of U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, a former star player for the Swedish national team, who occasional communicates to her players through song. After taking over a fractured U.S. squad in 2008, Suthridge called a team meeting, and crooned “Times they Are a Changing.” She shared her vocal skills at a Friday press conference with reporters. When things get to stressful, Sundhage said, she tells her team to “slow down, you move to fast/you’ve got to make the morning last, yes/kicking down the cobble stone/looking for fun and feeling groovy.”
Groovy indeed. If the U.S. beats Japan, maybe Sundhage will dump the Simon and Garfunkel, in favor of a little Queen.