Women's Olympic Soccer 2012: 6 Bold Predictions for Gold Medal Match
Team USA will be looking for revenge in addition to their fifth Olympic gold medal in women's soccer when they take on Japan Thursday.
Japan were in cruise control for much of their match against France, and they have their opponents to thank almost as much as an excellent defense for their spot in the final.
The U.S. meanwhile did it the hard way against Canada, going down three times to Christine Sinclair and the neighbors to the north, but in the end—the very end—Alex Morgan got it done for her country.
Japan broke American hearts in the World Cup final last summer, when they themselves came back from a goal down twice and won the trophy on penalty kicks. While Olympic gold won't make up for losing a World Cup trophy, the U.S. have dominated soccer ever since it became an Olympic sport, and these girls don't want to be the group that fails, again.
France vs. USA might've been the more exciting matchup with a flashier style of play, but it's hard to argue that the gold medal match Thursday doesn't feature the top two teams in women's soccer today.
It'll Be a Good, Clean Game
Both semifinal matches saw some rough tackling and a few yellow cards for each side. France attacked Japan quickly, so many times, the World Cup holders lost their shape and were forced to get physical.
Canada vs. the U.S. was physical from the first whistle.
In the gold medal game, don't expect too much of that.
Japan will sit back and rely on their stifling defense, content to let the U.S. come at them, and it usually works as they rarely give away free kicks around their penalty area.
The U.S. meanwhile has gotten better at a slow buildup, so they will not be pressing into the final third with as much urgency as they were against Canada.
Japan gave away a penalty to France, while the U.S. was awarded one against Canada, but that likely won't be the case Thursday. Both sides are usually a little too smart defensively for that.
Won't Be Low-Scoring
Even though Japan have played two 0-0 games at the Olympics, and the last few encounters between these two sides have been low-scoring, this match will not follow that trend.
Team USA has gotten better about not wasting their chances in front of goal—the real reason they lost the World Cup last summer—and these days, they are getting goals from all over the pitch.
On the other side, Japan has improved greatly at set pieces and on the counterattack, which is exactly what has made them so dangerous in the last year.
What's more, both keepers have shown weaknesses at the Olympics.
Hope Solo has allowed five goals, some of which she couldn't do a thing about, but at times, she has not been the Solo of old in goal for the U.S.
Japan have only given up two goals in five games so far, but that's been more due the team's overall defense than keeper Miho Fukumoto. She made some terrific stops against France and Brazil, but she's just as vulnerable as Solo in net.
Japan Will Push Forward
It sounds crazy, but Japan will have to attack if they hope to back up their World Cup with Olympic gold.
Even though the U.S. will leave gaps at the back at times, with the way they have been scoring, Japan can't rely solely on counterattacks and possible set pieces.
What's more, the U.S. will be attacking Japan throughout the match, and the speed of Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan in addition to the constant threat of Abby Wambach, Japan will be forced to abandon their defensive mindset and really mount an attack on Hope Solo and the U.S. defense.
This American team is capable of running up the score if given too many opportunities, and Japan will need to find something to defend.
Alex Morgan Will Cement Her Celebrity Status
Alex Morgan is easily the best young player in women's football, and after Thursday's game, she will be flat out the best player.
On Monday, Morgan ended her three-match scoring drought with the winner against Canada two minutes into stoppage time of extra time. She'd set up several goals for her teammates in the previous three matches and finally found the back of the net herself, and she's not going to stop anytime soon.
Morgan is a pure striker and is one of the most enjoyable to watch in the game today. She's lively, quick, can score with either foot or her head and is always a threat no matter she is on the pitch.
Japan will need to keep a player on her at all times, and even that may not be enough to contain Team USA's future superstar.
Plenty of Thrills in Only 90 Minutes
This U.S. team sure loves the drama, but they've had enough of it. Just like the U.S., Olympic soccer really loves drama, especially in the gold medal game.
The last three finals have gone to extra time, though none have gone to penalties. (In 2000, Norway won thanks to a sudden death goal.)
Team USA just played 120 minutes of drama-filled soccer, and that's plenty.
Though extra time and penalties can be exciting, Japan and the U.S. are going to get it done in regulation this time.
Team USA Will Get Their Revenge
Japan has had Team USA's number much of the last year, and a gold medal is not remotely close to a World Cup trophy, but Hope Solo and Co. won't be the ones to end the U.S. dominance in women's soccer at the Olympics.
Japan are excellent defensively, but the U.S. have been great on the attack this summer and are tougher at the back and better in possession than last summer.
What's more, it's not only Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach Japan need to worry about. Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Kelley O'Hara, Heather O'Reilly and Tobin Heath have all been threats to either score themselves or float a dangerous ball into the area.
Simply put, Team USA will be too much for Japan to defend on Thursday. They have a number of versatile attackers, and as Canada found out, Pia Sundhage isn't afraid to play the 3-4-3.
It won't heal the pain of last summer, but a gold medal on Thursday will be a great building block into finally claiming that third World Cup trophy for Team USA.