Despite their FIFA ranking as the #1 women’s soccer team in the world, this game was a huge confidence booster for the red, white and blue heading into the 2012 Summer Olympics. Prior to the World Cup Final, the U.S. held a 22-0-3 record against Japan, but after relinquishing two leads in the match, they fell in penalty kicks to finish runners-up. In their two rematches since, the U.S. remained stymied by the Japanese, giving up a late goal to fall 1-0 and finish third in the Algarve Cup, and mustering a 1-1 draw at the Kirin Challenge Cup in Japan a month later.
In that match recap, I wrote the following:
If the U.S. has hopes of capturing gold in London this summer, they’re going to have to find a way to create more chances through the midfield and get the ball forward to [Alex] Morgan, who has quickly established herself as their go-to spark up top.
Oh, that they did.
Head coach Pia Sundhage continued to mix up the look in the midfield by starting Tobin Heath on the left side, sliding Megan Rapinoe over to the right in place of Heather O’Reilly. It paid off. Heath teamed up with Morgan in just the third minute, delivering the ball into the penalty area, where Morgan took a deadly strike toward the far post and into the upper corner of the net for the early USA lead.
Abby Wambach tallied the second goal for the U.S. in the 10th minute, poking in the ball just in front of the net off a perfect Rapinoe cross from the left flank.
The U.S. faced some defensive errors early on, as Hope Solo botched a backpass, knocking the ball beyond the end line for a Japan corner kick, but it didn’t come back to hurt them. Overall, the defense played much tighter and did not allow Japan many chances in the penalty area. Most of their chances on frame came from long range, including a scorcher off the crossbar in the 70th minute from Mizuho Sakaguchi from about 30 yards out, and a diving Solo save of a Miyama strike from just outside the box in the 75th.
Their lone goal in the 26th minute came moments after a corner, when a clearance by the U.S. was sent back out to captain Aya Miyama along the left wing. Miyama sliced the ball into the area and Yuki Nagasato knocked it in with a diving header just beyond Solo’s reach. Kudos to Japan on creating a terrific goal that the U.S. just had no chance on.
Morgan and Wambach teamed up beautifully, and created more chances for the U.S. early. Shortly after Japan cut the lead in half, Morgan took the ball up the right flank, passed back to Rapinoe, then sped up toward the end line and delivered a cross to Wambach, who headed it just at the keeper, Ayumi Kaihori. Minutes later, Morgan received a throw in from the middle of the field and blew past the Japanese defense into the penalty area, only to see her shot deflected by Kaihori and off the far post. Wambach followed up the rebound with a left-footed attempt but Kaihori was there to scoop it up.
They wouldn’t be denied in the second half, however. Morgan took advantage of a Japanese defensive turnover in the 60th minute to easily bank home her second of the day, 17th on the year and 27th overall for her short career. Wambach would add another in the third minute of stoppage time for her 138th career goal, diving in front of the goal to head home an O’Reilly cross.
For the most part, the U.S. outplayed Japan in the possession game, a trademark of the Japanese style. Unlike the previous match against Sweden, where they had trouble maintaining possession through the midfield in order to get the ball forward, their movement was fluid and on target, and they were able to become much more aggressive in the attacking end. They dominated in transition, launching counterattacks fueled by Morgan’s speed and Wambach’s perfect positioning and deft touch. By the end of the first half they’d racked up 8 shots on goal, and totalled 11 for the match.
With a resounding 4-1 victory over their new rivals under their belts, previous doubts of their ability to overcome Japan’s tactical style have been erased. Heading into the Olympics, they’ve soundly beaten two of the other top three finishers from last year’s World Cup and have every reason to believe that they can capture the gold once again.
The U.S. will finish their Olympic preparation friendlies against Canada at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah on June 30, with live coverage on NBC.