Update: For more on Japan's 7/17 World Cup victory, see "Women's World Cup: Japan Beats USA to Earn World Cup Title"
On Sunday, the USA face Japan in the finals of the sixth Women's World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany. The match pits the experience, athleticism and success of the U.S. team against a Japanese team that is slowly but surely emerging as a major player on the women's soccer stage. The USA has displayed an extraordinary will to win and ability to overcome adversity in World Cup 2011 thus far. Against Brazil in the quarterfinals, the USA was outplayed for much of the match but found a way to earn a last minute equalizer to take the match to penalty kicks. Against France, in the semifinals, team USA was similarly outplayed in the midfield for at least forty minutes following its early goal but managed to carve out two winning goals within the last twenty minutes to earn a 3-1 victory and place in the World Cup final.
Against Japan, however, matters will be more complicated. While the USA can leverage its aerial strength and height superiority over the Japanese, it will confront one of the most organized, efficient and effective midfield formations in the women's game. Japan's midfield typically features Homare Sawa, Aya Miyama, Mizuho Sakaguchi and Kozue Ando, who play behind a two pronged attack composed of a paired combination of Shinobu Ohno, Nahomi Kawasumi, Mana Iwabuchi, Yuki Nagasoto or Karina Maruyama.
Against Sweden, Japan's starting 4-4-2 formation featured:
Yukari Kinga (Right defender), Azusa Iwasimizu, Saki Kumagai, Aya Sameshima (Left defender)
Aya Miyama, Mizuho Sakaguchi, Homare Sawa, Kozue Ando
Shinobu Ohno, Nahomi Kawasumi
The notable change that Japan coach Norio Sasaki made against Sweden was the surprise inclusion of Nahomi Kawasumi in the starting line-up instead of striker Yuki Nagasoto. Sasaki is likely to start Kawasumi again, particularly since the USA will have fewer recent games from which to scout her playing style in preparation for the final.
On the U.S. side, coach Pia Sundhage is likely to play a 4-4-2 formation as follows:
Ali Krieger (Right defender), Christine Rampone, Rachel Buehler, Amie Le Peilbet (Left defender)
Amy Rodriguez, Heather O'Reilley, Carli Lloyd, Shannon Box
Abby Wambach, Lauren Cheney
Amy Rodriguez is a striker that Sundhage likes to play deeper than Wambach and Cheney. Alex Morgan, who scored the third goal against France, represents another attacking option for the USA. The key in the match will be the battle in midfield and whether Japan can dictate the tempo and rhythm of the game. If Homare Sawa and Aya Miyama can assert themselves in midfield and allow Japan to play its passing game, the USA will encounter a real challenge to lifting the trophy for the third time. On the other hand, if the USA can assert its physical presence in the opposing third of the field and draw set pieces of all stripes, a USA victory is almost assured. The USA also has the advantage of the best goalkeeper in the world in the form of Hope Solo.
Keys for Japan
(1) Play its trademark passing game
(2) Attack down the flanks with Aya Sameshima and Yukari Kinga
(3) Effectively mark U.S. set pieces
(4) Concede few fouls near the box
Keys for USA
(1) Win set pieces in the opposing third of the field
(2) Play aerial balls to test Ayumi Kaihori, the Japanese goalkeeper
(3) Disrupt Japan's free flowing football
(4) Effective defensive play in midfield