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Rampone adds a special story to U.S. women's World Cup quest

FRANKFURT, Germany -- As the captain of the U.S. women's soccer team, Christie Rampone has the chance to be the player who receives the Women's World Cup trophy if the U.S. beats Japan in the final here on Sunday (2:45 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN3.com). Few players in the history of soccer, men or women, have had that opportunity, but then again, there's not much that's ordinary in her life.

Who is Christie Rampone? She's a 36-year-old mother of two -- the only mother on the team -- whose daughter Rylie lost her first tooth the other day. She's a lockdown central defender who has been terrific in her fourth Women's World Cup. She's a remarkably fit player who, despite being the team's oldest member, has the No. 1-rated fitness level on the 21-player squad (based on the eight tests everyone has to complete).

And, as I was stunned to discover on Saturday, she's doing all this despite having Lyme disease.

A sometimes debilitating infectious disease spread by ticks, Lyme disease can cause fatigue, headaches and fevers. Rampone noticed that she was exhausted last year, and finally in December she took action. "It was bad enough that I got blood work done and got tested for Lyme disease," she told me. "It never removed me from training, but it was something that I knew had to be taken care of."

Rampone has been on medication, she added. "I have my good and bad days, but when it's tough I just push through it," she said. "I'm still going through the process. My numbers are still the same, but I'm feeling so much better."

Think about that when you watch Rampone in action on Sunday. "She's unbelievable," says Rachel Buehler, Rampone's partner in the central defense. "Having two children and now having Lyme disease, which is difficult stuff. She's gotten very good at managing that, too. Her toughness and commitment have been so inspiring."

Here are four other things on my mind heading into Sunday's final:

This game will have fascinating contrasts. Don't be fooled. Yes, the U.S. has never lost to Japan in 25 games (including three victories this year), but the Japanese are playing out of their minds these days due to their solid finishing, their skyrocketing confidence and their short-passing possession game, a level of technical skill that the U.S. can't match. (Homare Sawa is a classic old-school playmaker in the best sense.) The Americans are taller, faster and stronger, however, and if the U.S. can gain possession long enough to earn some set-pieces, it has a big advantage in Abby Wambach, who towers like a colossus over the Japanese defenders.

The Japanese have found a way to neutralize the bigger Germans and Swedes in their last two games, and they have managed to turn all that possession into goals, which isn't always an easy feat. "The difference between Japan of a couple months ago and today is they continue to keep the ball between the boxes, but now they're more sophisticated in the box," said U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. "The final pass is better." Keep an eye on forward Nahomi Kawasumi, who scored twice against Sweden.

Will the U.S. make any lineup changes? I doubt it. The most common questions I've gotten from readers are these: Will offensive sparkplug Megan Rapinoe start? And will forward Alex Morgan enter the lineup for the out-of-form Amy Rodriguez? Both could happen on Sunday, but I just don't see it. Sundhage has been stubborn about sticking with Rodriguez, who hasn't scored and doesn't appear to be combining very well with other players. But keep in mind, Rodriguez has scored three times in as many games against Japan this year.

As for Rapinoe, I think it would be useful to put her on the left side to help with possession and move Lauren Cheney into Rodriguez's spot up top. But in the end, I think the only change will be the return of Buehler in the central defense after serving her one-game red-card suspension in the semifinals. Rapinoe and Morgan will most likely be the impact subs against Japan that they were against France. Should they be in the starting lineup? Maybe. But it doesn't hurt to bring that kind of firepower off the bench.

The team of destiny? Well, both of them are. From a pure storyline perspective, Japan's is hard to beat: A surprise run to the World Cup final in the same year that the country was devastated by an earthquake and tsunami. The disaster affected the lives of the Japanese players and their friends and family members. But from a sporting angle, the U.S. has felt like one of those classic teams that wins an epic game -- the miracle comeback against Brazil, in this case -- and can't be denied.

My prediction: A tight game in which Japan possesses more but is susceptible to U.S. set-pieces and quick-strike counter-attacks. USA 2, Japan 1.

USA (4-4-2): Hope Solo; Ali Krieger, Christie Rampone, Rachel Buehler, Amy LePeilbet; Heather O'Reilly, Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd, Lauren Cheney; Amy Rodriguez, Abby Wambach.

Japan (4-4-2): Ayumi Kaihori; Yukari Kinga, Azusa Iwashimizu, Saki Kumagai, Aya Sameshima; Shinobu Ohno, Mizuho Sakaguchi, Homare Sawa, Aya Miyama, Kozue Ando, Nahomi Kawasumi.

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