“Insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.”
– Albert Einstein
There are probably psychologists – both amateur and professional – that can explain better than I the reluctance to leave a first impression, no matter what evidence there may be to the contrary. There’s something about what your eyes tell you the first time you see something that just makes it stick in your mind, no matter what comes after.
Last May, just two months after a horrific earthquake and tsunami devastated parts of Japan, the Japanese came to America for a two-game series. Japan showed little different than what I had seen from the Nadeshiko in the past: they knocked the ball around pretty well, had spurts (especially early in the matches) were they looked like they could be dangerous, but eventually the U.S. did what they had done every time (almost: Japan was 0-20-3 against the U.S. lifetime at this point) they’d seen the Japanese before, they took over, posted a couple of comfortable 2-0 wins in which the Japanese looked horribly vulnerable in set pieces and in the air.
When it came time to make the picks for the World Cup, I wanted to get an upset in there, looked at the brackets and focused on New Zealand. They were in a weak group, they could knock off Japan, right? And so I didn’t have Japan getting out of the group stages.
New Zealand nearly got a point from Japan, but I immediately recognized I had underrated the Japanese as they blasted Mexico. However, the vulnerabilities showed up in the final group game as a 2-0 loss to England sent them to second in the group (don’t think Norio Sasaki was telling people not to score that day) and a date with host Germany in the quarterfinal.
(Too bad Germany had to miss this party, by the way. What a great event, too. They’re going to be mad when they check their text messages when they get back from vacation. Next time, girls.)
They stood no chance, right? In the end, despite the upset, I attributed more of it to a failure by Germany than anything Japan did, and therefore picked Sweden to win the semifinal. Wrong again, as Japan was opportunistic one more time.
A year later, it was harder to dismiss the now World Champions. They had proven themselves at every turn. Clearly they were now a contender, but as 2012 commenced, Japan was beaten by Germany in the finals of the Algarve Cup (although they had beaten the United States 1-0 to get there). They were beaten soundly by France and the U.S. in warm-up matches for the Olympics.
I looked at the brackets and conceded that Japan would likely win their group (I wasn’t counting on a draw against South Africa, but I digress), but figured their luck may run out in a quarterfinal against France.
Bzzzz. Wrong again.
Japan is 90 minutes away from winning back-to-back major tournaments in consecutive years, a feat that’s never been accomplished. Not by the United States. Not by anyone.
There’s been plenty of talk about the 99ers at this tournament. If you want to know how far Japan has come, you need to go back to that area. In April of 1999, in a warm-up for the World Cup in Charlotte, the U.S. dispatched of Japan 9-0. That’s not a typo. In the actual World Cup, Japan was beaten 5-0 by Russia. Russia? Where are they now?
A year later, Japan didn’t even qualify for Sydney.
So this is certainly not meant to diminish any of what Japan has accomplished. With class, it must be said, too. They have inspired a country, and a part of the reason that nearly 90,000 people will be at Wembley Stadium Thursday evening for an historic game of women’s soccer.
But to be fair, Japan has only scored six goals in five games at the Olympics, and did not really dominate possession in either of its knockout stage matches. Against France, and to some extent Brazil, they were in full defensive mode, just trying to hang on to what they had. They nearly let Canada off the hook after a great first half, and couldn’t score against Sweden or South Africa (asterick, sure, but they were trying to score for some of that game at least).
And so, with the United States seemingly ready for to reclaim its spot at the top of the women’s soccer world, I’m picking against Japan once again, trying desperately for a different result.
We’ll know sometime Thursday night whether I’m truly insane.
Here are five things to look for in Thursday’s much anticipated gold medal match between the United States and Japan:
1) The United States is a different team than they were even a few months ago
It’s easy to forget that the U.S. was not even close to a favorite to win the World Cup before the tournament last summer (I probably had them rated third behind Germany and Brazil). And, although they went to the final, it’s hard to say they played well throughout. Then, this winter, Japan not only beat them 1-0 (the only time since 2008 the U.S. has been shutout), but nearly had them again a month later, getting an Alex Morgan goal to secure a 1-1 draw.
They met again on June 18 in Sweden (in front of 1,308 people, officially, slightly bigger Thursday), and this time the U.S. scored twice in the first 10 minutes and rolled to a 4-1 rout. What was significant about that game? It was the first time Pia Sundhage rolled out the lineup we know as the starters at the Olympics. It’s also significant that the U.S. was back in a 4-4-2 after experimenting with a 4-3-3 in the loss and draw to Japan. They really haven’t looked back since, and as I said before, are 90 minutes away from being back on top of the world.
2) However, Japan is a little different, too. Have you noticed Saki Kumagai?
To his credit, Norio Sasaki has tweaked things as well, with Yuki Ogimi playing a big role up top and being Japan’s biggest offensive threat at the Olympics. He also changed goalkeepers, going back to Miho Fukumoto instead of Ayumi Kaihori, after I thought Kaihori was the best goalkeeper of the World Cup (Fukumoto was injured).
One thing he hasn’t messed with, though, is the back four. The key to me is Saki Kumagai, who – other than scoring the winning penalty against the U.S. – was probably best known worldwide for a slight controversy afterward. As a 20-year-old last spring, she looked inexperienced in the friendlies leading up to the World Cup, but you could see her grow as a player leading up to the final. She’s played huge in huge games as she matures (she’s only 21 now), and if I had a vote for World Player of the Year in 2012 (I don’t), I might seriously think about Kumagai, who also plays her club ball now in Germany for Frankfurt. She is the key player for Japan and, to me, the key player in this match.
How key? Remember that 4-1 loss in which the U.S. scored twice in the first 10 minutes in June? Guess who wasn’t in the starting lineup that day for Japan?
3) The possession battle shouldn’t mean anything
One of the shifts for Japan from last year is that they haven’t had as much possession as they had last year at the World Cup. It hasn’t mattered because they’ve been more dangerous on the counterattack. It sets up interestingly because you can probably say the same about the U.S. The first half between France and Japan was not much to watch because France was so afraid of the counter that they didn’t commit many people forward on the attack. Of course, eventually Japan got their goal, France had to come out and play, and the second Japanese goal was a classic counter.
For the U.S. without Shannon Boxx (likely), that will certainly be a concern. They’ll have to be acutely aware of where they are (especially Carli Lloyd) when they concede possession and get their butts back as quickly as possible. I’m sure they’ve been told that repeatedly in the last 48 hours. It is a dangerous game for Japan to concede too much possession, because we know how dangerous Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach, and Megan Rapinoe can be with just a couple of touches.
4) The tactical: Battling 4-4-2s, but not quite the same
Sasaki basically conceded the right side of the field (France’s left) in the semifinal by having Aya Miyama technically playing right midfield, but in reality most of the time being central. Meanwhile, Nahomi Kawasumi held to a more traditional left midfield position. Like France (with Corine Franco), the U.S. (Amy LePeilbet) is not a huge offensive threat at their right back spot. But Sasaki will have to be aware of where Rapinoe is because giving her time and space could be fatal. Will Pia switch Rapinoe and Tobin Heath at some point to take advantage of something like that? We’ll see.
Elsewhere, we know what Homare Sawa can do in the middle, but Mizuho Sakaguchi will be key in her holding spot. She played an extremely good first half against France, but slowed a little in the second before being subbed off, which was one of the reasons France was able to get some very good chances toward the end. They’ll need her to win balls in the middle of the field.
5) Don’t let them fool you, it will be physical
There isn’t as much bad blood between these two teams, obviously, Japan plays a classy style, and is very hard to get your blood into a “bad” mode against, but with so much on the line in front of such a big crowd, there will be some rough play, especially on set pieces (on which Japan has scored plenty of goals, which could be a factor). There were 21 fouls (11-10 Japan) in last year’s final and Azusa Iwashamizu was sent off for bringing down Alex Morgan late in extra time, which brings us to…..
Bibiana Steinhaus of Germany will be your referee. Again.
Not a huge surprise, Steinhaus is one of the best in the world and deserves it, but I’m a little surprised Jenny Palmqvist of Sweden didn’t get the call just because Steinhaus did referee last year’s final between the same two teams. But Palmqvist was given the bronze medal match (she couldn’t do the third place game at the World Cup because Sweden was involved). If something happens, Steinhaus has shown she’s not afraid to make a big call, so we shall see.
A massive crowd. The next few months, too?
With just about 90,000 showing up for this one, it’s interesting to look back at those two friendlies last May between the U.S. and Japan and see that they each had about 5,000 people there (in Cary, N.C. and in Columbus). There will surely be more at next month’s friendlies when the team returns to the States, but let’s hope more than 5,000 people show up in 2015 when the U.S. is getting ready to go to Canada, because that should mean that women’s soccer is in a better place overall.
Well, you know what’s coming here. I just think the U.S. is too strong and playing too well right now to let this chance go. But I’ve obviously been wrong before, and it remains to be seen how much Canada actually took out of this United States team. UNITED STATES 2-1.
France vs. Canada (8 a.m. EDT) – If you want to get up early, this should be quite the game. We certainly hope both these teams can channel their frustrations into positive energy rather than negative. It’s probably a little bigger game for Canada, who would love a medal (Canada hasn’t won a team medal since 1936), but remember France was fourth at the World Cup, too, and third takes on a little more meaning with a medal involved. You just can’t imagine Canada has too much left. FRANCE 4-2.