Jul 3, 2015 7:31 PM by Ross Field
An average of 8.4 million people watched the US women's national team topple Germany on Tuesday, which is a record for a World Cup semifinal match, by the way. The game, which ended in a 2-0 win for the US, featured the best two teams in the world and was the greatest women's World Cup game of all time, according to 538's Women's Soccer Power Index.
On Tuesday, the US took down a German powerhouse, but, unfortunately, its job isn't complete just yet. Because, unfortunately for the US, that game didn't offer the same kind of promise that a World Cup final offers.
If the US wins on Sunday, it's promised immortality. How many times in the last month have we seen the replay of Brandi Chastain whipping off her jersey, sinking to her knees, and raising her fists toward the sky? The highlight of her World Cup winning penalty kick in 1999 won't ever be erased from our minds or any World Cup highlight reels. For as long as there is a World Cup, as long as the tournament exists, that iconic moment will occupy a place on our television screens and in our minds.
But if the US loses on Sunday, the memory of this World Cup run will fade away, eroding more and more every four years. That's what's at stake on Sunday when the US and Japan clash in Vancouver, Canada.
Japan won't make it easy on the US. Looming on Sunday is a team that snatched away immortality from the US in 2011 when it came back from multiple goal-deficits to win the World Cup in a shootout. It's also a team that fell just short of yet another comeback against the US in the 2012 Olympics. These two teams just have a thing for each other, I guess.
If those same 8.4 million people who watched the semifinal match watch again on Sunday, they might not recognize the game that's being played. Against Germany, the pace was frantic and unrelenting, as both sides raced up the field on the attack, only to retreat in haste to defend against the ensuing counter. Japan, on the other hand, didn't sign up for a track meet. Japan signed up for something akin to a game of chess.
Japan's 80 percent passing percentage is impressive, but Japan has yet to score more than two goals in a game and every single one of its games has been decided by just one goal (including its 2-1 win over England in the semifinals, with the deciding goal coming on an own goal in stoppage time). To be clear, Japan's goal on Sunday is to absolutely dominate control of the ball, primarily conducting itself through midfielder Aya Miyama, who has created a tournament-high 22 scoring chances. If its first six games are any indication, Japan will attempt to get the ball, keep the ball, and then it will try to carefully dissect the US' midfield and backline.
Whether or not the US defends this by pressuring at a high rate -- like it did against China and Germany -- or getting bodies behind the ball and forming a barrier so that Japan can't penetrate successfully into the box is unknown. If the US chases, then Japan has a chance to successful wear down the US. If the US sits back, then it'll concede the majority of possession, but it also has a better chance at keeping Japan away from its goal and forcing Japan to launch shots from distance, which the US should feel comfortable with considering it has Hope Solo -- the best goalkeeper in the world -- as its last line of defense.
Really, the reason why some can view this game as a formality before the US collects its first-place trophy is because it's tough to see the US conceding a goal to Japan. Against a German juggernaut that had scored 20 goals in five games, the USWNT's back-four limited Germany to just one shot on goal. The US hasn't watched a ball travel into its goal in 513 minutes. For those who are finding it hard to remember, the only goal the US gave up in this tournament came in the first half of its first game, against Australia.
And Japan isn't an offensive force. Like the US, Japan has scored nine goals in this World Cup. In other words, Japan's attack should be manageable enough for an impenetrable US defense.
Applying that statistic to the US is a bit different, even if the numbers are identical, because the US appeared to unlock something against Germany. By switching to the 4-2-3-1, the US unchained its attack and launched an attack on Germany. Morgan Brian and Lauren Holiday held down the center of the midfield and that allowed Carli Lloyd to attack. By bringing off lumbering forward Abby Wambach for another midfielder, lone forward Alex Morgan finally had players to combine with. And though she failed to score on numerous chances, she set up the game-winning goal when she drew a penalty.
If US coach Jill Ellis sticks with the new lineup (she should) and if she doesn't revert back to the 4-4-2 with Wambach up top, then the US will have an opportunity to do some damage against Japan's defense, even if it has given up just three goals in six games.
In the end, it seems unlikely that Japan is going to crack the US' resistance and outgun the Americans. Though the US is only now discovering its offensive prowess, it's seemingly peaking at just the right time. Japan is one final tough hurdle to clear -- there's a reason why the US keeps meeting Japan in big matches -- but the US seems poised to recapture the World Cup crown. And, if it completes the process, then the USWNT can add its own everlasting image to accompany Chastain and her team's moment of euphoria.
USA vs. Japan (Final) | Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET | TV: Fox | Location: Vancouver |
(Photo credit: U.S. Soccer)
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