In boxing, they say that contrasting styles can make for great fights. If that applies to soccer, then the U.S.-Japan matchup in the Women’s World Cup final should be thrilling. The two teams are studies in contrasting styles.
First, though, let’s talk about what they have in common.
Each team appears to be on a mission. No doubt the U.S. women feel they represent women athletes in general, and women’s soccer in particular. But — to an unusual extent for women’s sports — they also represent the U.S. at large, and not “just” women.
So, this U.S. women's national team has already achieved a cultural breakthrough. Of course, the games are being played in Germany, and it’s not clear that the players even know what an impact they’re having.
Late-game hero Abby Wambach had it right when, after the team’s stunning penalty-kicks defeat of Brazil last Sunday, she said the win “represents what this country is all about.” That is, the team played with grit, heart, endurance, and good old-fashioned physical strength. In doing so, they’ve broken out of the women’s sports ghetto and onto sports talk radio, where some hosts have seemed surprised, and (in some cases) been forced to scramble off their anti-soccer perches by the sheer volume of calls they’ve received about the women’s team.
Most of the calls have come from men, and most are prefaced by “I don’t like soccer and I don’t like women’s sports.” But many go on to say, “But I hit ceiling when we hit that late goal against Brazil.”
So, this women’s national team has already achieved a cultural breakthrough. Of course, the games are being played in Germany, and it’s not clear that the players even know what an impact they’re having. And it’s not clear that the breakthrough is permanent. Still, we now see that it can happen.
Japan is on a mission of a different sort. As the country continues to reel from the earthquake and tsunami of last March, the women’s team has become a source of inspiration, hope, and, well, distraction for the beleaguered folks back home. And the team has taken its mission seriously. How could they not, when their coach prepared the team for their match against two-time defending champion Germany by showing the players a slide-show depicting their country’s devastation. One player responded by saying the presentation “touched us deep in our souls.”
Japan’s subsequent defeat of Germany is considered one of the great upsets in the history of women’s soccer. Germany had not lost a World Cup match since the U.S. defeated them in 1999—the last year the U.S. won.
Germany had some of the same physical advantages over Japan that the U.S. will enjoy: namely, height and strength. The U.S. should have one advantage that Germany did not. They will take the Japanese team very seriously indeed, as perhaps the Germans didn’t.
Which brings us back to the styles of play. Some brilliant Megan Rapinoe crosses notwithstanding, the U.S. is not particularly adept at handling the ball. Time of possession usually favors their opponents. The technically skilled French team caused them some anxious moments last Wednesday, and, led by veteran midfielder Homare Sawa, Japan is perhaps more skillful still.
If you combine that skill level with their patriotic motivation, then you have a very tough foe in Japan.
On the other hand, the U.S. is bigger, stronger, faster, and every bit as determined. Look for them to win on a—what else?—Abby Wambach header, and the intimidating goalkeeping of Hope Solo.