A Women’s World Cup that started with a record 24 teams will end with the same two as four years ago, when Japan and the United States go head-to-head in Sunday’s final in Vancouver. While the rankings may say differently, it will be a meeting between the two dominant forces in the women’s game of recent times. Indeed, it will be the third consecutive major international tournament in which they have been the last two teams standing, with the U.S. having beaten Japan in the final of the 2012 Olympics.
While the victory in London was cause for much celebration for the Americans, it could not avenge the pain of defeat at what remains the world’s most prestigious tournament in women’s soccer. It is the World Cup title that the U.S. desperately craves.
That is especially true for Abby Wambach. The 35-year-old is playing in her fourth and final Women’s World Cup, having made her first appearance four years after the U.S. memorably lifted the trophy on home soil in 1999. But Wambach, the top scorer in the history of international soccer, has yet to taste the elation of victory in the tournament as a starter.
Four years ago she, along with the rest of the U.S., surely must have felt that a title was moments away. In the 2011 final, the U.S. had already been pegged back by Japan late in regulation time when Aya Miyama equalized Alex Morgan’s opening goal. Wambach put the Americans back in front just before the halfway point in extra-time, but there was to be another dramatic twist as player of the tournament, Homare Sawa, scored a goal that stunned the U.S. with three minutes left on the clock. Wamabch would then be the only American to score in the shootout, with Shannon Boxx, Tobin Heath and Carli Lloyd all missing as Japan claimed its first World Cup title.
To delight of the U.S., Lloyd did hold her nerve on Tuesday to send her team back to the final. In a dramatic second half of the semifinal with Germany, where the fortune of two errant refereeing decisions favored Jill Ellis’ team, Lloyd succeeded from the penalty spot shortly after Celia Sasic had missed for Germany. But, as the U.S. rode its luck, a late goal from Kelley O’Hara was symbolic of a much-improved performance. Having been surrounded by doubt and criticism through its progress to the semifinals, Ellis’ team made a formation shift that fostered a display of fluidity and intensity that proved too much for the world’s top ranked team.
Fortune also shined on Japan in the semifinals. Highly questionable penalty awards at either end saw Japan and England trade goals in the opening half, but it was the underdog Lionesses that were banging more forcefully at the door of a winning goal after the interval. Japan needed the woodwork and some wayward English finishing to stay alive. Then, with the match appearing destined for extra-time, England defender Laura Bassett suffered the unimaginably cruel fate of deflecting a cross into her own net deep into injury time. Just like that Japan was celebrating a place in its second straight final.
The 2-1 win also continued Japan’s record of winning each of its matches at this year's World Cup by a single-goal margin. For much of those contests, Japan has been in control, displaying its technical passing game both to pierce through the opposition and then hold it at bay. In the semifinals, though, England’s shrewd tactics and more direct approach caused Norio Sasaki’s team real concerns. That contrast of styles will be present in the final as well, with the world’s most technically accomplished side going up against a team that arguably remains ahead in athleticism and fitness. With 30 players still involved across the two teams from the squads that clashed in 2011, it promises to be a rematch full of intensity.
Prediction: Japan had looked more accomplished and sure of its intentions through much of the tournament, but the semifinals have turned the tide in favor of the Americans. The U.S. moved away from its predictable one-dimensional reliance on its physical strengths against Germany and played with purpose and verve. Japan, meanwhile, was lacking a cutting edge and is susceptible to the sort of balls into the box that the U.S. thrives upon. Provided the squad takes its chances in the final, which remains a significant doubt considering the lack of sharpness in front from Alex Morgan, the U.S. should have too much all-round.
Predicted score: USA 2-1 Japan
Date and time: Sunday, July 5 at 7 p.m. EDT