The U.S. has talked about their heartbreaking 2011 final loss as motivation for a second chance at a championship. They are about to find out if those four years of motivation can be put to good use.
Over the last several years the history has been building between this two teams leading to several key games that the teams have split, Japan winning the 2011 World Cup and the U.S. extracting some revenge in the 2012 Olympic final. But there is a finality to Sunday’s game that hasn’t been present before. The U.S. gold medal feels like a consolation prize now, when the opportunity for real redemption is so close.
The U.S. is peaking at the right time. It took the Americans nearly the entire tournament to find a winning formula that does not clog the midfield but also provides a balanced and powerful attacking front. Going into the tournament many thought the U.S. would struggle to make it out of the group stage, and in the team’s opening two games against Australia and Sweden it certainly looked that way.
After capturing first place in the tournament’s “Group of Death”, the switch was finally flipped for the U.S.. While the defense had been concrete the entire tournament, it was the offense that seemed to have found its collective footing. That they then put to good use by eliminating the number one team in the world, Germany.
In the 2-0 win over Germany, head coach Jill Ellis finally pieced together the winning formula, a fluid 4-3-3 formation that was about to transform itself in the given situation. At times looking like a 4-4-2 with Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan up top and other times Morgan appeared as the lone forward.
Despite all the talk and focus on the U.S. offense coming into this tournament, it has been the defense that has stolen the show with stellar performances game after game. Providing credit to the phrase that defense wins you championships. The combination of Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Klingenberg, Ali Kreiger and Hope Solo have allowed 13 total shots on goal this tournament and only 1 goal.
While the U.S. peaked in its semifinal matchup, Japan had its poorest game of the tournament against England. Japan characteristic possession oriented offense and skillful front six was effectively shut down by disruptive midfield play on England’s part. Japan was limited to only seven shots on goal.
In perspective Japan is not a high scoring offense, often winning their games by no more then a point and rarely have multi-goal games. Japan is simply critical on the limited chances they have in front of net.
That is how the team took first place in group C. Winning two 1-0 games over Switzerland and Ecuador and a 2-1 win over Cameroon, before taking out the Netherlands, Australia and England.
For Japan the focus needs to be on possession. If the U.S. chooses to use the 4-3-3 formation, Japan will have the numbers in the midfield and can simply play a keep away game from the U.S. until the time is right to score the one or two goals they need in order to win.
To counter this the American backline will need to step up and disrupt the Japanese front six outside of the penalty area and find the feet of their offensive players in order to launch the counterattack.
Ellis’s 4-3-3 is clearly the most superior formation that U.S. has had in nearly a year, but one small change needs to be made. Expect Kelley O’Hara to get the start on the flank for the U.S.. The speedy midfielder has worked the flank on both sides of the ball in her last two games. Her energy and pace has providing a spark for the U.S., and she has most likely earned herself a spot on Ellis’s starting 11.
O’Hara’s runs along the right flank will come in handy then the U.S. looks to get on the fast break but she also can track back and use her physicality to break up the Japanese offense.
This is not 2011. These are two different teams in two very different places. The U.S. is looking for redemption as a way to reclaim number one world ranking. Japan was emotionally motivated in 2011 by tragedy in their country, now their secular motivation is defending their title. A repeat of 2011 does not seem likely.
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