USA 2 – 2 Japan (pk 1-3) Frankfurt/Main
A packed house (48,817) at the World cup stadium in Frankfurt greeted the two teams as they walked out for the championship game of this 6th women’s world cup.
The only change for either squad was Megan Rapinoe drawing in to the starting eleven for the USA in place of Amy Rodriguez. Rapinoe’s inclusion was not a surprise as her fine passing and set piece work as a substitute had been a major part of the USA’s advancement through the tournament.
As world cup finals tend to do, this one kicked off to a relatively tentative start as each team tried to feel the other out. The US, unsurprisingly, continued the plan of aggressive early attack that had put it a goal up in each of its last two matches.
Inside of 15 minutes, the US had created (and squandered) four or five legitimate scoring opportunities including Wambach & Lloyd headers over the bar and a Cheney strike into the side netting.
New starter Rapinoe took a well placed cross and hammered it 2′ wide of the top right corner in the 12th minute. Japanese goalkeeper Kaihori must have been thinking she was in for a terrifying afternoon.
By contrast, her teammates were surprisingly out of sorts. They were clearly stymied early by the US defensive & midfield walls (the Japanese defense spent much of the first 15 minutes passing back and forth among themselves, apparently unwilling to risk a pass through the midfield).
Not only were they unable to pass early on, their defensive scheme was undone a few times by the US attack, and the entire team seemed to be running in sand. At the quarter-hour mark, you’d have put your money almost entirely on a US victory. Despite 50-50 possession stats, Japan had barely moved the ball across the centerline.
In the middle third of the opening half, though, Japan began to get results from their probing of the US midfield. Several times Ohno & Ando broke through the US defense, only to have the through ball be too far, too slow, or wide of the ideal position.
In the 28th minute the US very nearly opened the scoring. Playing on a well called advantage by German referee Bibiana Steinhaus, Wambach came open in front of the net and hammered the ball off the underside of the crossbar. It rebounded straight down, perhaps just a yard in front of the goal line.
In the final 15 minutes of the opening half, you just got the feeling that Japan was slowly taking over the midfield. While the chances they created were far from easy ones, they pushed the US back into their own half and (as we have become accustomed to) took control of possession.
At the half, Pia Sundhage took the injured Lauren Cheney off in favour of the speedy striker Alex Morgan. Just four minutes into her world cup final, Morgan nearly put her side ahead, taking the ball in the area and firing off the base of the goal post.
Agonizingly, the ball sat in the six yard box for what seemed like ages after the rebound spun off goalkeeper Kaihori. Homare Sawa ultimately ran in to clear the ball away.
After a quarter-hour of back and forth action, mostly uninspiring, the lines officials once again became the centre of attention. In the 63rd, Ando broke past the US defense at midfield. Sawa launched a perfectly timed and placed ball for her, but the assistant referee raised the flag for offside. Replays showed that Ando was nowhere near offside.
While the tournament has been well officiated on balance, the repeated ‘conservative’ offside calls have limited offensive chances unnecessarily.
Just a minute later, Wambach was again in action, striking a header toward Kaihori, requiring of her a fine save to keep the match level. Japan made their first substitution at the 65th minute mark, with both Ohno and Ando going off in favour of the fresh legs of Maruyama and Nagasato.
In the 69th minute the game came alive again. Another fine pass by Rapinoe set Alex Morgan away through the middle of the Japanese defense. She controlled the ball well, then jinked left to stretch Kaihori before placing an excellent shot into the far corner of goal.
Given Japan’s lack of progress on attack throughout the game thus far (creating, but not taking, chances), viewers had the feeling that this could well turn out to be the only goal of this final.
Just over ten minutes later, the US defense – a strong point of the their game thus far – fell into a Keystone cops routine that defied belief. It started with a poor ball from Rampone, which lead to a Japanese cross into the area.
Buehler made a sliding effort to clear toward Krieger, who seemed unprepared for the ball. Ultimately, it bounced off her, falling for Miyama, who calmly put the ball behind Solo to even the match. It would be the final significant action of the regulation 90 minutes.
The extra time period started tentatively also (it wasn’t hard to imagine these two sides as prize fighters, both nearly out on their feet). O’Reilly made a rash challenge in the 84th and was perhaps fortunate not to be booked for it.
Strangely enough, Miyama was booked just a few minutes later for a foul that seemed barely worthy of a free kick.
Out of nothing in the 104th, though, the US struck again. Alex Morgan carried the ball down the left-wing and launched a fine cross to Wambach lurking at the edge of the 6 yard box. Finding herself in space, she made no mistake, heading the ball powerfully into the net.
In the second half of extra time, Japan pressed forward a bit more. A couple of times they had Solo on the run, but could not make good on their chances. In the 115′, captain Sawa fired a fine pass through the defense for Kinga, but she just couldn’t quite control it.
Ultimately, Rampone cleared.
Improbably, two minutes later Japan were level. Off a corner, Sawa broke free of her mark, then casually deflected the ball toward the US net. The replay appeared to show it deflected off Wambach as well, but in any event it eluded Solo in net and the game was level again.
Cruelly, Japanese defender Iwashimizu was red carded in the 119th minute for a tackle on Alex Morgan at the edge of the penalty area.
While Morgan was charging the ball, the replay appeared to show the defender actually making contact with the ball first. It was a late challenge and Morgan certainly made the most of it, but not a red card offense in my view.
The US failed to take advantage of the free kick at the edge of the area and, in a repeat of the 1999 final, this year’s edition would be settled on penalty kicks.
There had been moments throughout this game where the emotion and importance of the stage seemed to get the better of some of the players from each side. And certainly, there are many who feel penalty kicks are not an appropriate way to end any international game, much less a world cup final.
Nonetheless, the players duly lined up to see their world cup dreams fulfilled (or ended) by what amounts to a high pressure target practice session.
Shannon Boxx lined up first. At the whistle, she took a middling shot, chest high and in the middle of the net. Kaihori dived right, but amazingly stuck out her right leg and kicked the ball clear of the goal.
Next up was the goal scorer Miyama. She made no mistake, Japan up 1-0.
Carli Lloyd then hit well behind the ball, firing her attempt high over the net.
Moments later, substitute Nagasato was stopped by Hope Solo. Amazingly, after four kicks, it was still just 1-0 Japan.
The USA’s second substitute, Tobin Heath, then took a weak shot which was well saved by Kaihori.
Three misses from three attempts… an incredible development.
Sakaguchi then converted for Japan, putting massive pressure on Striker Abby Wambach. Wambach was up to the task, and fired a strong PK straight past Kaihori.
The world cup, then, lay on the foot of Saki Kumagai. Solo paraded off her line in an attempt to distract the 20-year-old defender.
It mattered little. Kumagai calmly reset and drove the ball past a helpless Solo into the corner. Japan – third place Asian qualifiers – amazingly, improbably, were world cup champions.
A greater moment for football in that fine country I cannot imagine, nor a more apt finish to a wonderful world cup.
Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to coach Sasaki Norio, Captain Homare Sawa and the players is this:
They play the game the way it was meant to be played.
Congratulations to the new world’s champions!
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