Aug. 17, 2008
By Michael Lewis
THE FINAL STEP
U.S. women meet Japan again in semis
Beijing, China -- Well, here we go again, the USA vs. Japan in the Olympic women's soccer tournament, this time for a spot in gold-medal match.
On paper, Monday's encounter at Workers Stadium should be pointing toward an American victory, the United States has dominated the series between the two countries with a rather impressive 18-0-3 record. But numbers sometimes can be worth their weight in paper at such high-level tournaments.
Just remember why the U.S. and Japan are playing in the same bracket of the tournament.
Needing a major switch in goal differential with Norway to avoid playing Brazil and Germany in much tougher side of the bracket, the U.S. rolled to a 4-0 triumph over New Zealand in its final opening-round game. Japan did its part and then some, stunning favored Norway, 5-1.
The Norwegians are history, having been eliminated by Brazil, 2-0, in Friday's quarterfinals.
Three days after staggering to a 2-0 loss to Norway, the Americans defeated the Japanese, 1-0, Sawa is. 9 in a game that could have gone either way.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage felt the key to the U.S. success will be its midfield and how patient the team will be in the match 9 p.m. local match (MSNBC, Universal HD and the NBC Olympic Soccer Channel, 9 a.m. ET).
"I think its about our midfield," she said. "It is about to keep possession, be patient because they [are so good] in the attacking third. They keep possession inside that box. So we don't want to defend that much. We want to actually put them under pressure and then we will be patient, build up the attack and not too eager to find the final pass."
The Americans must restrict forward Sawa, considered hands down Japan's best female soccer player ever. She started her pro career at the age of 12 and made her international debut at 15, striking for four goals in her first match against the Philippines. A former Women's United Soccer Association star with the Atlanta Beat. Sawa is tied with Brazilian Cristiane for the tournament goal-scoring lead with three goals apiece. She still has a powerful shot and has plenty of pace to her game for someone her age (Sawa will turn 30 Sept. 6).
Just ask U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was called on to make a pair of saves against Sawa. She tipped Sawa's 18-yard free kick from the left side with her right hand over the net in the 22nd minute. She was called on barely a minute later to catch Sawa's line-drive shot from the right side after she intercepted a poor clearance from defender Christie Rampone.
Japan's diminutive keeper Miho Fukumoto, all 5-5 and 146-lbs., will be called upon to guard the woodwork again. Carli Lloyd managed to solve Fukumoto in the 27th minute for the lone goal of the match, which restored the Americans' confidence after a forgettable start and performance against the Norwegians three days prior.
"We've had some hard games so far, but were progressing nicely as a team," Japan coach Norio Sasaki said. "We are hoping we can continue to get better and get a result against the USA in Beijing. We will be ready."
The U.S. has won six in a row against Japan after playing three consecutive draws.
The winner will play the survivor of the Germany-Brazil match-up in Shanghai at 6 p.m. Monday (6 a.m. ET).
Those two sides battled to a scoreless tie in their Group F opener Aug. 6. They both won their final two first-round matches and went on to record three consecutive victories.
Many observers are touting this semifinal as the unofficial gold medal match with the survivor being overwhelming favorites in Thursday's final.
They have played the more difficult of the two brackets, with North Korea and Nigeria in their group.
The Brazilians play their usual samba soccer and when they're on they're fun to watch and devastating to the opposition. Marta, FIFA's women's world player of the year two years running, is the focal point of the attack, although she has "only" two goals. Don't let those stats deceive you. She is complemented by Cristiane and Daniela (two goals).
The Germans, the only women's team to win back-to-back world championships, will be gunning for its gold medal. Once an imposing force offensively, goalkeeping is the European side's strong point with Nadine Angerer in the nets. Combined with last year's 2007 WWC, Angerer and Germany have not allowed a goal in 900 minutes, spanning 10 games. That is a remarkable accomplishment at this level.
It's the other side of the ball that has the Germans concerned. They have scored but four times in as many games.
Striker Birgit Prinz, who usually can find the back of the net blind-folded (she scored the first goal in Germany's 2-0 win over Brazil in the 2007 WWC final, has endured a nightmare tournament to date, having failed to score a goal in 360 minutes. That sounds like blasphemy for someone who has struck fear into the hearts and minds of opposing defenders and midfielders.
Add the fact that Prinz is a three-time FIFA women's player of the year and has scored 121 times in 183 international appearances and you have to wonder what has happened to her game. She still has time to turn this tournament around, but time is running out.