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USA-Japan: Two teams of destiny, one champion

Japan and the United States square-off in the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup final on Sunday (kick-off is set for 2:45 p.m. ET on ESPN) in a meeting of two teams looking to fulfill their destinies and give their storybook tournament runs a happy ending. Both stories have been inspirational in their own very ways, but only one team will be able to claim it is world champion at the end of the day.

Women’s soccer in the U.S. is enjoying more buzz than ever. It’s evident everywhere. No American can watch the news or ESPN without seeing and hearing about the U.S. Women’s National Team. For at least this little one week stretch, women’s soccer is at the top of every sportscast.

This match is a very big deal in Japan as well. The team is carrying the weight of an entire nation on its shoulders. Japan’s run in this tournament is helping a nation cope with tragedy, but it also serves as a distraction from reality for the players on this team. Their story is miraculous, but the pressure on this team is far less than the pressure that rests on the United States.

Win or lose, Japan will go home as winners in the eyes of the world. That won’t satisfy the Nadasiko, as the team is so affectionately known, but the story will still be uplifting. Prior to the tournament, captain and heartbeat of the team Homare Sawa, told me that the goal is to win the gold medal and eclipse the team’s fourth place finish in the 2008 Olympics. They have accomplished at least half of that at this point.

But even if they lose, they have exceeded expectations. This is Japan’s sixth Women’s World Cup and only once previously had the team gotten out of the group stage. It did that again this time around, but only to face Germany in the quarterfinals. At that point, most though ‘it was a nice run for Japan.’ Hold that thought.

Japan topped Germany 1-0 in the quarterfinals and dismantled Sweden 3-1 in Wednesday’s semifinal to find its way here. That’s just as hard of a path as the United States has had against superpower Brazil (comparable to Germany) and France, a rising power on the verge of the next level.

The United States, the world’s top-ranked team, and No. 4-ranked Japan are, by the definition of being in the final, currently the two best teams in the world. Alright, maybe that’s an overstatement. These two teams have found ways to win better than any other team at the current time. But still, there is no arguing that they are both elite squads. And yet neither was really expected to be here.

Japan was tapped for another early exit. I’ll admit it, I had them pegged for another group stage exit. In reality that is overly harsh, but nobody predicted that Japan would make a run like this.

Likewise, the American media hammered this U.S. team over the course of the past year. The headlines were already written for how American soccer had fallen to new lows. Half of those stories were probably prematurely published in the 121st minute of the USA-Brazil match. And then Abby Wambach’s header changed everything.

Even as the world No. 1, the U.S. was expected by most pundits to fall on its face. Now the team finds itself playing for a World Cup title, which would be the third for the U.S. A third title would send the Americans one clear of Germany, the country which is currently tied with the U.S. for most all-time Women’s World Cup titles (two).

But the U.S. has proved that it has a will to win, even while being outplayed by teams like France. Prior to the tournament in The Complete Guide to the Women’s World Cup, I wrote this:

“These players are built for winning, not necessarily playing beautiful soccer for 90 minutes.”

That is exactly the road (the “different road”) that they have taken. Out played tremendously by France and at times by Brazil, the U.S. still found its way to the final. But now it faces the daunting task of the world’s most result-oriented country watching by the masses, expecting a win. Most people watching this game won’t be soccer fans, they’ll just be proud Americans. To them, a loss is unthinkable, unimaginable and downright inexcusable.

Sorry folks, but it is anything but. Japan, despite being 0-22-3 all-time against the United States, is a serious threat. Writing them off would be both naive and stupid. Homare Sawa, likely the current leader for the Golden Ball (MVP) award and currently tied for the Golden Boot, is the heart of this team. Prior to this tournament, she told me this:

“I’ve more experience than any other player and I think I understand how and when things change during the game. For that reason, I sometimes bring the team together by vocal, but I’m one of the leaders who lead the team with good play. I want to keep running until the final whistle.”

She certainly does keep running until the final whistle. Sawa is Japan’s hero. Abby Wambach is huge in the United States, but Sawa is an icon in Japan as well. Don’t be surprised if Japan, with Sawa, finds a way to win Sunday’s match. Japan should out-possess the United States, but whether or not the Nadeshiko can finish their chances is key.

Likewise, the United States will, yet again, need to defend well and take advantage of the opportunities it gets, particularly in the air. After all, the Americans have that Wambach player. I hear she is good in the air.

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