Coming into the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, most expected the United States to get to a semifinal against Brazil, get their revenge from 2007, then play hosts Germany in the final. At that point, most experts expected the USA to lose to Germany in the final. Things have played out according to plan to some extent, as the USWNT are in the final, but the road to the final and the chaos around them has been anything but according to plan. On Sunday, they take on Japan, the team that defeated Germany, for the right to hoist the World Cup.
The first two matches of the tournament went exactly as expected, as the United States defeated North Korea 2-0 and Colombia 3-0 in their first two group stage matches. Coach Pia Sundhage made a bold move by announcing that Lauren Cheney would replace Megan Rapinoe as the starting left midfielder just a couple of days before the tournament, but that move has paid off. Cheney scored the first goal of the tournament for the U.S. women and has been brilliant throughout the World Cup, while Megan Rapinoe has turned into a super sub.
In the final group stage game, things got a bit rocky for the United States as they faced their first real bit of adversity in the tournament. Early in the match against Sweden, left back Amy LePeilbet hauled down Lotta Schelin in the penalty area, leading to a penalty kick for Sweden. LePeilbet was lucky not to see a straight red card, and the referee's mistake allowed the United States to stay in the game. Lisa Dahlqvist buried the penalty and Nilla Fischer doubled the lead before halftime on a free kick that took an unfortunate deflection off of LePeilbet. Abby Wambach pulled a goal back, but the USWNT would lose the game 2-1. That gave Sweden first place in the group and set up a quarterfinal match against Brazil.
That would become the match of the tournament, as the United States won a dramatic thriller on penalty kicks. The United States went up early in the match, but Brazil found their equalizer when Rachel Buehler's foul got her sent off and gave Brazil a penalty kick, which was converted by Marta. Controversially, Hope Solo saved the first attempt, but it was called back - either for encroachment or Solo coming off her line, which was not been clarified - and Marta got a second attempt, which she converted.
Marta scored what appeared was going to be a winner for Brazil in extra time, but some time wasting antics by Erika led to quite a bit of stoppage time, allowing Abby Wambach to score a dramatic 122nd minute winner, heading in a cross from Megan Rapinoe. That sent the game to penalty kicks where Solo made a massive save, allowing the United States to win 5-3 on penalties when Ali Krieger buried the final kick.
The match between the United States and France couldn't quite live up to the same levels of drama, but it certainly was a tense match. France held their shape and passed brilliantly for much of the match, but the athleticism of the United States won out in the end. Lauren Cheney scored on the counter-attack early to put the United States ahead, but Sonia Bompastor scored a deserved equalizer for Les Bleues in the 55th minute. It appeared that it was France's game to win at that point, but the energy that substitutes Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan provided proved to be the difference. Abby Wambach scored the winner in the 79th minute, heading in a Cheney corner kick, while Rapinoe and Morgan combined for the clinching goal three minutes later.
While the United States have not been the obviously superior team in any of their last three matches, they have found a way to get into the final. With Japan's tactical acumen and technical skill, something similar is likely to play out in the final. The question is whether or not Japan's apparent superiority in possession in shape will matter in the end. Even when they haven't looked their best, the United States have found ways to score goals over and over again.
Check out the corresponding post on Japan's road to the World Cup final.
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.