Summer classic redux: Previewing today’s Olympic soccer final, United States vs. Japan

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Few will forget the drama on display in last summer’s Women’s World Cup final between Japan and the U.S. All hail the soccer gods for generously providing a sequel.

Much is at stake for both the United States and Japan in Thursday’s Olympic final at Wembley Stadium. The U.S. will attempt to clinch its fourth gold medal while exacting revenge for last summer’s stinging defeat in penalty kicks. Japan is poised to become the first team to claim World Cup and Olympic titles in consecutive years.

Although this might be a rematch, don’t expect to see carbon copies of either side.

Japan’s head coach Norio Sasaki has refused to adhere to the same formula that helped facilitate his team’s unexpected World Cup triumph. Alterations to his preferred starting line-up (starting at goalkeeper with Miho Fukumoto) coupled with a formation switch illustrates the Nadeshiko’s desire to reclaim success through innovative means.

Another difference? Japan have been relatively goal-shy in the U.K. The team has netted six total goals in comparison to the ten goals it had scored by this stage last summer. (It should be noted the team was instructed to hold its fire in the final group stage match against South Africa. The 0-0 result spared them from extra travel in the knockout round.)

In Germany, reigning FIFA Player of the Year Homare Sawa led the field with five goals. This time out? Zilch. A bout with vertigo saw the 31-year-old miss a portion of the team’s Olympic preparation, which likely factors in the steep drop in goal production.

Others have filled the void, though. Yuki Ogimi has cemented a starting position in the front line. Her two goals in the knockout round helped give her team a clear route to the gold medal match.

Despite the differences, one critical asset has carried over from last summer. As evidenced in Japan’s quarterfinal and semifinal matches, the team largely makes good on its chances in front of goal. The conversion rate in Japan’s last two matches? Four goals on seven total shots on target. It was that same level of exactness that helped Japan equalize twice against the U.S. in Frankfurt.

The United States can tell you a thing or two about snatching several dramatic equalizers, in light of recent circumstances. The team’s 4-3 semifinal triumph over Canada won’t soon be forgotten. What kind of emotional resonance provokes depends on which side of the International Boundary you find yourself on.

Pia Sundhage’s side has made advancements in the past year. The team’s midfield has generally done a decent job spurring creativity and halting opposing attacks. Carli Lloyd has done an able job stepping up for injured teammate Shannon Boxx. Lauren Cheney has steadily grown into her new role as a multi-functional midfielder.

That could be the key on Thursday. Aya Miyama is widely-regarded as one of the most fearsome dead ball specialists in the women’s game. She was integral to her team’s last two victories. Both of Japan’s goals against France in the semifinal resulted from Miyama-led set pieces.

Japan’s central defensive partnership has improved markedly in the past dozen months. It will face its most harrowing challenge yet in trying to contain the firepower produced by Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan. The prolific strike partnership has accounted for eight of the U.S.’s fourteen total goals so far. And lest we forget Megan Rapinoe, who has rapidly developed into one of the most dynamic outside midfielders operating in the world today.

Just like last year’s final, possession stats likely won’t dictate who prevails in the end. The U.S.’s profligacy – along with some mightily shoddy defending – were major contributing factors to the team’s World Cup defeat.

The stage is set for a collision course of contrasting styles. Japan continues to demonstrate the cool precision and unflappable mental sharpness that makes them so difficult to grind down. The U.S.’s renowned enthusiasm for last-second momentum swings in seemingly dire situations owes much to the team’s hardened self-belief.

Both sides won’t merely be contending for an Olympic gold medal. Thursday’s result will remove all doubt as to which team owns preeminence in the women’s game.