Women's World Cup final: Can US cope with Japan's passing carousel?

For the US, the Women's World Cup final Sunday could be similar to the last two matches. Like Brazil and France, Japan could put the US on the back foot. But the US has Abby Wambach.

Matthias Schrader/AP
Japan midfielder Aya Miyama – women's soccer's answer to David Beckham – takes a free kick during the semifinal match between Japan and Sweden at the Women’s World Cup in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday.

Stop us when this begins sounding familiar.

The United States women’s national team is facing one of the up-and-coming teams in the 2011 Women’s World Cup.

The United States women’s power and speed will be pitted against their opponent's superior passing and technical ability.

The United States women are on the verge of silencing the echoes of Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy and the Class of 1999.

OK, you get the point.

First with Brazil in the quarterfinals, then with France in the semifinals, we’ve been here before: The US, twice world champions and three times Olympic champions, is up against a new breed of women’s soccer team – one that has learned the game not by emulating the sport’s traditional powers, but by seeking to revolutionize how the women's game is played.

For a week now, women’s soccer has been playing king of the hill, and the US is the last of the old guard left standing.

Now, it’s Japan’s turn in the Women's World Cup final Sunday. If Brazil is Carnival with corner kicks and France is Rodin in soccer shorts, then Japan is the soccer world’s I.M. Pei.

While the US women bear down on goal as through their tube socks are on fire, legs churning, hair flying, Japan peers out at 100 yards of green grass and sees a geometry problem to be solved.

Remember FoxTrax, that annoying glowing dot that Fox Sports used to put on the hockey puck? Well, if ABC did that with the soccer ball Sunday, the difference between the US and Japan would be instantly obvious.

When the US had the ball, that glowing dot would almost always be moving in one direction: forward. The US attack is a medieval siege, with 10 women attempting to place the ball on the head of their human battering ram, Abby Wambach.

With Japan, however, that glow would form a luminous spider web covering the entire field. Its goal, of course, is a goal, but the players are in no rush. They’ll get there eventually, and they’re not bothered by the prospect of making a pass or two – or 30 – to do it. Forward, backward, sideways – whatever, and usually all done to a clockwork metronome beat.

"They get you on that carousel, and they can leave you dizzy," legendary coach Alex Ferguson once said of the intricate passing of Spanish men’s club Barcelona.

The same is true of the Japanese women, led by midfielder Homare Sawa. And in this way, they are not unlike France, whose Louisa Necib often made the US look like dogs chasing a squirrel until Megan Rapinoe came on with a third of the game left and changed the contest with her speed and energy.

That same storyline could play out again Sunday.

Japan is an upgrade on France, lacking perhaps a dash of the French artistry but more technically sound and never ceasing in their intelligent movement off the ball, constantly probing for weaknesses in the opposing defense. Midfielder Aya Miyama could also be the best free-kick specialist in the world. (Think David Beckham with a hair band.)

Yet for the people of Tokyo – and their women’s team – Godzilla has nothing on Ms. Wambach. The tallest Japanese starter is 5 feet, 7 inches. Wambach is 35 feet tall. Or at least it must feel like that to opposing goalkeepers.

She has beaten consecutive teams by taking advantage of goalkeepers who appeared unable to fathom how tall she is, or perhaps more accurately, how high she can jump. At crucial moments, both Andreia of Brazil and Bérangère Sapowicz of France became fly swatters waving at the charging airborne rhino of Wambach at the far post.

What, exactly, can Japan do to neutralize the size of Wambach and the speed of super subs Rapinoe and Alex Morgan?

It can play its own version of playground bully and never let the US have the ball. It can turn on that passing carousel and never let the US get off.

It did that to Sweden in its 3-1 semifinal victory, and by the end the Swedish women looked like they were ready to reach for the in-flight motion sickness baggie. Can Japan do it to the US?

It will be a tough job. The ultra-fit US is unlikely to be worn down as easily as were the Swedes. Yet it seems likely that, no matter what the final score, the US could – for the third game running – look like the lesser team for a substantial portion of the match.

When it comes to myth-making and moving beyond the memories of 1999, when Mia and Co. looked less like soccer players than pony-tailed superheroes, that might not be the best formula.

For the game of women’s soccer, however, nothing could be better.

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