Few predicted last summer that Japan would reach the World Cup final, much less vanquish the heavily favored U.S. women's soccer team in penalty kicks after twice rallying from down a goal.
But in the 13 months since, a new rivalry between the teams has been legitimized. The contrast in styles -- Japan with its technical passing, the U.S. with its direct drive forward -- is stark. The depth of talent on each side is plentiful. Things will fittingly reach their climax Thursday with a rematch in the Olympic final at Wembley Stadium before a crowd of at least 83,000.
The teams have met three times already this year. Equally splitting a trio of decisions only proves that the latest encounter is almost certain to be determined by the slimmest of margins.
In March, Japan made it two wins in a row against the U.S., capturing the Algarve Cup in Portugal by a score of 1-0, ending a 57-game streak in which the Americans had scored at least once.
One month later on Japanese soil, the teams drew 1-1. The U.S. failed to beat the Japanese for the third straight time and only salvaged a tie on a second-half equalizer by Alex Morgan.
A measure of revenge finally came with a 4-1 romp in Sweden in June. But the Japanese played without three key members of their first-choice defense: goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto and center backs Saki Kumagai and Azusa Iwashimizu. Like the World Cup last year, Kumagai and Iwashimizu have played every minute in the Olympics, in which Japan has allowed two goals in five matches.
The U.S. defense allowed more goals in its 4-3 semifinal win over Canada than it had in its first four matches, rekindling worries that its back line is indeed as shaky as it seemed in the first half of its opening match against France.
But that didn't stop U.S. coach Pia Sundhage from dropping defenders to play for a victory against Canada throughout, particularly in overtime, never settling for a potential penalty shootout. Her belief in her side is unquestioned. Add in a spoonful of revenge, and the motivation within the U.S. may be the most striking and crucial difference between what transpired in Germany and what happens in London.
- Craig Stouffer