VANCOUVER—It’s Japan vs. the United States for all the marbles on Sunday at BC Place, and it just happens to be a rematch of the last FIFA Women’s World Cup final from four years ago in Germany.
For some on the American roster, it’s a chance for revenge after that painful defeat, when the U.S. threw away a 3-1 lead and eventually lost on penalties. For newer members of the squad and coach Jill Ellis, who weren’t part of that run, it’s simply a chance to win a world title.
Sometimes the narrative isn’t more complicated than that—these are two teams wanting to reign supreme in the women’s game.
“Honestly, the only motivation I have is to try and help this team to win a World Cup,” Ellis told reporters at the final news conference ahead of Sunday’s final. “I’ve said this a lot. I don’t have a rear-view mirror in my life. I always look forward, and try and make it about (Sunday).
“It’s not about what’s happened before, it’s the opportunity to have this amazing group of women, and potentially win a world championship.”
The two sides have arrived at this stage by different roads.
Japan has looked more convincing for the most part with six straight wins, and has played some very stylish soccer beyond just getting results. But they also got here due to an injury time own goal by English defender Laura Bassett in the semifinals.
A look at Japan’s statistics really says it all about the side’s attractive passing game. With an 80 percent passing completion rate, Japan leads the tournament when it comes to maintaining possession.
Ellis admits disrupting Japan’s passing rhythm is part of the game plan, but doing that in a sustainable way is the difficult part.
“We just have to be smart about when we pick and choose moments,” Ellis explained. “I have a lot of confidence in our team’s ability to hold the ball and keep the ball as well. You can’t press and chase and make it a physical game for 90 minutes.
“But I think we’ve got a great balance in our team. Against the Germans (in the semifinals) I think we were able to keep the ball and move the ball quickly. That’s going to be the great part of this game—both teams are going to want to have the ball.”
There’s no question the world champions have had an easier road to this final. Japan played its first four matches against nations that had never played at a World Cup before, and only sneaked by with one-goal wins in all of those affairs. Then in the knockout round it faced Australia and England. Strong teams, but nothing like what the Americans faced.
The U.S.A. had a tough group with Australia, Nigeria and Sweden, and then had to play Colombia, one of the surprisingly exciting teams of this World Cup. The Chinese came next, and then Ellis’s women had to knock off world No. 1 Germany in the semifinals.
While Japan has relied on its passing, the Americans have largely relied on their backline and the steady play of goalkeeper Hope Solo.
Solo enters this match having not conceded a goal in a remarkable five games, and the team’s defence as a whole has only allowed one goal all tournament.
“We have so much respect for Japan and the way they play the game,” said midfielder Lauren Holiday. “I think they feel the same way about us. It’s a good game every time we play them. It’s a good matchup and I think it’s going to be a very exciting final.”
As always, individuals have a chance to write the script in these big games. Japan will rely heavily on its key playmaker Aya Miyama, who leads the tournament with 22 chances created. It’s a largely arbitrary stat but there’s no question if there’s any player able to unlock the stingy American defence with a bit of magic it’s the left-sided midfielder, who often drifts centrally.
The area where the Americans will have the edge should be on set plays. Despite their impressive record, the Japanese struggled at times dealing with set plays in both the England and Australia matches. Captain Abby Wambach, still formidable in the air, in particular could have something to say on that point, in this her final World Cup match.