This is definitely not the headline I was expecting to write. I first want to apologize for the delay on this piece. I was in Chicago for the Fire game Saturday followed by the Cubs game Sunday. While the Fire game was fun but the result was undesirable, the Cubs game was an oven sitting in the sun (which I was). So, I was relegated to following the game via Twitter and the occasional PA update from the Cubs. It was almost eerie how things worked out. The Cubs had just been stung by a bad ump call, and Kerry Wood fell apart to allow the Marlins to take the lead. As the game was all but over, the USWNT game was going into PK's. Normally, a stream of people leaving Wrigley after another bullpen collapse is a typical sight. But yesterday was different. Almost every TV in the concourse was on the soccer game, and when I got down there a minute or two before PK's started, hundreds of people were watching the game. The Captain Morgan Club didn't have any of the TV's on the Cubs game from what I saw. After the PK loss, everyone shuffled away quiet and looking lost. The Cubs game was an afterthought compared to what had just transpired.
My reason for relaying this Cubs story is to illustrate just how much people cared about the Women's World Cup final. I know some of these people might be those "I will watch it because it's the World Cup" people and not watch anytime else. But games and moments like the US women have provided over the last month are what help soccer to grow in the US and attract more regular fans. The MLS is getting more popular, and the national teams certainly are as well. Follow me after the break for a recap of the action and my 3 key thoughts as to what helped contribute to the US loss (no, they didn't choke in my opinion as many fans are saying). I watched a good chunk of the DVR of the match late last night, but I didn't get home until midnight so I skipped through the game a bit to get a recap out quicker.
Japan vs USA FIFA World Cup Final 2011 Full Highlights, Goals, Japan beats United States, Women (via YouOpineGroup)
The US had the better of the chances throughout the game. They created numerous opportunities and controlled possession for large portions of the match. In fact, the US officially ended up with an astounding 27 shots on goal, including a Chicago Fire-like 3 shots off the post. The US defense stood tall, shutting down Japan possession and bossing the midfield and box around Hope Solo. Although the defense would have some hiccups late that were fatal, overall they should be commended.
The US peppered Japan often, especially in the first half. The US forced saves from Japan keeper Ayumi Kaihori, just missed the goal on shots that went wide or high, and also had the aforementioned post shots. Megan Rapinoe clanked it off the post in the 18th minute, followed by an Abby Wambach shot off the crossbar right around the 30 minute mark. Despite all the shots and opportunities, the US would go into the half with the score at 0-0. I was wondering if those missed opportunities would come back and haunt us as they have so many times for the Fire this year.
The US replaced Lauren Cheney with Alex Morgan to start the 2nd half. Cheney had injured her foot very early in the match and tried to play through it. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. Morgan instantly had an impact, and began cutting up the Japan defense. In the 49th minute, she beat Kaihori, but the ball bounced off the post, then off the keeper's back, before being cleared to safety. It was truly like the US was snake-bitten, which usually doesn't bode well for the final result. Sometimes, the best team doesn't always win, especially in soccer.
The US would break through in the 69th minute when Rapinoe looped a long ball ahead for Morgan. Alex outran her defender, took a couple of nice touches, and slotted the ball into the lower right corner for a huge goal. With the US cruising up to that point, I think most fans assumed the game was over. Japan would say otherwise, and would equalize in the 80th minute. Rachel Buehler, who was reinserted into the lineup after her red card vs. Brazil, would slip while trying to clear a ball just outside the 6 yard box. The slip causing a weak clearance to Ali Krieger, who also missed hitting the ball properly, and it dribbled right to Aya Miyama. She took a wide open shot from about 5 yards out, and the game was shockingly tied. Nothing Hope Solo could do about that one. It was a rare but immensely costly defensive error after such beautiful play up until that point. And that's how regulation time would end, setting up a nerve-wracking extra time showdown.
Both teams pushed back and forth and had some looks, but Abby Wambach came through for the US once again in what seemed like it had to be the clinching goal. In the 104th minute, just before the end of the first extra time period, Alex Morgan would send a cross to a wide open Wambach, who promptly buried one of her trademark headers into the back of the net. Even I was assuming the US would now win. They just had to hold on for 15 more minutes.
Japan would shock and tie again however. Deep into the second extra time period, Homare Sawa would again equalize for Japan. It came in the 117th minute, agonizingly close to the end of the match and a US World Cup win. Sawa would get a touch on the ball, which then took a carom off Abby Wambach. Unfortunately, Hope Solo was going the other way, and the ball found the net. At this point I was worried. Twice we had dealt what I thought was a death blow to Japan. And twice they fought back, carrying all that momentum on their side into PK's. While I had faith in the best keeper in the world and the women that would be taking the PK's, I did not have a good feeling about the shootout for some reason.
The Americans would start badly. Shannon Boxx stepped up and fired to the right side of the goal. Ayumi Kaihori guessed correctly but was under the ball with her body. She was able to kick up her right leg however and make the save with her shin guard. Aya Miyama would step up and slot the ball home on the right side of the goal as Hope guessed the other way. So it was 1-0 Japan. Carli Lloyd stepped up with a chance to equalize, but did not take a good kick and put the ball well over the crossbar. Yuki Nagasato would step up, but Hope came up huge and made the save to stoke the hope of US fans. It was still 1-0 Japan at this point.
The US would call upon Tobin Heath to get them on the board. Unfortunately, she had her try saved as the US would start 0-3 for penalty kicks. It was shocking after the 5-5 against Brazil. it just goes to show you how soccer can differ from game to game, even for the best teams and players. At this point, that sinking feeling in my stomach was surfacing. It would get worse as Mizuho Sakaguchi would score to put Japan up 2-0. The shot was at the low, left corner of the goal. Hope guessed correctly, and got her hand on the ball, but she didn't get enough of her hand in front of the ball. In what was almost a beautiful save, the result ended up getting into the back of the net.
Abby Wambach simply had to score and then pray that Solo could stand tall and keep them in it. Abby did come through with a goal to close the gap to 2-1. However, the US would need misses or saves from the last two Japan penalty takers and have to score their 5th attempt to keep things going. It was not to be for the US, as Saki Kumagai blasted her kick high into the center of the net to pull of a shocking upset. Japan had won PK's 3-1 (and 5-3 overall), and the World Cup trophy. For Japan, hysteria would ensue. For the US, we would feel what we caused Brazil and France to feel. Although second in the World Cup is nothing to scoff at, for me it felt like a chance escaped. And here are my 3 key ideas that pushed Japan over the top.
1. As I just hit on, Japan US-ed the US. By this, I mean they gave us a taste of their own medicine. And they did that by using the very ethos that the USWNT did- they never gave up, no matter how bleak things looked. And that was not just the case for the final game, they have done it all tournament. No one expected them to get nearly as far as they did. And they played with tremendous heart all the way through, even though it was ultimately at the expense of my beloved US team. It certainly is hard when the coin is flipped, but the feelings I have must be the same ones Brazil fans felt after we continually refused to give up and ultimately beat them. And it surely is what France was feeling after we beat them despite being dominated much of the match. Control the game almost from start to finish, but not get the win due to not finishing chances or just soccer being cruel in general. France was the better team for most of that game, yet the US didn't give up and found a way to win. As Japan did in the final.
And that is the first big point to take away. Desire and heart are great equalizers. How many times have you seen a team that was written off and not given a chance shock everyone with a win? I think the US was clearly the better team, and given a replay, would likely win. But, when everything comes down to one game, and you have your back against the wall, some teams are able to find a hard-to-define characteristic that can level the playing field. Despite being slower, smaller, not as skillful, etc., these teams are able to use this characteristic to do things no one gave them the chance to do. The US has done this plenty of times in various sports, even in this very women's World Cup. The Miracle on Ice would probably be the best example of this taking into account all US sports events in history. I don't think anyone expected that team to win, even the players. Yet they had some special intangibles that allowed them to shock the world. Unfortunately yesterday, it was at our expense, as we have done to others so many times. Which brings me to my second point.
2. You can't underestimate the motivation that a special or tragic event can give to a team. Japan has gone through some horrible events recently, and they have the sympathy of everyone. However, I actually told many of my friends that, despite the wide talent discrepancy between the teams, I would have rather had the US face a tougher Sweden team than Japan. And that's because of what they have battled through. And when they kept winning, and the press kept saying how they were helping to heal a nation, it set the stage for what would eventually happen. Tragic events have a way of helping bring people together, and help people and team achieve together what they normally couldn't apart. When Japan won that semifinal game unexpectedly, I knew right away that they would have a special motivation that could possibly allow them to pull off the unthinkable. Think back to how 9/11 was for the US. I remember how good the feeling was when everyone was pulling together as one. And I will never forget the various sporting events and their special tributes to help try to heal the nation. Although I despise him now, Sammy Sosa carrying the US flag around the bases after hitting that home run was so memorable to me. And seeing all the US flags waving in the crowd was simply amazing.
While the events of 9/11 differ from the exact events that Japan has faced recently, the feeling is still the same. Japan was able to take a terrible tragedy and use that to push them to something greater than anyone thought they could achieve. No, winning the World Cup will not fix all their problems. But I remember how good it felt in 2001 just to turn on the TV and see people pulling together. Special motivating factors like this also can be great equalizers no matter who the contestants are.
3. The final point is finishing. No matter what sport you play and what league you play in, the best teams finish on a regular basis. And the US did this for the most part in the World Cup. However, no matter how good the team, sometimes it's not your day and that lack of finishing can come back to haunt you. And that's what happened. The US could have had 5 goals, icing the game and winning the Cup. They had all the chances, controlled play, and dominated. But, at the end of the day, the team that had only a few chances somehow came out ahead. And that is the maddening thing with all sports, and especially soccer. One team can totally dominate another, but that other team can still win, even if they only have 1 or 2 prime chances but they end up taking those.
And this ties in with what I mentioned earlier. I don't think the US choked. Although we did hit the bar/post 3 times, that is something that can happen in any match. The fact is, when we had 2 really good opportunities in the 2nd half, we put them both away. Japan scored because of a fluke defensive gaffe, which happens, and a deflection, which also happens a lot. Yes, the US could have done better early on and converted some of those post shots. But, the best teams hit posts (and the Fire make a habit of it). They were close but sometimes it just doesn't work out. Choking to me is totally collapsing, committing huge errors, and giving up/quitting in the end and never even giving a decent fight. The US controlled the game, had some close chances miss, and then lost in PK's. Other than Lloyd's miss, the Japan keeper just made some really good saves. The US put the ball on frame 3 out of 4 times, but it didn't work out. The fact that PK's are a notoriously fickle way to to decide a game also factors into this. Some called the PK debacle a choke, but the US just got beat in that shootout, plain and simple. They put the shots there, but some nice saves were made. And at the end of the day, the US came up short, even though they have come out ahead so many times. You can't win them all, even though that doesn't make me feel any better.
It truly was a bitter pill to swallow for myself and millions of other US fans. It's always hard to say congrats to the other team after a tough loss, but after reflection, that's all I can say about Japan. They showed US like fight and determination, and bested us at our own game, even if it was only 1 time. I would have much rather lost to Japan than a team like Brazil after the antics they pulled. In the end, congrats should be given to both teams. The US women represented the country proudly, and played a hell of a Cup. They gave us memorable games, goals, and moments. It's always hard to lose when you are so close to winning it all. But in the end they had a wonderful run and should be commended. Now it's time to focus on the upcoming Olympics and the next World Cup.