*Spoiler alert for those deterred by the 6:30 A.M. ET kick-off time*
The USWNT earned a 1-1 draw against Japan in the first match of the inaugural Kirin Challenge Cup. It was the latest episode in the burgeoning rivalry between the sides. Japan reigned victorious in the sides’ two most recent meetings.
Unlike the World Cup final and the Algarve Cup semifinal, Japan did not easily cede possession to the U.S. The hosts took the initiative from the get-go. They controlled the tempo of the match by bossing the center of midfield, this despite the absence of Homare Sawa. As a result, outside midfielders Lauren Cheney and Heather O’Reilly were largely marginalized figures. Central players Carli Lloyd, Abby Wambach, and Shannon Boxx struggled to maintain possession, thus starving lone striker Alex Morgan of much service.
The U.S. defense came under pressure early. The back four did well to read and deal with incoming passes. Clearances were another issue, though. A failed clearance resulted in Japan’s first goal. Yukari Kinga exploited the mass confusion in the box and tucked away the first goal of the match.
Per usual, the U.S. looked slightly sharper in the second half. Also per usual, Alex Morgan (because who else, really?) came through with the game-tying goal in the 73rd minute. The goal was initially called back for offside but was eventually validated after the match official counseled with the assistant referee.
The U.S. has traditionally dominated the series against Japan and went into the World Cup final with a record of 22 wins and three draws. The USWNT has failed to beat the Nadeshiko since. The hoodoo has seemingly been reversed.
– Kelley O’Hara is steadily improving. At first it was hard to make sense of her switch from outside attacker to left-back. O’Hara looked more comfortable in her position today, showcasing the characteristics that help define her: tenacity and speed. She’s in for a bit more refinement, but has been making steady progress.
– Alex Morgan’s numbers are staggering. She’s now scored 12 goals in 2012 alone, two more than she did in 2011 and 2010 combined. She’s also scored 10 of the U.S.’s last 18 goals. Not quite Celia da Mbabi Okoyino numbers (who has scored 10 goals in her last three appearances for Germany), but still quite impressive. Today’s goal brings her up to 19th on the all-time USWNT list, tying her with Shannon Boxx on 22 total.
– Speaking of Boxx, at half-time ESPN broadcast a piece about the midfielders’ struggles with lupus. Much respect to Boxx for sharing her story and refusing to let the energy-sapping condition slow her down.
– The atmosphere looked fantastic on television with the constant drumming and chanting. Fans apparently showed up in costume hours before kick-off. It was a rather chilly night in Sendai (the official match report has it at 46 degrees), but that didn’t prevent the 15,159 frenzied spectators from making their presence known.
– So this was the first match of the first edition of a women’s soccer tournament in Japan and it occurred at a rather unsociable hour for American viewers. None of that seemed to matter to ESPN, who pulled out all the stops with Julie Foudy and Adrian Healey on the call and Tony DiCicco in studio, who managed to sneak in a blurb about WPS’s demise whilst on the topic of Shannon Boxx.
Twitter was also abuzz with devoted USWNT fans who obviously paid no mind to the pre-dawn hour. It was probably the same during the 2007 Women’s World Cup, but it’s hard to imagine it was as much fun in a Twitter-less world.
Let’s do it all again on Tuesday when the U.S. take on Brazil. More exclusive coverage of this game to come.