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Japan 2, US 2 (Japan wins on PK, 3-1)

US foiled in shootout

Resilient Japan wins World Cup

By Jere Longman
New York Times / July 18, 2011

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FRANKFURT - Japan won its first Women’s World Cup yesterday in a triumph built on hope and renewal, lifting a stricken country and somehow finding a way to win a match that the United States dominated for long stretches but could never control.

In the end, Japan prevailed in a penalty-kick shootout, 3-1, after regulation and 30 minutes of overtime ended, 2-2. Japan’s usual sophistication was blunted by a determined American defense, but it remained persistent. And its resilience was finally rewarded with fortuitous bounces that led to both of its goals, a saved penalty kick, and a sense of destiny fulfilled.

On the Americans’ first penalty kick, Shannon Boxx’s shot was kick-saved by goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori.

Then Carli Lloyd ballooned her shot on the next American kick, and Kaihori saved the next attempt by Tobin Heath. Only Abby Wambach had the presence and composure to find the net for the Americans. Finally, defender Saki Kumagai put the decisive shot into the upper left corner and Japan rushed to gather in victory.

“The players were patient. They wanted to win this game,’’ coach Norio Sasaki said. “I think it’s because of that the Americans scored only two goals.’’

The United States will long regret its impatience, missed opportunities, a clumsy defensive mistake, the inability to twice hold a lead, and its inability to convert penalty kicks.

“There are really no words,’’ Wambach said. “We were so close.’’

The Japanese made the most of their chances. Their victory came four months after an earthquake and tsunami devastated the northeast coast of Japan, killing more than 15,000 people and displacing thousands more, including one of the Japanese professional women’s teams that was forced to cancel its season.

The game remained scoreless until the 69th minute, when a cluster of American defenders smothered a Japanese attack near the top of the penalty area. Megan Rapinoe, who started at left wing, sent a pass 40 yards upfield to a streaking Alex Morgan, who had come on at halftime at forward when Lauren Cheney left with an injury.

Morgan, the youngest American player at 22, had come to be counted on for vital goals, and now she delivered another, touching the ball with her right foot, then sending a low blast past Kaihori with her left foot inside the right post.

But there would be no comfortable leads for the Americans. In the 81st minute, their seemingly impenetrable defense fell apart with an awkward clearance attempt in front of the American goal.

Rachel Buehler’s desperate pass to Ali Krieger was deflected into the path of Japanese midfielder Aya Miyama. Her side-footed shot beat a defenseless Hope Solo to tie the game and force 30 minutes of overtime.

In the 104th minute, Wambach did what she does more expertly than any women’s soccer player - head the ball into the net on a cross by Morgan, giving the United States a 2-1 lead.

But in the 117th minute, Japan’s captain, Homare Sawa, 32, playing in her fifth World Cup, redirected a corner kick that deflected off Wambach and into the net, tying the game at 2. It was Sawa’s fifth goal of the tournament, none more urgent, this one extending the final to penalty kicks.

The triumph came at a sublime moment when savvy and purpose aligned for Japan to defeat an American team for the first time, even when its patient ball control, clever movement, and buzzing strength in numbers was largely thwarted by the US team.

The Americans had been seeking their third World Cup title, but they found themselves behind the curve in the evolution of women’s soccer. This final provided ruthless confirmation that athleticism, speed, depth, and unyielding determination are not always sufficient.

The rhythmic passing style in vogue with Barcelona and the Spanish national team in men’s soccer engagingly spread to Japan and France in this Women’s World Cup, as the balance of female power shifted from the United States, Germany, and Scandinavia.

Japan had never defeated a European team in five previous World Cups, and its futile record against the United States was 0-22-3. Yet with each victory over the past three weeks, Japan’s confidence began to blossom.

Japan beat Germany in the quarterfinals; Sweden tumbled in the semis. And then the United States in the final, a one-sided rivalry now has grown equal in a single evening.

Before yesterday’s match, Sasaki and Sawa expressed a responsibility that the Japanese team felt to inspire a recovering nation.

“It is not easy for Japan at the moment,’’ Sawa said. “We want to deliver good results to have a chance to give power to people back home. We want to deliver good results to give strength to people back home.’’

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