As the Olympics approach, the USWNT seize any chance they can get to play the top teams in order to properly prepare themselves physically and mentally for the competition that greets them in London this summer.
This past week, the USWNT traveled to Japan to play in the Kirin Challenge Cup, which featured three out of the top four teams in the world. Although the yanks went in with the No.1 ranking, their confidence was much lower due to their recent failure against Japan, dating back to their loss in the final of the World Cup where Japan came out with a devastating win in penalty kicks. Even with this recent success, Japan ranks third, while the Brazilian team took No.4. Also, Germany, who did not partake in the tournament, is ranked No.2.
The Kirin Cup started with a bang, as the Japanese-US rivalry kicked off the tournament on April 1. Surrounding this heavy-weighted competition were 15,159 fans creating a World Cup like environment. Either the US women were over-excited or just nervous, as they once again played sloppy and disconnected. The first half closely mirrored the first half of the last US-Japan matchup. The impatient yanks forced the ball, which resulted in a number of turnovers. The Japanese dominated possession and broke down the US defense with quick pace of play. 13 minutes in, however, the yanks gained some sort of rhythm and were awarded three corner-kicks in four minutes.
Japan defended them solidly, though, and responded well to the threat by retaliating in a relentless ten-minute pressure streak resulting in a goal in the 32nd minute. A few quick touches by Japan around the midfield culminated in a ball over the back line that found the right back, Yukari Kinga. Kinga slipped the ball to her teammate in the middle and even though Solo made an unbelievable initial save, the ball ricocheted right back to Kinga who drilled it to the right side of the net.
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It was evident that the USWNT came out in the second half more relaxed and with much more fire than they had in the first. Proof of this came four minutes into the second half when Lloyd got things going with her rocket of a free kick that soared just high of the crossbar.
This was one of the yank's 5 dangerous opportunities in the second half, which brought their total up to 8 in the game. Morgan played a huge role in scoring opportunities throughout the whole game and in the second half in particular. Her speed up the sideline stretched Japan and made it very difficult for them to stay together as a defensive unit. In the 72nd minute, Wambach picked the ball off a Japanese mid-fielder and played a square ball across the field. With a few quick passes and some sloppy mistakes by Japan, Morgan found the ball a few yards in front of the penalty spot and slipped it past the Japanese goalie. At first, the sideline referee called Morgan offsides, but after a quick chat with the field ref, the equalizer was awarded making the score 1-1 with 18 minutes left. The game ended as a tie and the newly found rivalry between USWNT and Japan will not meet again until the Olympics.
After the game, head coach Pia Sundhage reiterated the difference between the first and second half and how a goal of her team is to start playing their game from the first whistle and not wait for the second half. Sundhage's wish came true, however, in the game aginst Brazil two days later, when Boxx and Lloyd put a goal in each in the 18th and 23rd minute of the first half. Lloyd's goal came off a set piece from captain Rampone as she dropped a beautiful ball right in front of the Brazilian goalie. The ball hit off the goalie and Lloyd, staying composed, slid it right into the open net. Boxx's goal, a short five minutes later, also came from a set piece, this time taken by Cheney who sent it flying to the back post right to Shannon Boxx who easily jumped above her Brazilian mark and headed it in.
Although Brazil had a few good opportunities, the refs were not on their side as they got called on a few offsides and even had a goal called back. In the 82nd minute, Rodriguez proved herself as the ball bounced off a Brazilian player in the box and landed at her feet. She shot it first time and as the Brazilian goalie dove left, the ball ricocheted off a defender and shot to the right and into the back of the net. Although the USWNT had a lot of success against Brazil, their well known superstar, Marta, was not on the field and the Brazilian Coach admitted that he has been working on solidifying his starting defense so they will be ready for the Olympic games. These two factors might have hurt Brazil in the tournament.
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Nevertheless, the game ended 3-0 and that was it for the USWNT trip to Japan. On April 5th, Japan and Brazil finished up the tournament as Japan beat Brazil 4-1.
The USWNT do not play again until they face China on May 27th. This match will continue to help head coach Sundhage narrow down the team from 27 players who are rostered for the upcoming China game, down to 18 which is the limited amount of spots available for the WNT Olympic team when they travel to London this Summer.
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