[USA-JAPAN] Many storylines and subplots were played out as Japan beat the USA on penalty kicks (2-2, 3-1) in a electrifying Women’s World Cup final Sunday in Frankfurt, surely the most dramatic women’s international match ever played.
Here are three thoughts in the aftermath of what might be the most dramatic women’s international match ever played:
Pressure cuts both ways. Over being overrun in the first 30 minutes, Japan rallied twice to end overtime tied, 2-2, and then prevailed on penalty kicks, 3-1, to win its first championship in a major soccer tournament at the senior level.
In the first half an hour, the Japanese -- perhaps overwhelmed by the occasion and knowing how their success had captivated a country still rebounding from a tsunami and earthquake in March -- showed little of the poise and polish that had propelled them past Germany and Sweden in the knockout rounds. Pressured incessantly by the U.S. from the first minute, when Lauren Cheney got to the endline to center a ball that was knocked out for a corner, and reeling from incessant attacks, Japan rarely crossed the halfway line.
But by not conceding until the second half, Japan eventually got enough of its attack going to score the goals to survive regulation and extra time tied, and its players were the cooler ones during the penalty-kick shootout. Only one American converted out of four attempts, and Japan hit three of four to prevail.
Wasteful finishing, again, plagues U.S. Despite their success in the tournament, the Americans had squandered numerous opportunities in the group phase -- particularly in the loss to Sweden -- and weren’t all that clinical in the knockout phase while edging Brazil in the quarterfinals and beating France in the semis.
But they kept Japan in the game by blowing chance after chance in the first half. Luck played a role, somewhat, as Megan Rapinoe hit the post and Abby Wambach crashed a majestic left-footed off the crossbar. But Cheney looped a wide-open header over the crossbar, to cite just one example, and during the entire 120 minutes of play only a close-range header from Wambach forced Japanese keeper Ayumi Kaihori into a difficult save when she acrobatically topped the ball over the crossbar.
A low, left-footed laser by Morgan in regulation and a classic Wambach header from a Morgan cross in overtime represented the type of finishing the Americans are capable of. But the Americans, who served up the first equalizer to Aya Miyama with a comical mixup in the back line, missed again in the final seconds after Homare Sawa’s equalizer late in extra time. The USA had a 27-14 edge in shots but the Japanese finished with a 6-5 edge in shots on goal.
Sawa soars. She would have taken Japan’s fifth penalty kick had her country needed her; instead, captain Homare Sawa – in her fifth Women’s World Cup appearance -- lifted the trophy as the tournament's top scorer with five goals and as the symbol of her nation’s resilience and perseverance.
She played a deep-lying role for much of the match, trying to anchor the center and escape the attention of U.S. midfielders Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd. Sawa only rarely influenced the attack until extra time and a few of her untypical giveaways in the middle third could have been costly. Yet she also defended doggedly all over the field and on one occasion tracked a through ball all the way back across Japan’s end line.
In the final minutes, with Japan trailing, 2-1, Sawa raced into the left channel and jumped in frustration when Nahomi Kawasumi couldn’t find her with the final pass. Still, there was enough time for right back Yukari Kinga, who had earlier skulled a good chance provided to her by Sawa, raced down the flank to win a corner when Christie Rampone hacked the ball over the goal line.
Sawa darted to the near post to flick Miyama’s corner kick towards goal. It took a slight deflection on its way into the net, and thus granted one more reprieve by their captain in the 117th minute, the Japanese players wrote the final page of an unbelievable story.