The stage has been set. The 2012 women’s Olympic soccer gold-medal game will be a rematch of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final that featured Japan against Team USA.
Japan, of course, won the World Cup final in a penalty shootout that saw Team USA miss its first three kicks.
The score in regulation and overtime, however, was knotted at two goals apiece, so these teams are pretty even in terms of talent.
The two teams enter Thursday’s gold-medal match with very different styles of play, though. The Americans feature a high-octane offense, with Alex Morgan, Abby Wambach and Megan Rapinoe leading the way.
The Japanese feature a stout defense, led by goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto, who is replacing Ayumi Kaihori. Kaihori was in goal for the World Cup shootout stopping the Americans and clinching the gold medal for Japan.
And, of course, stopping midfielder Aya Miyama from delivering pinpoint passes into the box will be a top priority for Team USA as well.
So, with a lot of the same cast and crew appearing for both teams in this gold-medal match, what’s to keep the game from having the same outcome as in 2011?
It all comes down to Team USA. This team wasn’t challenged very much during either group play or the knockout stages of the World Cup, losing only to Sweden in a meaningless group stage game and being forced to penalty shots by Brazil in the quarterfinals.
This version of Team USA has had its work cut out for them from the start of the Olympic tournament.
Who will win Thursday's gold-medal match?
In the Americans’ very first game, they fell behind France after two goals in the first 15 minutes.
But, they never lost faith and came roaring back with four unanswered goals to win the match.
Then, in the semifinal against Canada, Team USA needed every last second to avoid a penalty shootout. Alex Morgan scored in the final seconds of stoppage time in the second overtime period to give the Americans a dramatic 4-3 victory.
Japan, on the other hand, has cruised through the knockout stage, beating Brazil 2-0 and France 2-1.
They haven’t been tested very much, and that might hurt them against the ferocity of Team USA’s offensive attack.
Expect Team USA to come out with a chip on its shoulder and for the Americans to show the world why they are the No. 1-ranked women’s soccer team in the world.