In US-Japan Olympic soccer final, a triumph for women's sport
The US beat Japan, 2-1, in the Olympic women's soccer final Thursday, avenging a loss to Japan in the World Cup final last year. But on this night, every medalist went away a winner.
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Here was America trying to turn the game into a track meet, flooding forward at every opportunity to try to overrun the Japanese. And here was Japan, trying to slow the game down into a chess match, to make pass after pass after pass until the fabric of the American defense unraveled.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Week Two of the Olympics
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Both strategies worked at times, and at the end, the fact that the game was not tied – or the result reversed – was more due to the heroics of American goalkeeper Hope Solo than any deficiency on the part of the Japanese. Indeed, Japan played appreciably better in this game, which it lost, than in the 2011 World Cup final, which it won on penalty kicks and with a huge dose of opportunism.
Thursday, America struck first, in the 18th minute, with a goal taken directly from its playbook – a sweeping move of devastating speed.
Midfielder Shannon Boxx, whose calm America had missed since her injury in the first game of the Olympics, started the move with a brilliant cross-field ball that unbalanced the Japanese defense. From there, Tobin Heath slipped a through-ball to Alex Morgan, who controlled it well before lobbing the ball in front of the goal. Carli Lloyd, typically barreling through from midfield like an 18-wheeler with no brakes, met the ball with her head, and the US was up, 1-0.
The score should have been 1-1 within 10 minutes, as Ms. Solo was forced to full stretch to parry a header by Japanese forward Yuki Ogimi. It was surely the save of the tournament.
As the half wore on, Japan came into the game more and more as America fell back and allowed Japan space in midfield. The USA’s forays forward became more disjointed, trying to build on individual skill rather than team play, while Japan stayed organized, moving forward and backward as a unit and trying to break down the US through its system of intricate interplay.
With the US getting passed off the pitch, it had to change tactics and buckle down on defense. “This is not the way we wanted to play,” said Ms. Sundhage, paying tribute to the Japanese. “This is the way we were forced to play.”
And indeed, the US struck next though a lightning strike of individual skill. Carli Lloyd picked up the ball at midfield in the 54th minute. When she had finished, the ball was in the net and Japanese defenders were trailing in her wake – another tractor-trailer 40-yard run finished with a high-octane shot to the corner.
Ten minutes later, Japan had responded – in character and deliciously. The goal, crafted on Japan’s passing carousel, was a thing of beauty. Though a bit scrambled at the end, the setup play was ecstatic, the tick-tick-tick of the Japanese passing eventually lulling the US to sleep and then Shinobu Ohno opening a seam in the defense with a through-pass to Homare Sawa, whose shot was blocked, but Ms. Ogimi eventually bundled it in.
“The way Japan plays is the future of the women’s game,” Sundhage said.
But a second would not come, and as the clock neared 90 minutes, desperation saw Japan abandon their possession play in favor of increasingly manic breaks forward, which the US parried with comparative ease. It was only when Christie Rampone made a lazy pass out of the back, which was intercepted by Asuna Tanaka, that Japan threatened – and then Solo again made a brilliant fingertip save.
There were Japanese tears, for a moment at the final whistle, but when the team came back out for the medal ceremony, perspective had been restored. As the the Canadians received their bronze medals for their last-second win over the French earlier in the day, the Japanese women twittered like schoolgirls on a playground, choreographing a collective bow to the crowd before stepping on the podium.
The giddiness was understandable. On a delightful midsummer’s eve in one of the great cathedrals of the sport, just about everything had gone right, and everyone had a medal to remember it.