It was a painful loss until you realized Japan’s first ever World Cup victory couldn’t come at a better time, perhaps healing a nation that continues to reel from the earthquake and tsunami that rocked the nation last March. The story of their team’s victory over the much larger and more physical U.S. team is one of precision, patience and perseverance – much like their country’s attitude toward rebuilding itself after the massive natural disaster.
There are a hundred ways to look at Japan’s World Cup victory and you can read a hundred different things into the victory. For me, Sunday’s World Cup final match was one of those games you’ll never forget. It was just a damn good game, an unforgettable game, no matter what team you were going for.
The United States came out dominant and seemed to be on the offensive more than Japan. They had a ton of missed opportunities around the net and weren’t able to capitalize on them. Yet, the U.S. remained poised to take the lead and in the 69th minute, the U.S.’s Alex Morgan scored the game’s first goal. The goal came late enough in the game that the Americans may have thought that they had the Cup won.
Posed and focused, Japan continued to hustle and hammer the ball toward the net and they caught a break in the 81st minute when the Americans made clumsy mistake and lost control of the ball in front of their own net, allowing a Japanese player to grab a quick deflection and put it into the net past American net keeper. That late goal tied the game and forced two 15-minute periods of overtime.
I thought Japan’s goal to tie the game and force overtime was going to take the wind out of the Americans’ sails. I didn’t think the Americans could shake off the mistake that allowed it.
Instead, in the 104th minute, Abby Wambach found the back of the net with a header on a pass by Morgan. For whatever reason, when the U.S. wasn’t in the lead, they constantly found themselves on the offensive and continued to find the net. Back in the lead, though, the momentum shifted and once again, it seemed like Japan was the team that wanted it more.
So it was in the 117th minute that Japan’s Homare Sawa redirected a corner kick into the net, knotting the score once again, this time at 2-2. And with relatively little time left in the second overtime period, Japan, with its precision play, had the United States exactly where they wanted them: In a penalty kick shootout to win the World Cup. It was anybody’s ball game at that point and the pressure was on the Americans.
“We said, ‘Look, we made it all the way into the final and into the penalty shootout, that is something for us.’ It took some pressure off,” Japan’s coach Norio Sasaki told The New York Times. “Maybe the situation was easier to handle for the Japanese team. We came from behind, so from a psychological viewpoint, it was easier in the shootout.”
I don’t think I could agree with him more. For some reason, I knew the U.S. had to win during the overtime play and not let it go to a shootout. I think they knew it too. Throughout the game the U.S. was more physical but Japan was sharper in their passing and shooting. Physicality during a shootout isn’t worth a whole lot.
And so it went. Japan was able to outshoot the U.S. in the nerve-racking shootout and take its first World Cup ever. It was also the first time Japan had beaten the U.S.
There’s no doubt the loss was heartbreaking for the U.S. women. They had a bunch of missed opportunities, which goes with the territory. What I can’t seem to get past is the feeling that every time the U.S. went ahead, they seemed to watch the clock tick instead of being aggressive. That’s the takeaway of this game. The American women stopped moving their feet once they took a lead and in the end, they lost the game because of it.
The U.S. team should keep their head high though. They carried us through a World Cup that was as exciting as I’ve seen. Hearing cheers and screams echoing from across the street out of bars and people’s living rooms throughout this tournament was a great thing to hear. The U.S. team gave us all a reason to watch and to be excited about soccer.
In the end, it may not have been the most physical or strongest team that won the World Cup but it certainly was the best and most deserving team.