How should you watch the 2015 World Cup final between the USA and Japan? With enthusiasm and pride! With friends and family. In your living room, in a bar, in a public park or town square. Television coverage begins at 5 p.m. ET on Fox with the opening kickoff happening at 7 p.m. promptly.
What’s the plot?
Four years ago, Japan shocked the world by beating the United States in the 2011 World Cup championship game. Despite Japan’s sentimental appeal, playing for a country facing the aftermath of the triple earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown disasters, no one expected them to be able to beat the United States. The United States was stacked with talented players and had proven itself in two giant knockout round wins over Brazil and France. The American team was the wolf and Japan was expected to be the sheep. Alas for the United States, no one asked the classic red carpet question, “What are you wearing?” As it turned out, the answer was “sheep’s clothing” and Japan showed itself to be the bigger, badder wolf, answering both U.S. goals with tallies of their own and triumphing in the resulting penalty shootout.
Four years later, the same two teams meet, and what’s at stake is legacy. Japan already has one title over the powerful American team. If they win today, they will ink their names into the history books as the ultimate World Cup performers — and the ultimate kryptonite to the United States. If the U.S. team wins, they’ll erase the memories of the 2011 team, a team that at the time was remembered more for its dramatic last second victory over Brazil than for its loss to Japan, but who, as time has gone by has been remembered more and more for its inability to bring home the cup. A U.S. win would end a generation of coming up short. For veteran players like, Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, Heather O’Reilly, and of course, Abby Wambach, this is their last chance to leave the game with a World Cup championship on their resumes, and even though they have not played as large roles on this team as in past World Cups, it’s their legacies that are on the line today.
The United States had the hardest path through the Group Stage of any of the top-level teams. They opened the World Cup with a 3-1 win over Australia, a scoreline that disguises how close Australia was to scoring the upset. Next the U.S. team played a listless 0-0 draw against Sweden. At this point, doubts and criticism began to swirl around the team. A lackluster 1-0 victory over Nigeria, supposedly the weakest team in the group, did not help things. So, despite winning their group, the U.S. team was not looking all that strong. They then beat a feisty Colombia team in the Round of Sixteen, while still looking less dominant than people expected. It wasn’t until the next game, against China, that the team truly started looking like the overwhelming team we knew it could be. Tactical changes forced by suspensions to two midfielders, Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, seemed to be the reason. This left coach Jill Ellis with quite the conundrum going into the team’s semifinal against a very scary German team who was favored to win the entire tournament: go back to the tactics of the first several games or choose to bench the now no-longer suspended Rapinoe and Holiday? She chose option C – change formations entirely and play those players but in different roles. It worked and remarkably, the U.S. dominated the Germans and advanced to the championship game today!
If anything, Japan has had an even more impressive run to the finals than the United States. They’ve won every single game they’ve played. Admittedly, their Group Stage matches were against inferior teams – Switzerland, Cameroon, and Ecuador, nor have they played against anyone as good as Germany, the United States, or France in the Knockout round. In their first elimination game, they beat a talented Netherlands team that’s probably four years away from being a true World Cup challenger. They moved on to face Australia, who almost found a way to upset Japan despite losing the possession battle soundly. In the semifinals, Japan beat England on that horrible 92nd minute own goal. If there were any justice in soccer, England and Japan would have played another 30 minutes of soccer and potentially a shootout to decide who moved on to the championship game. Who knows what would have happened? Throughout all of their games, Japan has possessed the ball more than their opponents but despite moments of brilliance, they’ve mostly done just enough to win, not looked dominant.
Who are the characters?
Jill Ellis – Questioned throughout most of the tournament, Ellis shut up her detractors by pressing all the right tactical buttons during the United States’ semifinal match against Germany. With success has come respect for how she’s managed the many big personalities on the team as well as the strategic choices. All that will be for naught if her team loses today.
Carli Lloyd – Through the first four games of the tournament, it wasn’t clear “whose” team this was. Now it’s pretty clear — it’s Carli Lloyd’s team. With one more captivating performance, it will be her ferocious midfield play and intensity that people remember when they think of the 2015 World Cup side.
Abby Wambach – “Win one for Abby” has been a rallying cry for the team throughout its World Cup run. She’s the greatest international goal-scorer of all time but she’s never won a World Cup. To all appearances, she’s gracefully accepted a reduced role over the last several games. She’s okay coming off the bench as a super sub. She just wants a World Cup championship.
Morgan Brian – The youngest player on the team, Brian has proven to be one of the most indispensable. An attacking player by nature, Brian has been asked to play as a defensive midfielder and has done it wonderfully. This has been enormous for the U.S. team because it came to the tournament with five or six natural attacking midfielders and only one defensive midfielder, the 38 year-old Shannon Boxx, who has barely played over the past year.
Julie Johnston – Johnston had the most dramatic night of anyone during the U.S. semifinal win over Germany. She committed the foul that gave Germany a penalty kick and its best chance to take control of the match. She was up and down the field, on offense, and defense, exhausting herself and taking a physical pounding. She seems to be made of steel but how much can she really have recovered from Tuesday’s game? She’ll need to be at full strength tonight.
Meet the rest of the United States team with our player profiles here
Aya Miyami – The current captain of the Japanese team, Aya Miyami, is a wizard in the midfield. She seems to have eyes in the back of her head and is able to pass to open players, seemingly by sonar or telepathy. She’ll take most of the team’s free kicks and other set pieces. She’ll have to be perfect tonight for Japan to have a chance.
Homare Sawa – Sawa is Japan’s answer to Abby Wambach. Once a star, now she’s a legend who plays in a secondary role and often comes in off the bench. In the battle of legends, it’s most likely that neither player will be the deciding factor in the game, but how fascinating would it be if Sawa came through with something amazing?
Norio Sasaki – With all of the focus on Jill Ellis and the decisions facing her, it’s easy to forget that there’s a coach on the other side — and a proud World Cup winning coach too. What tricks will Sasaki have up his sleeve when the teams enter the arena tonight?
Who’s going to win?
The United States has won games in many different ways this World Cup, but they’ve never had game where they were simply dominant from the starting kickoff to the last whistle. This is partially because they were in the “group of death” with three other very strong teams to start the tournament: Australia (the only team to score against the United States), Sweden (the only team to get a draw against the United States), and Nigeria. However, it’s also true that the United States team has been improving steadily from the moment it started its tournament to last Tuesday’s triumphant victory over Germany. In this final game of the tournament, I expect the U.S. team to be running on all cylinders. I expect them to be too powerful, too savvy, and too skilled for the Japanese team. I wrote before the semifinals that the winner of the USA vs. Germany game would be the enormous favorite in the championship game. Although I’m currently experiencing pre-game nervousness and although I’m superstitiously hesitant to jinx the team, I’m going to stick to my guns and predict a win for the United States. More than just a win, I expect a coronation. The U.S. will score early and maintain control of the game throughout.