Cup final once again proves soccer unique
Once again, we learned that what the rest of the world calls football is a fickle sport.
In the championship game of the World Cup for women’s soccer, the American team had more than a dozen chances to score, but converted just twice — although both were sensational goals.
The first came courtesy of player of the match (just one observer’s opinion) Alex Morgan. It came on her lethal left-footed strike after Morgan beat her defender to Megan Rapinoe’s beautifully struck long ball into Japan’s end.
Morgan — who would have been on the cover of every magazine in the U.S. and a sure-fire “Today Show” and Letterman guest if things had ended differently — set up the second U.S. goal with a pinpoint serve from the left side to Abby Wambach, who crushed a header into the far corner to put the U.S. on top in overtime.
Most of the rest of the U.S. chances went high, wide, or right at goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihore. One notable exception: Kaihore jumped backward and up to deny a looping Wambach header, an acrobatic save.
The Japanese team had only three, maybe four, chances to score, and cashed in two, both with major help from the American defense — really, only veteran Christie Rampone distinguished herself on Sunday among the back four.
The first Japan goal came when one U.S. defender cleared the ball away from charging goalie Hope Solo, but not out of harm’s way. Instead, it went directly to another defender, who also failed to clear decisively, instead putting the ball on a platter for a grateful Japanese forward.
The heartbreaker came late in overtime, with the U.S. holding a one-goal lead. After Homare Sawe deftly redirected a corner kick on goal, Solo was moving to her left to snuff out what was probably Japan’s last hope.
But there was Wambach, maybe three feet in front of Solo, at 5-11 brought back as a last line of defense to head away threats. Instead — watch a replay closely — the ball grazed her right shoulder and changed direction. A helpless Solo waved her arms, but the laws of physics gave her no hope of adapting to the ball’s new course.
Of course, if FIFA went with Golden Goals in overtime, the Morgan-to-Wambach strike would have ended the game. And I would suggest that as one more rule change FIFA adopt. Golden Goals — the first goal in overtime is the game-winner — would mean fewer games decided by penalty kicks. (It would also almost certainly have meant Brazil in the final having defeated the U.S. in a quarterfinal, but let’s not get technical.)
But penalty kicks made the difference here, and when I saw Japanese coach Noria Sasaki smiling and his team taking on an air of relaxed confidence before the shootout, I did not have a good feeling about the American prospects. I said so, and my fellow fan and lovely wife agreed. Sadly, we were proven correct.
Thus ended a game in which the Americans not only dominated the chances, but really outplayed their foes throughout. Credit should to go to Coach Pia Sundhage’s game plan to disrupt Japan’s possession tactics.
The two American forwards applied only token pressure as the Japanese approached the central line. But lurking on the other side were four U.S. midfielders, deployed straight across. Whenever Japan tried to pass the ball through, the forwards checked back quickly, and the midfielders — Heather O’Reilly and Carli Lloyd were particularly effective here — moved in on the ball and jammed up the passing lanes.
Japan found itself consistently dispossessed just as it crossed into U.S. territory, and the U.S. sprung dangerous counterattacks from this half-field trap.
Really, the strategy was well-conceived and executed. Japan had dominated possession in its semifinal romp over Sweden, but struggled to maintain any offensive cohesion against the U.S. Their best pressure came from lofting balls or picking off errant clearances — there were a few too many of those — from the U.S. back line.
Truly, if those two teams played 10 times, I’d guess a personable and talented U.S. group that proved easy to root for would win nine, and that’s not to take anything away from a resilient Japanese team that did make the Americans pay for their lapses on Sunday.
But it is soccer. And it is a fickle sport.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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