You surely recollect that Japan won the 2011 World Cup and likely have Carli Lloyd’s 50-yard all-time goal four years later in the 2015 rematch final near the top of your women’s soccer memories.
But, like the other teams competing in the Tournament of Nations in the next week, Japan kind of falls off the radar in between major tournaments. And if your brain, even with sufficient rattling, fails to come up with Japan’s 2016 Olympic performances, you haven’t gone crazy. Japan crashed out of Olympic qualifying in Asia last March with a 2-1 loss to China, who had dominated them for most of women’s soccer history, but not in recent times.
Despite the back-to-back World Cup final appearances, Japan didn’t wait around to see if things would turn back around, firing coach Norio Sasaki, promoting former youth coach Asako Takakura, and immediately replacing veteran players with new blood.
For those who weren’t paying close attention to the youth ranks, this wasn’t exactly the Japanese hitting the panic button. The Nadeshiko had put together a cadre of dominant teams at almost all youth ages, winning the 2014 U-17 World Cup and, although Japan was upset by France in the 2016 U-20 World Cup semifinals, putting up a +10 goal differential in the group stage and crushing Brazil in the quarterfinals.
And so, without a major tournament until 2019, Japan – despite all its success – hit the reset button. The early results have been mixed at best. Losses to Spain and the Netherlands at the Algarve Cup left the Nadeshiko in sixth place. Five months later, Japan comes to the United States with an even younger squad than it had in Portugal thanks to some injuries and leaving their captain (Saki Kumagai) off the roster.
Takakura’s starting lineup Thursday against Brazil had eight players 23 years of age or younger, including the goalkeeper (Ayako Yamashita, 21) and three-quarters of the backline (Ayumi Oya, 22; center back Nana Ichese, 19; Miho Manya, 20 and earning her first cap). There will be growing pains and some of them were on display, but they dealt fairly well with Marta and company, and knocked the ball around the way Japan has become known for.
Will they be exposed against the United States when the two get together? Does it matter in July or August of 2017? And can they really do any worse than they did when they met in the World Cup final two summers ago? Two years and whatever number of caps later, most of this Japan team will line up in France, likely much more experienced and one of the favorites to make it three straight World Cup finals.
What else did we learn Thursday from the non-United States teams?:
Brazil’s defense is experienced, but still showed some liabilities
Anchored by Andreia Rosa (33) and Monica (30), who seemed out of position, Brazil went with a high line in the first half as it has in the past, and probably should have been punished more than they were, as Barbara stopped a couple of Japanese breakaways. We’ll see if they’re as lucky in their next two matches. Their youngsters, Ludmila and Gabi Nunes, were not as noticeable as some of Japan’s, although it should be pointed out that Andressinha and Camila are each only 22 and showed well.
Where are goals coming from for Japan?
One of the dangers of playing such a young lineup is the lack of a proven striker at this level. Kumi Yokoyama plays in Germany (Frankfurt) so it seems like she will be the one looked at first. It was Yuka Momiki, who played in a few of those youth matches, who eventually scored for Japan, and as I said earlier, this is the time for players like her to get that experience, so in two years, she will be ready to score a big goal in a knockout stage match in France.
Australia is now a bonafide world power. Now what?
Contrary to Japan, Australia has not even qualified for the U-20 World Cup since 2006, which is slightly misleading. But, even as things have gotten better and better for the Matildas, they still have never been to the semifinals of a major tournament. There is still plenty of youth to go around, Sam Kerr is still only 23, Katrina Gorry 24, Alanna Kennedy 22 (and a few others).
But now do they make the jump to being a world champion? Some of it you obviously may have seen Thursday night. All the players mentioned above are coming into the prime of their careers, and despite a gruesome 0-25-2 all-time mark against the United States, Australia had no fear thanks to a combination of familiarity and confidence.
So they are right there. But they’ll need that extra bit of fortune as well. Australia did give up a few golden chances in the final minutes that the USWNT was nice enough not to take. However, you saw at the final whistle how much this win meant to the Matildas, as it should. They do still have two more games to play in this tournament, though, remember.