FRANKFURT, Germany -- Three thoughts after Japan beat the U.S. 3-1 on penalty kicks after a 2-2 tie in the Women's World Cup final:
• The Japanese never quit. On two separate occasions the U.S. went up a goal on Japan in a classic final, and two times the Japanese came back to equalize before finishing off the Americans in a penalty shootout. The U.S. was just three minutes from World Cup glory on Abby Wambach's extra-time header when Japanese legend Homare Sawa stabbed home a corner kick to deflate a U.S. defense that was at fault on both of the Japanese strikes. The U.S. seemed to have an edge going to penalties based on their coolness in converting all five kicks in the quarterfinals against Brazil, but their confidence deserted them in the shootout. The Americans' first three shooters (Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath) failed to convert, and Japan handled the moment better. It's a remarkable result: Japan had never beaten the U.S. in 25 previous games, and while this game will go down in the history books as a draw, it won't feel like that to anyone who was here.
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• The U.S. was let down by its defense in the end. Give Japan plenty of credit for getting the equalizers, but the American defenders should have done better. Right back Ali Krieger helped gift Aya Miyama Japan's first goal in the 81st minute after a scramble in the U.S. penalty box, and the U.S. allowed Sawa, one of the shortest players on the field, to get her foot on the ball off a corner kick for Japan's late equalizer. If you had picked one team to score on a set-piece in this game, it had to have been the U.S., which had a huge height advantage. But this is soccer, and one of the reasons we watch is that we never know what's going to happen. Japan has won the World Cup after pulling off three of the most surprising results in the tournament's history, eliminating Germany, Sweden and the U.S. in consecutive knockout games.
• The dominant team doesn't always win. The U.S. will regret all of its missed chances, which included hitting the woodwork three times, but this game seemed like it was in the Americans' hands on two separate occasions after terrific goals by Alex Morgan and Wambach. Both teams seemed like they were on a run to destiny, the U.S. building on its miraculous quarterfinal victory over Brazil and Japan reaching its first final in the same year its country was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami. This is a cruel sport sometimes, and the U.S. players will remember this lost opportunity for the rest of their careers. But you'd have to be heartless not to admire the Japanese for their stunning drive to the title. It's a great story, and they leave here as deserving champions.
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