This is the World Cup final that nobody predicted. Plenty felt that the U.S. could and would make it to Frankfurt on Sunday, though that belief was stretched to its limits along the way. Not many had Japan making it through Germany's half of the draw, though. In the five previous World Cups, the Japanese had won just three matches, and had never beaten European opposition. In the past three weeks, they have won four, and defeated Germany and Sweden. This magnificent trajectory has won the hearts of neutrals and helped to make the final one of the most nerve-tinglingly anticipated matchups ever.
Almost by accident, it is also one of the better rehearsed; these sides met in the Algarve Cup this spring, and played twice in May as part of their World Cup warmups. The matches were supposed to serve as a barometer for how well the U.S. could cope with possession teams (and for Japan, a chance to gauge and mitigate the impact of physique and speed), but neither coach can have imagined they would end up being dry runs for the final in Germany.
What U.S. coach Pia Sundhage took away from the two 2-0 wins her side chalked up was some assurance that reports of the death of U.S. women's soccer had been greatly exaggerated; it was still difficult, even for a technically accomplished side, to deal with her team's direct and clinical approach. "You don't have to play beautiful soccer for 90 minutes," she said after the first May game, "but you need to be smart enough to find a way to play such good soccer you can win the game."
She could have repeated herself this week, when the U.S. overcame France -- scoring three goals -- with just 45 percent possession. While French forwards looked for the perfect opening, shifting the ball from one side to the other, the U.S. got the job done -- and Alex Morgan's goal was hardly bread-and-butter stuff.
Keeping the ball remains Japan's trump card, however. It can maintain possession at walking pace, sucking the tempo out of opponents' games, and works quickly, doubling up markers, to win the ball back. In the semifinal, Japan had 60 percent of possession and Sweden had just two shots at goal; forward Lotta Schelin looked resigned to the fact that play rarely reached her. Mizuho Sakaguchi (an unsung hero of Japan's tournament) and Homare Sawa make a formidable central-midfield unit; the quality of their passing and positioning takes Japan effortlessly from box to box -- note how rarely the central defenders are forced to risk long balls, thanks to the easy options Sawa and Sakaguchi give them.
The loss of Caroline Seger to a calf injury in the warmup, with Nilla Fischer already out suspended, hit Sweden hard, and Germany (defeated in the quarterfinal with a 46-54 percent possession differential) can point to the early injury to Kim Kulig as an explainer. Sundhage has some critical decisions to make in the center, in terms of tactics and personnel. Word from the U.S. camp this week suggests the coach expects her midfield players to keep the ball better and set a steadier rhythm. "She wants us to possess the ball," said Carli Lloyd. "That's Boxxie and I, our job is to get the team to do that. I know she has high expectations."
It might serve the U.S. well if Sundhage decides to place those expectations elsewhere. The team has looked at its most comfortable -- and most dangerous -- without the Lloyd-Shannon Boxx combination on the pitch: against Colombia, when Lori Lindsey started with Lloyd, and in the latter stages against France, when Sundhage took Lloyd off and moved Lauren Cheney into the center of midfield with Boxx. At least if the plan goes out the window and the U.S. must play on the counterattack, it would have a central player who has already shown off quick and accurate passing under pressure.
Even if Japan has looked more resilient to the strength and stature of other teams at this World Cup, it has weaknesses that can be exploited by teams that stay composed and go direct at the right moment. In the games in May, substitute Alex Morgan got behind the defense on several occasions. The U.S. will have to beware being overwhelmed in the central channel, where wide players Shinubo Ohno and Aya Miyama tend to funnel in with the strikers to create four-on-two situations, but a quick turnover leaves Heather O'Reilly and Cheney/Megan Rapinoe (some of the tournament's most prolific crossers of the ball) with space to work in if Japan's fullbacks Yukari Kinga and Aya Sameshima have pushed forward, as they often do.
Whoever's hitting the ball, they have Abby Wambach to aim at: that's the American trump card against a defense that hasn't yet had to deal with a truly comparable forward. "She is the best target striker I've ever worked with," Western New York Flash technical director Emma Hayes, formerly a consultant at Washington Freedom, told SI.com. Wambach is happy to win pretty but mostly she wants to win. "Abby wants to be in the record books and carries the weight of expectation better than any other player I've come across," says Hayes.
Set pieces will be a particularly interesting part of this match. It's probably the one aspect of the game in which the U.S.' physical advantage might be as big as it's being hyped up to be; Wambach's back-post leaps will have been high on Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori's agenda this week. First things first, though: the U.S. will have to get the chance -- Sweden, Mexico, New Zealand and England managed a total of nine corners against Japan. At the other end, Aya Miyama's free-kicks have been potent, and she can find the top corner with unnerving regularity. Few keepers, though, have had more chance to practice keeping them out than former WPS teammate -- and goalkeeper of the tournament -- Hope Solo.
This World Cup has been noted for its competitiveness, and this is a fittingly intriguing final. There is a great deal to suggest that the U.S. will win a third World Cup, not least its bench, which offers stronger alternatives than the Japanese dugout. But there was also a great deal to suggest that Sweden and particularly Germany could outmuscle if not outwit Japan, and look how that worked out. It doesn't do justice to this Japan team to talk as if its wonderful command of the ball is simply pragmatic. The tactical battle between Sundhage and her counterpart Norio Sasaki (who has engineered a lung-busting effort to hold the favorite as well as a surging comeback win in Japan's first semifinal appearance) should be fascinating.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-editor of http://www.retrombm.com/.