For the U.S. Women’s National Team, just about every road from the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup leads to the team trying to redeem its loss in the 2011 final.
Now the United States is in the final once again, and Sunday, the team has the perfect opportunity to avenge that loss: The Americans will take on Japan, the same team that shocked the world when it won the last tournament in a penalty shootout.
When the Japanese team defeated England earlier this week on a heartbreaking own goal in the 92nd minute of the semifinals, the U.S. players were surely excited because they have been looking forward to this match for four years.
Now they have what they wanted, but what it means is a date with one of the world’s most technically sound teams to watch. While the Japanese team in 2011 was an underdog, this year’s team came into the tournament as one of the favorites, and it has done nothing but prove it belongs there. Some of the quickest passing sequences of the whole tournament that have led to goals have come from Japan. If it can execute one of those Sunday, the USWNT’s 513-minute streak of holding opponents scoreless will come to an end.
Japan is excellent at playing the possession game, and its ability to do so can hamper the U.S. offense by getting the players out of rhythm and limiting the dangerous chances the team has with the ball. The Japanese team’s ability to do so up until now is why it has won every match it has played in this World Cup.
None of these matches, however, have been against a team of the United States’ caliber thus far. The U.S. defense, in particular, will prove to be a challenge against Japan’s offense. The American back four have been nothing short of impenetrable since the first match of the 2015 World Cup. The defense, led by Julie Johnston and Meghan Klingenberg, consistently forces opponents into taking shots from outside the box. With a world-class goalie like Hope Solo in the net, these shots have almost no chance of actually scoring — not to mention how difficult they are to even place on goal.
With the U.S. defense holding Japan’s offense away from breaking out, it will be left to the American offense to play its best game to seal the deal and win the game. For the United States, that will mean playing like it did in its last two games against Germany and China rather than how it played in the rest of the World Cup. Against Germany especially, Team USA implemented strategic changes that proved vital in sparking the offense. Chief among these was the switch from the 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1. This is a smart unit for the United States to use again because it allows the team to have its maximum number of playmakers on the field at once. Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath and Cal alumna Alex Morgan can all play in roles best suited to them when head coach Jill Ellis decides to use this formation.
While this does mean keeping U.S. legend Abby Wambach off the field at the start, it’s becoming clear that that may not be a bad alternative right now. While Wambach is the game’s all-time leading goal scorer and she has put away an important goal in this World Cup, she has not been in her best form. She has struggled to hold onto the ball at times, and in a game against a team like Japan, which will be limiting the chances that Team USA has with the ball, that can be a killer. When she’s on the field, the whole team places a greater emphasis on long balls toward her dangerous heading ability, but that is not where the Americans are best anymore. This is not to say she’s a bad player — no, she can certainly still score goals at an impressive rate — but she’s not as well suited to getting a lot of playing time as the players in front of her.
To win, Ellis and the United States need to put their very best product on the field Sunday, meaning utilizing that successful 4-2-3-1 formation instead of going back to the 4-4-2. If the Americans do so, they will win their third World Cup and finally be able to move on from 2011’s heartbreaker.