United States vs. Japan: Key Battles to Watch in Women's Olympic Soccer Final
Japan and the United States seemed to be on a collision course from the outset of the Olympics, and the highly anticipated re-match will take place on Thursday.
Japan defeated the U.S. on penalty kicks in the 2011 World Cup final and continued their success against the Americans in friendlies afterwards. Eventually the USWNT picked up a victory over the world champions in 2012, when they captured their first win, 4-1, over Japan since the World Cup on June 18.
The Olympic gold medal match is different than a friendly, and both teams have looked great in London.
Here are five battles you will want to watch.
U.S. Set Piece Offense vs. Japan Set Piece Defense
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These are the two best set piece teams in the world.
The U.S. utilizes their size and strength to overpower their opponents, and will have that same advantage over Japan.
Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and the rest have a distinct advantage in the air over Japan. The difficult part will be getting the set pieces to take advantage of the mismatches since Japan is extremely disciplined and rarely give them up.
The best bet would be corner kicks. With the pressure and pace of the U.S. attack, it will be likely they can earn several corners but unlikely that Japan will foul and give them a free kick.
It will be important that Megan Rapinoe continues her phenomenal run at the Games and services the ball well. The U.S. cannot afford to give away chances against Japan with poor corners. Once the ball is in the air, the USWNT's aerial assault will be key.
Japan Set Piece Offense vs. U.S. Set Piece Defense
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As I previously stated, Japan and the U.S. are the best two set-piece teams in the world.
Where the U.S. uses their size and strength, Japan relies on precision.
Aya Miyama is one of the best players in the world on corner and free kicks. Both of her semifinal goals against France were off her free kicks. She is incredibly dangerous.
The USWNT has to be careful not to foul Japan and give them opportunities to score through the air. Skill trumps size, and Japan is definitely skilled enough to take advantage of a mistake to capture gold.
Whichever side limits set pieces will likely have the better chance to win the match.
Pia Sundhage vs. Norio Sasaki
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The tactics that the coaches set for their squads will be important as always, but what may be more important is who comes off the benches in the second half.
Both sides have talent throughout their 18-woman rosters. Both semifinal matches showed that Japan and the U.S. are able to send in players off the bench and not lose an ounce of talent.
However, it was Sundhage that showed a huge wrinkle against Canada. Down 3-2 she made the call to switch from a 4-4-2 to a 3-4-3 by sending in Sydney Leroux to replace Amy LePeilbet. Might that be something we see against Japan late in the match?
The tactical battle between the two head coaches will be intriguing to watch. What will the starting line-ups be? When will the first change be made? Who will it be? Interesting questions that will be answered on Thursday.
Abby Wambach & Alex Morgan vs. Japan's Backline
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It is clichéd to mention Morgan and Wambach in every article, but it is hard to avoid it.
I mentioned the size and power advantage during set pieces, but that also extends to normal play. Abby Wambach will be able to physically dominate the Japanese defenders who try to stop her.
Wambach's goal against Colombia demonstrated her strength as she won the ball. Wambach is a physical force on the pitch.
As for Alex Morgan, it is her speed that will give Japan problems.
Prior to Morgan having the starting role, Amy Rodriguez was opposite Wambach. When the USWNT played Japan, it was almost always Rodriguez getting on the board, thanks to her speed. Morgan can exploit Japan in the same fashion.
The combination of speed and power is what makes the U.S. the best offensive team in the world. They can exploit their competitors' weaknesses is once they discover them. Japan's defense will have to play another remarkable game, much like they did last summer to stop this dynamic duo.
U.S. Midfield vs. Japan Midfield
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The midfield is the key to the gold medal.
The U.S. have spent a lot of their time in 2012 trying to become a better possession team, and that is no mistake. After losing to Japan in the World Cup final, they knew where they had to improve, as Japan's midfield is exquisite.
Japan controls the speed of the game by keeping possession of the ball and making the other team chase them around the pitch for the majority of the game. When they show a glimmer of weakness, the ball ends up in the back of the net.
The new USWNT midfield of Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Lauren Cheney and Megan Rapinoe have had much better ball control. Heath and Rapinoe were amazing on the ball against Canada. However, there were still numerous passing errors in the match that allowed Canada to take it away and challenge the defense.
The match will be decided in the midfield. Whichever team is able to play their style will win Olympic gold.