2011 Women’s World Cup Final Preview: Japan v. Team USA

| by Alex Groberman

It all comes down to this.

After all of the remarkably dramatic finishes, one game will decide the FIFA Women’s World Cup championship: Japan versus Team USA at Commerzbank-Arena in Frankfurt, Germany for all of the glory.

While the American side was an early favorite to reach this point, few predicted Japan would be as dominant en route to the championship game. Via an undeniably overwhelming 3-1 victory over Sweden in its last match, the Japanese showed they possess the technical ability to win their first Cup.

From the very beginning, this tournament was a means of establishing legitimacy for the Japanese side. It seemed as though even after they beat one of the World Cup’s favorites -- homegrown Germany -- nobody considered them a team that could realistically challenge for the trophy. It was only after their last game, when Japan completely outplayed Sweden -- a club that beat the Americans, no less -- that fans and critics alike realized what a powerhouse had been created while they were busy ogling the Germans, Brazilians and Americans.

Although Japan hasn’t been impressive in this tournament historically, this appears to be a whole different incarnation of a squad whose only claim to fame prior to this point was reaching -- and getting drummed in -- quarterfinals in 1995. Behind the tremendous leadership of Coach Norio Sasaki and team captain, Homare Sawa, look for Japan to give the American side some serious problems in Sunday’s match.

Team USA, meanwhile, comes into this game with one undeniable goal in mind – solidify a legacy, once and for all. Even outspoken goalkeeper Hope Solo has professed that the main motivation for this group is emerging from the 1999 team’s shadow and developing their own brand, a feat that can only be achieved with a win against Japan.

To this point, the American side’s run in this tournament has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. Throughout the World Cup, Solo and her unit have experienced the lowest of lows and highest of highs – something that has toughened them up and opened their eyes to the dedication and effort required to win a competition of this caliber.

Despite coming in as early favorites, the Americans appeared oddly unenthused in the first few games. Against Sweden, this lethargic spirit came back to bite them in a 2-1 defeat that caught nearly everyone off-guard. Similarly the U.S. showed no sense of urgency against Brazil until they fell into a deep hole late in the game – only to be excavated by a miraculous comeback spearheaded by Abby Wambach and, of course, Solo. It was only in their last match against France that the Americans finally played up to snuff, showcasing their unique combination of talent and brilliant strategizing -- courtesy of Coach Pia Sundhage -- in what ended up being a dominating final quarter of the outing.

Now at the top of their game and peaking at just the right time, it’s hard to imagine Team USA losing to anyone. So long as Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Heather O'Reilly and Lauren Cheney are at the top of their game, not even Japan’s still-underrated toughness and unwavering spirit will be able to deter them from taking home the gold.

Coverage is scheduled to kick-off at 2 p.m. eastern time, on ESPN.