The same thing has happened to the U.S. Women’s National Team this year that happened to the men’s team last year: following a dramatic, last-second win, the bracket opened up to give the team an easier-looking-than expected path forward. Of course, we all know how things ended for the men’s team: for the second straight World Cup, we got knocked out by our archenemies, Ghana.
The women avoided an immediate letdown by persevering to beat a French team who closely resembled a blowfish: heavenly in the middle, deadly bad everywhere else (except left back...it’s not a perfect analogy).
We’re the odds-on favorites to beat Japan in the final, but I think this game will be a lot more difficult than most people expect.
First the circumstantial evidence: Japan beat Germany, the host and third member of the “big three” (the other members being the U.S., Brazil, and Chris Bosh). Japan also beat Sweden. Sweden beat us. Thankfully, the transitive property of mathematics doesn’t apply to sports, but there’s no denying that Sweden’s win against us was no fluke, and Japan made Sweden look pretty pedestrian. And I do mean pedestrian: it looked like Sweden were walking while Japan were running. It was not entirely unlike Barcelona’s domination of Manchester United in the Champions League final: the winning team moved quickly and played the ball around, and the loser chased the game while looking big and slow.
The U.S. team can fairly be accused of looking big and slow. To be frank: I am not at all impressed with our midfield. Lloyd and Boxx look okay, but no better than okay. They each tend to force a pass when it’s not on, which is a frustrating trait for a central midfielder. Lauren Cheney wastes a lot of possession with low-percentage shots. Heather O’Reilly can only go right. True, I’m focusing on the negatives here, but I think it’s extremely likely that Japan will dominate the midfield. The strength of our team comes from very good center backs, one striker that no-one can stop when she’s on her game, and a goalkeeper who is clearly the best in the world by some distance.
If our defense can bend without breaking, I think we’ll win. If Wambach can continue her dominance — especially in the air — I think we’ll win. But it’s going to be tight. Japan is going to make us earn it. It’s fun for me to watch a World Cup final and expect the U.S. to win — it’s the type of feeling I imagine having about the men’s team in, say, 2060. But just because we’re not playing the team we thought we would play in the final doesn’t mean we’re not playing one of the best teams in the tournament.