Norio Sasaki

Set pieces prove to be Japan’s undoing in Women’s World Cup final loss

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Japan was clearly second best from the first whistle to the last on Sunday. The United States came out with a purpose and looked like a team of destiny while rolling to a 5-2 victory at BC Place Stadium. All night, most of the 53,341 fans chanted USA, USA, USA. Japan had never played in such a hostile and roaring venue with so many spectators cheering against the Nadeshiko.

Carli Lloyd, Lauren Holiday and the entire U.S. starting lineup played on another level, scoring four goals in the opening 16 minutes.

Set pieces ultimately proved Japan’s undoing.

“In the set pieces, they were very meticulous,” Japan coach Norio Sasaki said.

Japan, which won the 2011 World Cup final over the U.S., usually controls the play, dictates what the opposition is going to do and counterattacks. But U.S. coach Jill Ellis had her players taking the game to Japan. The first of Lloyd’s hat-trick goals — less than three minutes into the game — had the crowd erupt in huge ovation and boisterous cheers.

Japan was easily overwhelmed and whatever tactical plan Sasaki had, it didn’t work. The U.S. swarmed Japan and never let up. Golden Ball winner Lloyd scored her second just five minutes in, and it was evident that this was going to be a special match for the United States, and there wasn’t anything Japan could do about.

Normally a team that excels on set piece play, Japan had no chance on them on Sunday. The U.S. did their homework and had tactics that Japan had never seen before. It was difficult for Japan to mark the U.S. players and Japan crumbled under pressure.

“They tried new things on the set plays that we never saw in the tournament and we didn’t handle well with that,” Japan goal-scorer Yuki Ogimi said. “They repeated that effort three times and I think that was the ability that we couldn’t handle well from set plays.”

Japan captain Aya Miyama and her teammates were shocked and not expecting a surge of Red, White, and Blue to overwhelm them.

“We didn’t expect that first 15 minutes,” she said. “It was hard and tough, but we came back and I think we played well.”

Defender Azusa Iwashimizu was disastrous on the night, playing large roles in each of the first three U.S. goals. She missed the ball on the corner-kick pass that found Lloyd on the first goal, failed to cover Lloyd on the second tally, and booted the ball dangerously up in the air on Holiday’s goal. The last was quite possibly the most suspect. Japan head coach Norio Sasaki pulled Iwashimizu from the game for Homare Sawa in the 33 minute.

By that time it was already too late for Japan.

Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori was a candidate for the Golden Glove award for the bestgGoalkeeper at the World Cup. Hope Solo won thanks to her play and votes from the FIFA Technical Study Group. Kaihori was caught from the midfield line and easily chipped by Lloyd on the U.S. midfielder’s third goal, one of the most brilliant of the World Cup. Kaihori was in tears after the match.

Ogimi had a great individual effort to get Japan on the score-sheet before halftime. However, by the time Japan settled into the match and looked comfortable playing football, it was well in hand for the U.S. and out of reach for Japan.

On Sunday, Sasaki elected to go with the same starting eleven that defeated England 2-1 in the semifinals. He made a pair of substitutions before the half in an effort to boost some life into his squad, who trailed 4-0 at the time.

Ogimi and Miyama talked briefly about Sasaki’s effort to lift his teams spirits during the interval.

“We needed goals and he told us to press forward and also to play in their side, and have more players involved in the attack,” Ogimi said.

Miyama added: “He said the first half is gone so we need to make sure it’s a new game, so we tried.”

Japan was given a momentary lifeline early in the second half when U.S. defender Julie Johnston headed the ball past Hope Solo. Japan cut the deficit to 4-2 and it seemed like they might make a game of it for the second half.

But as with many things Japan did, the U.S. had a quick response that took the life out of Japan. Tobin Heath scored two minutes later and restored a three-goal advantage for the Stars and Stripes. Japan did play competitively for the duration of the second half. However, the poor start that Sasaki and his team had put them in a massive hole that they could never climb out of.

Lloyd was captain clutch and she performed a match for the ages, becoming the first player to score a hat trick in a Women’s World Cup final. Japan came up against a determined freight train and it rolled through Vancouver and a shocked Japan team. The World Cup now belongs to the United States.

Round 3: USA-Japan Women’s World Cup final a familiar matchup

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Japan and the United States will meet for the third straight time in a major women’s soccer championship final on Sunday to decide the winner of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Japan advanced to the final on Wednesday with a 2-1 victory over England. A heartbreaking stoppage-time own goal by Laura Bassett sent the reigning World Cup champions Japan through to the final again. The United States advanced to the final on Tuesday with a 2-0 victory over world No. 1 Germany.

[LAULETTA: Sampson consoles, praises Bassett after crushing loss]

In 2011, Japan shocked the world by winning the Women’s World Cup four months after an earthquake and tsunami killed over 15,000 people. Japan’s national team heroically rallied a nation at that World Cup to defeat hosts Germany in the quarterfinals for one of the biggest upsets of all time. Then Japan defeated the favored United States in the final, twice rallying from behind to force penalty kicks.

The United States got the upper hand a year later at the London Olympics, beating Japan in the gold-medal game to earn a third consecutive Olympic gold medal and fourth in five Olympic Games.

Sunday brings a highly-anticipated round three.

“In order to be the best team in the world at the World Cup, you have to beat the best teams,” U.S. forward Abby Wambach said. “We just beat the No. 1 team in the world in Germany and now we face Japan, another team that we have so much respect for. They have an amazing team and they’re the reigning World Cup champions so I think it’s going to be a fantastic final. Everyone will have to bring their ‘A’ game and whoever finishes their chances the most will come out on top. Hopefully it will be us.”

[KASSOUF: Ellis nails tactics for U.S. vs. Germany  |  Johnston recovers from mistake]

In a twist from how things stood just a week ago – when Japan looked like the world’s best team against the Netherlands and the U.S. struggled to beat Colombia in the round of 16 – the Americans will enter the final as favorites after a convincing semifinal victory over world No. 1 Germany.

Fluent play so often defines Japan, but the Americans – usually the more physical side that labors through games to earn results – put on a show against Germany, controlling the midfield and creating chances from the opening whistle. It was Japan who had to put in an almost American-like effort to resiliently hold off England, a winning mentality that is a testament to how much Japan has progressed in four short years.

So U.S. coach Jill Ellis and Japan coach Norio Sasaki square off in what should be an interesting tactical battle in the final. Ellis has shown her mettle over the past two games, turning around an underachieving U.S. team and, even if by force due to player suspensions, rediscovering the American mojo.

Sasaki has long proven he’s a mastermind, pulling all the right strings so precisely that Japan has won all six games played at this World Cup by exactly one goal.

Will the roles revert on Sunday?

“The team which is very powerful and has simple tactic, we may not be good at playing against that,” Sasaki said via translator on Wednesday. “But the final will be the final, and there is nothing beyond that, so we shouldn’t be afraid of making mistakes. I’d like to send the players to the pitch with this strong will.”

Japan’s only victory in 31 all-time meetings against the United States came in that 2011 World Cup final. They beat the Americans at their own game, twice rallying from behind. And Japan was a team of fate then, with a nation behind it for very serious aforementioned reasons. Only Germany has ever successfully defended a World Cup titles, winning the 2003 and 2007 tournaments.

This time around, the Americans believe that fate is on their side, with what is expected to be a pro-U.S. crowd (much like it has been all tournament) just over the border in Vancouver.

On Sunday, either the U.S. will become the first nation to win three Women’s World Cups, or Japan will join the U.S. and Germany with two titles each.

The past two finals between these two teams have been epic. Get ready for more of the same on Sunday.