Posted by Jerry Hinnen
There are some things we know the U.S. Women's National Team will do in today's World Cup Final against upstart Japan.
We know they will run until their lungs burst. We know they will do anything and everything they can to get the ball to the head of Abby Wambach. We know Hope Solo will provide the steadiness in goal that comes with being the world's best female goalkeeper. We know, after their epic comeback against Brazil, that regardless of scoreline they will throw everything they've got at the Japanese for all 90 minutes. Or, if it comes to it, 120. Or 122.
But those things alone won't be enough. Here's five more the USWNT must do to win their first World Cup title since 1999:
Win the set-piece battle. This final matches up arguably the world's two most dangerous women's teams on free kicks, though each side creates that danger through very different means. Behind the precision shots of Aya Miyama, Japan is a substantial threat to score directly from a dead ball; Wambach, meanwhile, has used the tournament to again prove herself the greatest aerial target in the women's game. If the U.S.'s crosses to Wambach can cause more havoc for Japan than Miyama's free kicks can for the U.S, the edge could prove decisive for the Americans. (And given the huge physical advantage the towering Wambach has over Japan's size-challenged defenders, that's not unlikely.)
But it's not just about quality; it's about quantity, too. Even moreso than usual, the U.S. must be careful not to commit unnecessary fouls near their own box--particularly since the Japanese have been one of the tournament's best teams in avoiding those kinds of fouls themselves.
Keep pressing--but do it smartly. The U.S. is the soccer equivalent of Nolan Richardson's old "40 Minutes of Hell" Arkansas basketball teams, using their box-to-box pressing style both to 1. force turnovers and create scoring opportunities as well as 2. grind down opponents with their superior fitness and strength. But against France in Wednesday's semifinal, the U.S. became too aggressive at times, pushing five or even six players into the French side of midfield to pressure just four defenders. While this approach can pay huge dividends against the Colombias of the world, against the skilled French it more often resulted in a quick pass through or over the pressure--and a scramble in the American defense. And unfortunately for the U.S., Japan is much more France than Colombia when it comes to team skill.
That's not to say the U.S. should abandon the philosophy that's brought them this far. (In fact, it was just a game ago that Sweden's only goal against the Japanese came following an uncharacteristic giveaway by star midfielder Homare Sawa.) But a bit more caution will be called for against a team that passes as well as Japan, particularly if the U.S. can once again grab an early lead.
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Defensively, just don't make the killer mistake. U.S. fans should go ahead and accept that their team will lose the possession battle; tight, controlled passing is (as mentioned) the cornerstone of the Japanese game, while the Americans' direct approach often gives the ball up willingly in exchange for the chance of hitting a deep home run to Wambach or speedier forwards Amy Rodriguez and Alex Morgan.
But as with France -- who dominated the middle hour of the semifinal but had just one semi-fortunate goal to show for it -- all that possession doesn't have to guarantee Japan an end product. Even against Sweden, where Japan hogged the ball for a startling 60 percent of the match, all three Japanese goals could be partially (or fully) attributed to breakdowns by Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindal. And before that match, Japan had scored just one goal over their previous 210 minutes of play. If the steadily improving U.S. backline (and perpetually reliable Solo) can avoid making the same crushing errors that doomed the Swedes, Japan could have trouble finding the net no matter how eye-popping their possession figures.
Get the ball wide. Speaking of possession, central midfielders Carli Lloyd and Shannon Boxx struggled badly to maintain it against the French. But perhaps their even bigger sin was their failure to consistently get the ball to starting wingers Heather O'Reilly and Lauren Cheney. While Wambach is the finisher, it's the wide midfielders -- O'Reilly, Cheney, and in-form substitute Megan Rapinoe -- who provide the bulk of the U.S. attack's creativity and flow.
Lloyd and Boxx must simply do a better job of getting the wingers involved, and the quicker their passing the better; Japanese outside backs Aya Samashima and Yukari Kinga have been known to push forward and leave space behind them for the taking.
If all else fails, take it to penalty kicks. Between Solo and the penalty-taking clinic the U.S. put on in their shootout against Brazil, the Americans will be heavy favorites if the match reaches that stage. While the U.S. has never been the sort of squad to sit back and just let the clock peter out on a tie game, their likely advantage in this scenario suggests that once the clock hits the 110th or 115th minute, that might be the better strategy than risking a sudden breakdown at the back.
The U.S. has never lost to Japan, going 22-0-3 against their fellow finalists all-time and even winning a pair of meetings by identical 2-0 scores earlier this year. Naturally, the elevated stakes and Japan's impressive tournament form mean that those records don't count for a whole lot. But if the U.S. can get Wambach the crosses she needs -- either from set pieces or the wings -- and stay steady at the back, don't be surprised if they stay perfect against Japan all the same ... and return home the nation's biggest soccer heroes since their famous forerunners 12 years ago.