Read any preview for the Women's World Cup final between the United States and Japan, and you will see words like revenge, retribution, or payback. That America has a score to settle. It is certainly understandable. Japan beat the U.S. on penalties to win the World Cup back in 2011.
But here's the thing: Japan did not steal that match. It was ours to win, but defensive miscues allowed Japan to come from behind twice to keep things even. Once the match went to penalties, the U.S. scored just once in the shootout.
It was heartbreaking. So heartbreaking. The U.S. had victory within its grasp.
That is why tomorrow's battle feels less like revenge and more like an opportunity for redemption for the United States, a team that has been on the rise since this World Cup kicked off—playing its best soccer in these last two matches. A disciplined win against the technical Japanese side—who can score goals like this—would be the best form of redemption.
So how can the U.S., ranked second in the world coming into the World Cup, break down the fourth-ranked Japan? Here are some keys to the match.
A Defensive Battle
This final will feature two of the best defenses in the World Cup. The U.S. has allowed just one goal in six matches. The entire defensive line has been a brick wall, and much of the attention has turned to center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston. Their play has been nearly impeccable, and when they have made a rare mistake, Hope Solo was there to snatch things up. Or Meghan Klingenberg was on the line ready to head the ball to safety.
On the other side, Japan has been effective through different tactics. The team uses possession to control the flow of the game. Japan's ability to hold onto the ball starves their opponents of chances. Japan has completed 80 percent of its passes this tournament, the highest of any team. Even against England, when Japan did not look their best, they maintained 58% of possession.
The key to breaking down Japan is to find ways to disrupt this rhythm. It is difficult to do, but England was successful in making Japan look flat by bottling up the middle of the field. Strong shape in the midfield will be key for the Americans.
Stop Aya Miyama
Japan's main playmaker is Aya Miyama. She starts on the left side of the midfield, but frequently cuts inside and roams around the center. Miyama has created the most chances during the tournament, 22, which far outpaces any other player (Anja Mittag comes in at second with 15). Defender Ali Krieger and midfielder Morgan Brian, who was a key part of the defensive shutout against Germany, will both be called upon to neutralize Miyama.
The other way to stop Miyama is to force her to track back defensively. Whoever lines up on the right side—whether it is Tobin Heath or the more defensively disciplined Kelley O'Hara—should be looking for counter opportunities. Krieger also will need to push into the attack at key moments to keep Miyama on her toes defensively.
Playmakers off the Bench
Japan forward Mana Iwabuchi is likely to start on the bench and come into the match in the second half. The 22-year-old has been used as an impact sub and has excelled in this role. It was Iwabuchi who scored in the 87th minute against Australia. She also gave Japan a much-needed boost against England, injecting pace and energy into the match.
Japan's strategy is to move the ball quickly and wear teams out. Once they accomplish this, they unleash Iwabuchi to terrorize a tired defense. The U.S. side is fit, and hopefully will not be too tired to quell Iwabuchi late in the match.
The U.S. also has an arsenal of playmakers on the bench. Christen Press is always dangerous in front of the goal. The speedy Amy Rodriguez can get behind defenders and cause all sorts of trouble. Kelley O'Hara scored a gorgeous goal against Germany. Abby Wambach, who towers over Japan's small defensive back line, could be just what the U.S. need late in the match.
If the match is close in the final 20 minutes, subs on both ends could play a huge role in deciding the outcome—and hopefully prevent this match from going to penalties.
Put Numbers Forward
Japan was put under pressure by the aggressive and physical England team. While England could not break through, they had plenty of chances in the second half. The U.S. squad has had its share of missed chances throughout this tournament. Even against China, when the Americans dominated the play, the U.S. could only find the back of the net once. They cannot afford to waste chances against Japan. The Americans will need to come out aggressive—winning those 50/50 balls and pressing hard from kickoff.
Tomorrow's match kicks off at 4:00 p.m. PT on FOX.
After the game, Seattle Reign players Hope Solo and Megan Rapinoe return to Memorial Stadium on July 11. Regardless of the outcome against former teammate Naho Kawasumi and the Japanese squad, Rapinoe and Solo will come home as heroes. But having them return for the second half of the NWSL season after earning the U.S. a third star on their crest would make their homecoming even sweeter.