For the second straight tournament, the United States will face Japan in the final of the Women's World Cup. 2011's incredibly dramatic finale may not be repeated verbatim here, but it still should be a fascinating clash of styles. Japan's focus on keeping the ball moving can make them a very entertaining team, while the US's knack for making big plays has left fans with plenty of great moments to remember.
The Americans did not have an easy path here, but following a much-needed change in approach in the quarterfinals they appear to be hitting their stride at the right moment. After making hard work out of their first four games, the US was unlucky to only beat China 1-0 and then indisputably outplayed top-ranked Germany in the semifinal round five days ago. The addition of Morgan Brian to the midfield appears to have freed up the other, more attack-minded players in the team from the roles they were saddled with in the early stages of the tournament.
For Japan, it has been a month of close calls. The Japanese have won every single game they've played, but always by a 1-0 or 2-1 scoreline. In the group stage, those scorelines were rather flattering to their opponents. Japan appeared to be at their best against the Netherlands - who brought the score back to 2-1 with a goal just before full time - but since then they have struggled to produce a final product. Their quarterfinal against Australia saw an 87th minute game-winning goal that was clearly offside, and they only got past England via a truly heart-wrenching own goal in stoppage time. In both of those games, their less talented opposition still dominated a chunk of the match; this was no "plucky underdog hangs on for dear life" situation.
As such, Japan may enter the game as the defending champs but they should not be seen as favorites. The last two US outings have not been perfect, but the USWNT has started to look like the best team in the competition. Japan, meanwhile, has looked like they've lost something since 2011. On the other hand, if the old saw about making your own luck is true, then the Japanese are doing something right.
Key player: Becky Sauerbrunn
Let's get something out of the way: In a tournament where Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe, Julie Johnson, and Carli Lloyd have all spent some portion of time being the USWNT's star player, the best player on any team in this tournament has been Sauerbrunn. Unfortunately, she isn't getting as much recognition because her play doesn't have that eye-popping quality that the others bring to the table. Diagnosing danger when the threat is still two passes from actually becoming a threat is a wonderful skill, but when Sauerbrunn ends an attack it's usually done with no fuss.
Fans should be forgiven for thinking these plays are unremarkable, but they aren't. They're the product of a truly great soccer brain that can break up an attack simply by robbing someone of the passing angle they thought they'd have. Sauerbrunn has been playing chess this whole tournament while making opposing forwards and creative midfielders seem like they're stuck playing checkers.
Japan is a different threat from what the US has seen thus far, however. Their pass-and-move style is designed to make sure the team attacks as a unit rather than relying on one woman's vision, movement, or dribbling ability. The danger from Japan comes from a more diverse range of angles than the other attacks the US has dealt with thus far. The Nadeshiko have a well-honed understanding of how to coordinate themselves going forward, and they're patient enough that they don't force passes. If the last pass isn't there, they'll reset and go hunting for another opportunity.
Sauerbrunn will also have to look out for Japan's ability to pass over long range. It's every bit as important to them as the one- and two-touch stuff they're more famous for, after all. Japan may be thought of as playing in tight spaces, but 40+ yard passes over the top or to swing the ball to a flank are how they suddenly turn the game from feeling like it's in a phone booth to feeling like it's being played on an acre-sized field. Sauerbrunn and the rest of the US defense will need to see these passes coming rather than react to them when they're already en route.
Key question: Will the famed USWNT fitness levels see them avoid the fate of recent Japanese opponents?
Japan's winning goals in their three knockout stage games have come in the 78th, 87th, and 92nd minutes, respectively. The last two had more than a little luck involved, but Japan's ability to keep the ball moving and to force teams to do a lot of defensive chasing is also a factor here. Tired teams make mistakes, and it's fair to wonder whether a less worn-out Australian or English side gets to extra time instead of conceding late.
The US, meanwhile, has a sort of aura about them when it comes to still having energy in the final 15 minutes. The stereotype is that the US may not look great in the first hour, but they'll still be running like the game just started in that final half-hour while their opponent will be gassed. That has changed somewhat since the tactical switch against China - meaning that the US has stopped getting in their own way before halftime - but their fitness levels are still just as high as a group.
Japan may find this to be too difficult a problem to overcome, In addition to giving away a clear size disadvantage, they'll be up against a team they probably can't wear out by connecting passes. Unless Norio Sasaki has been keeping an ace up his sleeve this whole time, Japan is going to have to make some things happen without the benefit of playing against a team running on fumes.
Match date/time: Sunday 7/5, 7:00pm Eastern
Venue: BC Place Stadium (Vancouver)
TV: Fox (English), Telemundo (Spanish)
Online: Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), NBC Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish)
Check back in just under an hour for our gamethread.