Even though they had the more experienced players and a history of success, the United States women's national team did not enter their 2011 World Cup final against Japan as heavy favorites. The Japanese knocked off tournament hosts and favorites Germany in the quarterfinals, then thoroughly outplayed a strong Sweden team that had previously defeated the United States in the semifinals. They looked like a well-oiled machine, and they knew exactly what their best team was.
The United States, in contrast, was still tinkering all the way to the final. Lauren Cheney was moved from left midfield, where she had played the entire tournament, to forward. Megan Rapinoe took Cheney's spot, while Amy Rodriguez was dropped to the bench. With no disrespect intended to Rodriguez, the move was a long time coming. Keeping both Rapinoe and Alex Morgan on the bench never made much sense.
Cheney didn't put a performance that lived up to her fantastic games in midfield earlier in the tournament, and she was withdrawn for Morgan, who scored the game's opening goal. In a spectacular final 20 minutes of regular time and 30 minutes of extra time, Japan found a way to equalize twice. First, in the 80th minute to force extra time, then again in the 117th minute to cancel out Abby Wambach's extra time goal and force penalties. The United States would go on to miss its first three spot kicks and Japan hoisted the cup after a 3-1 shootout victory.
The two teams have played three times since then, with the United States improving each time. With Rapinoe on the bench and Rodriguez trying out a new position, at right midfield, Japan beat the United states 1-0 in Portugal back in March. They met again in Japan in April, this time with a lineup that looks a little more like the current setup of the USWNT. Rapinoe still wasn't in the team, but Heather O'Reilly, a natural winger, was back on the right in a 1-1 draw, with Morgan scoring for the United States.
Japan and the United States last met just under seven weeks ago, in an exhibition tournament in Sweden. With Pia Sundhage finally playing both Rapinoe and Morgan, with Cheney moved into the center of midfield -- the team the USWNT has played throughout the Olympics -- the United States defeated Japan 4-1. Abby Wambach and Morgan both scored twice and the USWNT registered 11 shots on target to Japan's two.
Because of that result and Japan's two unconvincing draws earlier in the tournament, the United States enters Thursday's Olympic final as slight favorites over the team that beat them in the World Cup final just over a year ago. However, it's worth noting that Japan was without two of its first choice defenders in that friendly, Aya Sameshima and Saki Kumagai.
The difference made by the absence of two defenders of their caliber, in addition to the chemistry shake-up on the back line, could have tipped the scales considerably in the USWNT's favor. Japan's defense is extremely well-organized, and the chemistry that the back four have with goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori and defensive midfielder Mizuho Sakaguchi is critical. With all six players in the lineup together, Japan shouldn't let in four goals.
Sundhage has a better idea of what her best team looks like than she did before the World Cup final. The new players that she's introduced into the first team, who were substitutes in that final, are now on top form. The United States is a better team now than it was in 2011.
We’ll have news and features in the build-up to our live coverage of the final in our USA Vs. Japan, London 2012 Olympics StoryStream.