In many ways, Thursday afternoon’s Gold Medal women’s soccer match (2:45 p.m. ET, NBC Sports) between the United States (5-0-0) and Japan (3-0-2) at Wembley Stadium has been more than a year in the making. That is because Japan beat the U.S., 3-1, in penalty kicks on July 17, 2011 to capture the last Women’s World Cup. Since then, the two teams have forged by far the best rivalry in the sport. This will be the fourth time they’ve met in 2012 and so far, they are tied 1-1-1.
Last year, the Japanese snuck up on the Americans since their country was recovering from the tsunamis and nobody knew what to expect from a squad that was always good but never the champion. Maybe that added motivation put them over the top since Japan was the heavy underdog against the U.S. last summer. That won’t happen this time around since everyone understands now what a formidable opponent they have proven to be. Japan’s style is much like the Patriots as they are more focused on the team approach rather than star players trying to do everything themselves.
The U.S. women enter the Gold Medal match with high expectations since not only have they won the last two finals at the Olympics but four of the five all-time. They had to rally three times against Canada in the semifinals and pulled out a remarkable 4-3 victory thanks to Alex Morgan’s goal in the 122nd minute (seconds away from penalty kicks). Morgan and fellow striker Abby Wambach are a deadly combination that can be basically unstoppable to opposing defenses. Midfielder Megan Rapinoe (who scored twice against Canada) is the team’s most creative force who always seems to make things happen. Their main question mark is on the defensive end, where they got shredded by Canadian striker Christine Sinclair for a hat trick. Goalkeeper Hope Solo has a big mouth and is kind of a lunatic, but she’s probably the best player at her position in the world so more power to her.
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I believe the key to the match could be which team is able to possess the ball. Both usually wear out the opposition by making them defend for a majority of the game. Japan rarely makes mistakes so the U.S. has to capitalize on their superior talent upfront with Morgan and Wambach. I can almost guarantee the final score will be decided by one goal either way so whichever team can grab the first goal will be doing themselves a big favor. Japan beat France 2-1 in the semifinals and they were up 2-0 so they understand the value of playing with a lead. Conversely, the U.S. cannot expect to pull out another insane comeback against a squad that won’t make the same mental and physical mistakes that Canada did.
There have been rumors of U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage retiring after the Olympics so I think her team sends her out with a gold medal against their toughest opponent that gives them the most problems.