By Matt Ream

Super substitute Alex Morgan had a goal and an assist today as the United States looked to win their record third Women’s World Cup against Japan. Unfortunately, the Americans came up short as a few defensive mistakes allowed the Japanese to tie the game twice before winning on penalty kicks.

Megan Rapinoe got the start in place of the much maligned Amy Rodriguez, allowing Lauren Cheney to move up top to her preferred position. The US started out strong, with Rapinoe, Cheney, and Abby Wambach looking lively. Wambach saw a long range effort rattle the goalpost, which came to the rescue more than once, and the organized Japanese defense stood up to the task on the other occasions.

As the game progressed, Japan began to control the midfield, and through it, the possession. The center midfield pairing of Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd struggled to string together passes and seemed overwhelmed by the swarming Japanese attackers.

At halftime, Cheney went off with an ankle injury, so Morgan got the call. Her pace and attacking mindset immediately made a difference. But it wasn’t until the 69th minute when Rapinoe’s long ball off a counterattack allowed Morgan to get in behind Japan’s backline. Her left footed shot found the far post as Japan’s keeper appeared to be cheating toward the near post and did not have a good starting position.

The US looked to have the game wrapped up. Japan seemed spent and was not exhibiting the same vigorous movement as before. Then, in the 81st minute, center back stalwart Christie Rampone gave the ball away on a routine pass out of the back. Japan’s ensuing pass into the penalty area was played across the goal by Rampone’s centerback partner Rachel Buehler, only to be whiffed by right back Ali Krieger. The ball fell right to the feet of Aya Miyama, who coolly finished past Hope Solo. The game remained tied at 90 minutes, so extra time was needed.

In the first half of extra time, the US continued to push forward to find the win. As the half drew to a close, Morgan drove toward the goal line and played a neat ball to the middle for Wambach to finish with a decisive header. Fifteen minutes to go and the US seemed to have this game locked.

In the 117th minute (132nd if your name is Julie Foudy), Japan earned a corner kick. All of Japan’s previous set pieces had been easily cleared by the much larger US team, but this one fell nicely for Homare Sawa. Her one touch redirection went past Solo and into the back of the net, leaving US players and fans alike devastated. A late red card on defender Azusa Iwashimizu could not help the US find a winning goal and the game moved to penalty kicks.

Although Hope Solo had been outstanding all tournament, especially when facing penalties, her teammates needed to pull their weight as well. Unfortunately for the US, several PK takers choked under pressure. Boxx, who was so cool under pressure in the game against Brazil, saw her effort blocked and Lloyd blasted well over the crossbar. Late substitute Tobin Heath also saw her shot saved. Although Solo did save one Japanese attempt, she couldn’t keep them all out and so Japan won their first Women’s World Cup title.

Thoughts:

  • In a game that the US dominated statistically in all aspects other than possession, the players will rue their missed chances. Wasted opportunities were the story of the United States’ World Cup as they took 118 shots but converted a measly eleven percent (13 goals total). Additionally, only thirty-six percent of those shots were on target.
  • Despite Pia Sundhage’s attempts to transition the US women into a possession style of play, the team still reverts to their more familiar style of direct play. This happened a number of times during the final, where a string of several good passes ended in possession being squandered with a long ball up the field. Additionally, many countries are now more equipped to handle such an attack, using better defensive organization and fitness.
  • On a related note, where does Abby Wambach fit into the future of the national team? Wambach turned 31 this year, which is the age at which many soccer players begin to lose some of their abilities and physical strengths. Her scoring drought earlier in the year might indicate such a decline, but on the other hand, long time national teamer Kristine Lilly played at a high level until she was almost forty. However, Wambach is the spearhead of the direct tactics the US tends to fall back on. Without her physical tools, that type of play would not be nearly as effective. It will be interesting to see how the USWNT develops in the next world cup cycle.
  • On a positive note, I was overwhelmed by all of the support for the USWNT coming from people that typically don’t give soccer a second thought. This is a good sign for US Soccer. While the women did not win the World Cup this time, many more people were paying attention. People whose kids play and were inspired by these six performances in the past month. Or whose future kids may play because their mothers and fathers were inspired.

Matt Ream is the older, wiser, and better looking brother of The Sack Lunch co-founder Evan Ream. He occasionally contributes to TSL when he isn’t too busy getting his MA in Kinesiology at CSU Long Beach, coaching youth soccer or reading. He can be reached at mtream@gmail.com or @flyingoose.

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