The United States women's national team barely got into the 2011 Women's World Cup. They lost in the semifinal of the CONCACAF qualifying tournament to Mexico and looked unconvincing in their qualifying playoff win over Italy. They lost two friendly matches in the build-up to the tournament. In the World Cup, they lost to Sweden, needed a 122nd minute equalizer to force penalties against Brazil, and were outplayed for most of their game against France. And yet, here they are. The USA women's soccer team, in the World Cup final yet again, this time against Japan.
Of course, as improbable as their journey has been, it completely pales in comparison to that of their opponents. Japan was devastated by an earthquake and resulting tsunami in March, and the disaster put the team's presence at the World Cup in doubt. As a result of the disaster, the Japanese men's national football team had to withdraw from the 2011 Copa America, at which they were an invited guest. The team was able to organize themselves and even play a few friendlies before the tournament, something that has probably aided them in their journey to the final. The USWNT will have great support from their country behind them, but it will likely be dwarfed by the support Japan gets from their fans at home.
If you ask a fan who has followed the United States women for the last couple of years, they will tell you that Pia Sundhage should have a number of selection dilemmas. Amy Rodriguez and Carli Lloyd struggled in the match against France and this is hardly a one-time occurrence. Both are very athletic, very hard-working, and all-around useful footballers, but the form of both leaves something to be desired compared to, say, Alex Morgan and Lori Lindsey. However, Sundhage has been more loyal to these two players than any others, and if they are healthy - which they are - they will be in the starting lineup.
There is one real dilemma that Sundhage has, though, and that is in the center of defense. With Rachel Buehler suspended for the semifinal, Becky Sauerbrunn - the record-holder for consecutive games played in WPS - stepped in and filled her shoes brilliantly. Though Lauren Cheney, Abby Wambach, and substitutes Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe got most of the post-match attention, Sauerbrunn was arguably the woman of the match for the United States.
In the first half, she did such a thorough job of erasing Marie-Laure Delie, France's leading goal-scorer, that a completely healthy Delie was substituted out of the game. Before the World Cup, Sauerbrunn played two fantastic matches in friendlies, and her form in WPS has been superb as well. Sundhage's selection at central defense will likely be the hardest personnel choice she has made in this tournament.
That selection will be a very critical one, as Japan's strikers are among the best players on their team. The 24-year-old Turbine Potsdam star Yuki Nagasato will be the leader of the forward group for years to come in Japan, but the second striker/attacking midfielder that plays behind her, veteran Homare Sawa, is the star of the show for now. The 32-year-old is Japan's all-time leading scorer and is currently tied with Marta in the race for the Golden Boot, with four goals.
Other players to watch for Japan include Mana Iwabuchi, the budding 18-year-old star who provides a spark off the bench and who is often compared to FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi, Aya Miyama, who is arguably the greatest set piece taker in the world, and Aya Sameshima, Japan's talented defender who plays her club football in the United States for Boston Breakers.
In their previous two games, Japan have come up against two teams who most experts agreed would have too much of a physical advantage for Japan to deal with. They don't have a single outfield player taller than 5'7", and almost all of their players are 5'4" or smaller. Germany and Sweden, the two teams they defeated en route to the final, are loaded with great athletes who have major size and strength advantages over Japan. It didn't matter.
While the United States might have athletes that are even better than the players on Germany or Sweden, they do not have the technical skill of those teams as a group. The logic in predicting Germany and Sweden victories over Japan is that those teams had 90 percent of the technical skill of Japan with much more athleticism, making them the favorites. Saying that the United States has 90 percent of the technical skill of Japan would be a serious stretch.
Yes, the United States defeated Japan in two warm-up friendlies before the World Cup, but both of those games took place in the United States, and both were very shortly after the earthquake and tsunami. The games were played to raise money for charities benefiting disaster relief in Japan, and it was obvious that Japan was not at their best in those games. The United States won both friendlies by one goal, and the message from Japan was that they were just happy to be there. They were happy that they were able to get a team organized to travel to the United States and play a semi-competitive game, and they were happy that they played at a level that somewhat resembled what they were capable of. They did not put their best foot forward, and they did not expect to win those games. Still, they challenged the United States in both matches and managed to lose both by only one goal.
The USWNT are the favorites on Sunday, but then again, so were Germany and Sweden in their matches against Japan. Those teams were the favorites for the same reason that the United States is the favorite, so it would be ridiculous to say that the U.S. women are anything but very marginal favorites. They don't have the technical skill of Japan, France, Brazil or Sweden, but they've been able to make the final despite that deficiency. Most of that has to do with athleticism. A lot of people will tell you that it mostly has to do with heart and determination.
Those two characteristics are a bit overrated in soccer as compared to, say, American football or ice hockey, but they certainly don't hurt. A team who is inferior to their opponents in skill and/or is the victim of bad refereeing, as the United States was in the match against Brazil does not win games without some fantastic mental toughness. The bad news for them is that they will be facing a team that simultaneously has the backing of an entire country, but at the same time has absolutely nothing to lose. Though all judgments of mental toughness are subjective in the first place, it seems as though, for the first time in this tournament, the United States will not have a significant edge over their opponents in that department.
In intangible qualities, the United States and Japan appear to be dead even. When it comes to tangible footballing traits, the United States has the athleticism while Japan has the skill. It should be an absolutely fantastic final, one in which neither team pulls away and neither team gives up at any point, even if it does turn into a blowout.
For all of our coverage of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup semifinals and how the two teams got to the final, give our Sweden vs. Japan and USA vs. France StoryStreams a read. For all of our previous coverage of the tournament, check out our 2011 Women's World Cup section. For more on the final, bookmark this StoryStream. We'll have updates in the build-up to the game. You can catch the game on Sunday at 2:45 P.M. ET on ESPN. We'll have more information on the schedule of events and where to watch as the game approaches.