August 9, 2012
By Michael Lewis
GOING FOR THE GOLD
U.S. hope for some redemption, Olympic title vs. Japan
LONDON -- The United States women have been waiting for this day for more than a year.
|After Monday’s Olympic semifinals, Abby Wambach said she and Japan captain Homare Sawa "both said we were glad that the other's team had won because we believe we are the top two teams in the world and that our fans deserve to see a great final."
Linda Cuttone/Sports Vue Images
The Americans remember the hurt, the disappointment, the utter sting of losing the Women's World Cup final to Japan in Frankfurt, Germany.
Some 389 days after that shock defeat, the U.S. finds itself with an opportunity for redemption, a chance to for glory in the Olympic women's gold-medal match at Wembley Stadium on Thursday.
In that match in Frankfurt, Germany on July 17, 2011, Japan rallied not once, but twice -- late in regulation and late in extratime -- to pull even with the United States at 2-2 before prevailing in the penalty-kick shootout, 3-1.
"We have an opportunity," Wambach said. "This could be a real great, not ending of the story because it hopefully it continues on for us, but a real good chapter of the story of this team right now. Yeah, we did get knocked down. We did lose in the World Cup final in the most dramatic way in which you could lose, but we came back that next year to able to secure a championship for that team.
"I've been hoping for this final since the moment I stepped off that podium in Germany."
That drive has been the team's motivation to return to a championship game.
"It definitely stung," midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. "It was pretty heartbreaking because we felt we got so much better as the tournament progressed. Having it snatched away was tough. That has been our source of motivation for this year."
Japan coach Norio Sasaki said if the U.S. was using that as motivation, then he would need to find something else to inspire his team.
"Maybe USA have the greater drive to win and we know this USA team is very motivated to avenge the World Cup defeat," he said. "So we need to be as one in order to strengthen our own desire to triumph."
While the loss has hung heavy on the U.S., Japan has not been conceived as the evil enemy. If anything, the two sides greatly respect one another.
"They're a brilliant team," Rapinoe said. "I always love playing them. It's one of the toughest challenges we face."
During a Wednesday press conference, players on both teams posed for photos with one another. When she met Japan's great midfielder Homare Sawa in the Olympic Village earlier in the day, Wambach hugged and spoke to her rival--and former Washington Freedom teammate.
"We both said we were glad that the other's team had won because we believe we are the top two teams in the world and that our fans deserve to see a great final," Wambach said.
"Homare has proved herself to be one of the best in the world, not only winning the (2011 FIFA Player of the Year) award but leading her team to become world champions.
"I have the greatest respect for her."
The Americans will vie for their third consecutive gold medal, fourth overall. They won in 1996, 2004 and 2008, earning a silver in 2000. Japan is trying for its first gold medal.
The game will feature contrasting styles. The Japanese like to play the possession game. The Americans are struggling between keeping the ball for long periods of time, which coach Pia Sundhage prefers, and a long-ball game, which the team many times reverts to, because of the striking power of Wambach and Alex Morgan.
"I think that shows the diversity of who we are," Wambach said. "For me, Japan and Barcelona, the possession style can get redundant. We have the ability, we think, to go in between both. We're Americans. We like to go after teams. We like to attack. Something that we're into. Sometimes somebody gets a feeling and they go up the right flank they feel they can take on a defender and cross the ball in, I've got to bust to get up there to help my teammates because she just made a really long run. For me, that's what it's all about. It's about putting our system, our players, our personalities, the strengths of those players into one team and creating the best way of playing so we can be successful."
Both teams enter the final undefeated. The U.S. is 5-0-0, while Japan is 4-0-1.
This will be the fourth meeting in as many countries between the teams in the past five-plus months. Quite appropriately, they have forged a 1-1-1 record and this happens to be the rubber match.
Japan won the first encounter, 1-0, at the Algarve Cup in Faro Portugal on March 5. The U.S. secured a 1-1 draw in Sendai, Japan on April 1 before registering a resounding 4-1 triumph in Halmstad, Sweden on June 18.
"We know their strengths and weakness," Morgan, who scored twice in that Sweden game. "We need to bring our best game. We know each other very well.
"We’re going to worry about the strengths that we need to focus on and the tactics that we need to work on for our team rather than worrying about Japan too much.”