Neil W. Blackmon
Oh, Canada! We don’t need to remind you that Monday’s semifinal was an absolute classic, an all-timer of a match that transcended women’s sport and cemented a spot in U.S. Soccer and Olympic lore. We don’t need to remind you of how overwhelmingly familiar the narrative was either, this team trailing and running out of time, needing a goal, needing a great pass, needing a hero. We’d been there a year ago, in the FIFA Women’s World Cup quarterfinals against Brazil. On that date, “The Cross” in the 122nd minute leveled a quarterfinal and sent die-hard and casual US fans alike into a frenzy. The U.S. needed penalties that day, and the round was different, but the parallels between that game and Monday were startling.
On Monday, the Americans again scored in the 122nd (123rd, I suppose) minute. The heroes on both ends changed– Megan Rapinoe delivered the “cross” in Germany, Heather O’Reilly– HAO to her teammates– delivered the ball this time. Alex Morgan spelled Abby Wambach in the heroic, all-time memorable goal department Monday– and penalties weren’t necessary. Morgan’s goal was a winner. And to abuse an Olympic image– perhaps Morgan scoring it, instead of Wambach, who told reporters after the match that she believed she told Morgan “she was in love with her” after the goal, was the idyllic passing of the American soccer torch– a “now it’s your time” moment from American soccer’s old war horse to its Baby Horse. Like Brazil, Canada played bravely, valiantly, possibly deserved better. In the greatest of games, the loser always deserves a better fate. That thin line between heroism and despair are what make sport, and perhaps most of all Olympic sport, so riveting. But there’s more here.
It’s a rare thing in sport when a team has to muster the strength and courage to move past an epic battle and find one (or even two!) more win(s). Again, Olympic sporting history provides the best example. After the “Miracle On Ice” in Lake Placid in 1980, the group of American hockey players who defeated the invincible Soviets had to find a way to focus again and win one more hockey game. In fact, in one of the better anecdotes in sports history, Herb Brooks told them the morning of the”game after”that “Beating the Soviets was nice, but if they lost the next game they’d never _________ing forgive themselves.” They managed to do it, defeating Finland days later to win the Gold Medal.
Other teams have faced the “win after an all-time epic” dilemma before and conquered as well. Duke defeated Kentucky in “The Last Great Game” (shameless plug for the book on that Regional Final, written by the great Gene Wojchichowski of ESPN) in the NCAA Quartefinals in 1992. They had to win two more to be NCAA Champions, and did so, defeating Indiana in a tight semifinal and routing Michigan’s Fab Five in the Championship Game.
Just last year, Chelsea had to win the Champions League Final after eliminating Barcelona. If you haven’t lived under a rock, Barcelona is pretty good at soccer, were prohibitive favorites to destroy Chelsea and claim the mantle as greatest team that ever walked on the earth, etc. Chelsea beat them, then had to defeat Bayern Munich in Munich to finally deliver Russian owner Roman Abramovich (also famously known for his striking personal similarities to the bad guy in Die Hard) his first European Championship. So it can be done.
It’s even rarer still, of course, to have to try to muster the resolve to do it twice in just a year’s time. Today in London, the Americans will attempt to do just that. And they’ll have to do it, of course, against Japan, the very team they couldn’t muster the strength to defeat in the aftermath of Rapinoe to Wambach, 120 +2. The Americans, of course, found a way to get by France in the World Cup semifinal last summer, but the storybook and the stars were aligned, as it turned out, with Japan in the Final. The Yanks, in a cruel twist, conceded a late equalizer to the great Homare Sawa (117th minute) and were beaten in penalties. To stare down the team that crushed your dreams just a year prior, in the aftermath of a win that will be remembered for ages– well, that hardly ever happens. Yet it’s the task that the USWNT face today. Monday was remarkable, one for the ages. Today’s the “one for the gold medal,” and given the opponent, global supremacy. Heady stuff.
As the USWNT have spent the last month, for the second consecutive summer, capturing hearts back home and more intriguingly, playing to adoring non-American fans abroad, as this Wall Street Journal piece noted, the World Champion Japanese have quietly churned along, playing a determined, highly technical brand of football that while not necessarily as dynamic as the Americans, was effective enough to beat them last summer.
Japan, led again by the 2011 Women’s World Cup hero Homare Sawa, are a different team than Canada but one certainly capable of exploiting the same Achilles heel, patchwork back four that was blitzed at times Monday against Christine Sinclair and company. Japan have the midfield depth and skill to neutralize, or even control the central midfield as Canada were able to do by deploying three central midfielders in Monday’s match, and there’s an argument that the Japanese are, when on, far ahead of the Canadians in their ability to make the quick, decisive distributions needed to break down even an organized version of the USWNT defense. Canada hurt the USWNT with its pace, which Japan offers less of, but playmaking ball-movers like Aya Miyama, who should line up left and drift throughout, finding the ball and the game often, make the Japanese extremely good at dictating pace and controlling space.
Japan are also splendid on set pieces, despite lacking the size traditionally associated with dominant aerial sides. Homare Sawa proved her mettle in that department last summer in Germany, scoring in the 117th minute to level the final the Americans believed they’d won. Mizuho Sakaguchi headed home against France in Monday’s semifinal– a stern warning that Japan can, and will, find set piece goals in the air against elite opposition.
It’s true that the Americans routed Japan 4-1 earlier in the year, and on that day, Pia Sundhage deployed the Alex Morgan-Abby Wambach forward pair that has given opponents fits throughout this tournament. It’s been interesting, though, that Japan has played a bit deeper in the midfield since that defeat, and have proven very capable on the counter. This is a strategy that could be rewarded against the Yanks today,as Japan could at least limit the devastating impacts of Morgan’s pace by playing deeper while at the same time playing into their distributive, connect passes and dissect defenses strength on the counter. The American midfield, so good at insulating a patchwork back four in the first four matches of the Olympic competition, will need to be much better than it was against Canada, or Japan will make them pay.
The Americans will need to limit the space Japan have to connect passes in the midfield, not only to insulate the back four, but also because Japan are a bit like the great NFL running back that gets stronger as the game goes on. They find their rhythm in longer build-ups, where they can use superior passing to stretch defenses and create space. No one is going to question their conditioning, either, which negates another common American advantage. But if you can limit Japan’s space, you can keep them on the back foot a bit, because, as noted above, they don’t have great pace and they don’t have a particularly dangerous, dynamic playmaker striker. Sawa is a fine direct player– but Japan’s offensive flexibility comes from their ability to string together passes, not play different styles depending on the opposition. Carli Lloyd would do well to sit a bit deeper and stay central throughout– her ability to orchestrate the game and clog passing lines will be critical to the American efforts to win the center.
Megan Rapinoe, however, may be the most critical player on the field today. Sundhage will likely choose her, not Tobin Heath, to tuck in centrally and assist Lloyd in controlling passing lanes in the center. We at TYAC believe this is more likely because Rapinoe is still an extremely dangerous attacking player if she is central, whereas Heath’s value diminishes greatly when she is not out wide. The American attack, which has been humming along, will need to be potent tomorrow to compensate for the potential problems in the back four– and it just seems the best calculated risk to keep Heath wide where she is more effective. Anyone who saw how little Heath influenced things when tucked back in centrally late against Canada should have an idea of the disparity between a centrally-stationed Heath and a wide one. The risk is that Megan Rapinoe has one of her undisciplined games where she drifts for the sake of drifting and forces the issue when the simple ball will do. Japan is too good to play undisciplined soccer against, and they have been too lethal on the counter at these Olympics to take large risks. We think this team will go as Rapinoe goes today.
As for the backline, they have played better in this tournament against a good team than they did Monday(the second half of the France match)– and they know they need to be better tomorrow. For example, Amy LePeilbet was a bit of a victim of circumstance on the Canadian third Monday, with little help and a well-placed header sneaking by her at the post. Those sorts of things happen. What can’t happen is a situation like the second Canadian goal, where LePeilbet gambles for a takeaway and a quick counter, gets burnt, and allows a more than capable player to cross. And we aren’t just picking on LePeilbet. Buehler had one of her more erratic performances ever, Kelley O’Hara looked shaky. Hope Solo can be better too– she was tentative throughout Monday’s semifinal, late getting off her line, unsure on set pieces. She’s the greatest women’s goaltender ever, most think. She’ll need to be vocal and certain tomorrow, because Christie Rampone, whose been mostly steady in this, her final Olympics, can’t do all the leading and organizing herself. Plus, Japan won a World Championship by punishing even small mistakes by opponents. They’ll win a Gold Medal doing the same thing if the Americans aren’t careful.
Anson Dorrance, the legendary North Carolina coach, told ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle the USWNT may concede goals, but could very well simply outscore Japan this time and win, especially the way Rapinoe, Wambach and Alex Morgan are playing. That’s possible, we suppose. But we wouldn’t bet global supremacy on it.
What we would hope, what we expect, is to see a team playing a game for themselves, and for each other. The USWNT should forget all the pressure, all the expectation back home, all the constant responsibilities hurled their way by a media that seems to demand they do more and more for the Women’s game back home. Playing hard for themselves ought to be enough.
Play for Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone, the team’s heartbeat and soul, who may or may not be playing their final international matches. Play for Ali Krieger, injured months ago and watching at home. Play for Pia Sundhage, because sometimes a manager truly does deserve a championship. Play for your goalie, whose nerves and outspoken behavior this summer reflect a hunger borne out of a penalty kick defeat a year ago. Play for your young core, for Alex Morgan, who has the chance to be remembered forever in Olympic lore but, with a loss, might have to settle for a “Best Moment of the Year” ESPY and a “Remember when” chat among the diehards.
Forget the Canada game, forget last summer and revenge, and play a game you love, in the Olympics, in one of the world’s most famous soccer stadiums, for each other. Win. One. More. Game. Otherwise, like Herb Brooks said, you may never forgive yourselves.
Neil W. Blackmon is Co-founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.