USA-Japan: Five things to watch

Martin Rogers

FRANKFURT, Germany – Spend a bit of time with the U.S. women's soccer team and you soon realize there is one word that keeps getting trotted out time and again.


The white-knuckle route the USA has taken to Sunday's Women's World Cup final against Japan has kept a nation enthralled and sparked inevitable comparisons to the 1999 team that lifted the trophy on home soil.

Yet as the team prepares for the last hurdle of an emotional journey, having been just a minute from elimination in its quarterfinal against Brazil and in trouble for long periods in the semifinal against France, it is at pains to distinguish itself from its illustrious predecessors.

No American squad has reached the final since 1999, but the current team's stars are adamant that this is their story, their time. And their legacy.

"Someone asked me the other day if our victory was more significant because it came on the anniversary of the 1999 final," goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "I was like, 'Are you serious?'

"Every one of us has a lot of respect for what that 1999 team achieved, but what we are doing is not about that. It is about showing how great this team is in its own way – that we can create our own bit of history.

"We have a World Cup final to get ready for. This is no time to be living in the past."

Brandi Chastain's winning penalty and shirt-removing celebrations provided women's sport with a truly defining moment 12 years ago. Yet the way in which Pia Sundhage's 2011 stars have garnered the attention of a sports audience that rarely gives women's soccer more than a passing glance – while competing in a tournament far from home – is nothing short of remarkable.

"We want to leave a legacy here," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "As this tournament has progressed, the more we have come to understand that we have an opportunity to create something really special. Now we are close to doing it."

Here are five things to look for in Sunday's game of destiny.

1. Heads up

Japan broke the hearts of host nation Germany with a shocking quarterfinal win and has been a welcome surprise with its attractive yet hard-working brand of soccer. The most pressing question, though, is how the Japanese defense can possibly cope with Abby Wambach.

Wambach's headed goals saved the USA in each of the last two rounds, and Japan would appear to have no defender who can match her for height and jumping ability.

Look out for: What Japan lacks in height, it will try to make up for with hustle. Expect Wambach to be surrounded by two or even three defenders on corners and to be crowded by bodies on crosses.

2. Buehler's back

Rachel Buehler was perhaps unfortunate to be sent off against Brazil and therefore miss the semifinal, but that disappointment could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Although Becky Sauerbrunn was solid against France, a fresh and rested Buehler will come back in alongside Christie Rampone in central defense.

Look out for: Buehler was close to tears after her quarterfinal red card and apologized to her teammates as she left the field, fearing her and the U.S.'s tournament was over. Expect her to be full of motivation and to lead by example with some crunching tackles.

3. Stop Sawa

The heartbeat of the Japan side is Homare Sawa, the veteran midfielder who is in her fifth World Cup and playing better than ever.

Sawa simply makes things tick for his team with intelligent passing, tireless running, fierce tackling and a mischievous streak that sees her occasionally attempt the spectacular.

Look out for: It is likely that Shannon Boxx will be handed the responsibility of shutting Sawa down in what could be an intriguing game of cat and mouse between two veterans. Boxx will do all she can to remain close to Sawa and deny her space, and don't be surprised if Sawa responds to that tactic by dropping deeper as the game progresses.

4. A-Rod strike out?

Amy Rodriguez has arguably been the most disappointing member of the Americans' starting lineup in the past two games. The forward has been unable to get much offensive firepower cranked up alongside Wambach.

Some fans would like to see her replaced by Alex Morgan from the outset, although it is more likely that Sundhage will keep a settled formation and use Morgan off the bench again.

Look out for: A surefire indication that Rodriguez is out of form is when her touch deserts her. Too many times in recent games she has struggled to control the ball the first time, allowing defenders time to close her down. If her control returns early against Japan, it will boost her confidence and give her the chance to be a force in the game.

5. Midfield maneuvers

Sundhage's biggest lineup dilemma comes in central midfield and it is caused primarily by the exceptional play of Megan Rapinoe, who has come off the bench in two straight games and made an instant, game-changing impact.

Rapinoe is lively and courageous and is crossing the ball like a dream. Sundhage must decide whether to start her or leave her in reserve as a late wildcard.

If Sundhage does make a change in the starting 11, it would probably involve Lauren Cheney moving into the middle, Carli Lloyd dropping to the bench and Rapinoe being placed on the left wing.

Look out for: It is inconceivable that Rapinoe will not play at least some part in the game, and if she continues her recent form, expect good things to happen. The 26-year-old loves to run at defenders, either by powering straight down the wing or cutting inside. Her confidence is up and she plans to make the most of it.

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