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July 17, 2011 at 4:12 PM

Take 2: Japan turns never-say-die script on U.S. in WWC final

japan wwc.jpgPhoto credit: Martin Meissner, AP

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Japan came into the Women’s World Cup final 0-22-3 against the United States, 0-3 this year alone.

A mismatch? Yes, but this underdog had bite.

Despite being outmatched and outplayed Sunday, Japan’s fighting spirit endured. Twice the U.S. had late leads and stood a mere minutes from World Cup glory. Twice Japan fought back against the odds.

The never-say-die script, which had carried the U.S. through the tournament, was in Japan’s favor this time, culminating with a 3-1 shootout win in Frankfurt and the country’s first World Cup championship.

With heartbreak and disappointment still fresh, Japan’s triumph was an accomplishment U.S. players could appreciate.

“We lost to a great team. We really did,” said goalkeeper Hope Solo, a former UW star from Richland, to ESPN. “Japan is a team I’ve always had so much respect for. … As much as I’ve always wanted this it, if there’s any team I would give it to, it’d be Japan.”

And if ever there was a country that needed something to celebrate it’s Japan, a nation just four months removed from a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Emotions had run high throughout the tournament and the team carried around a banner reading:

To Our Friends Around the World

Thanks For Your Support

Led by captain Homare Sawa — who won the Golden Boot for her tournament-high five goals — the team turned inspiration into an inspired performance in the final.

The U.S. held a late 1-0 lead in regulation but Japan scored a tying goal in the 80th minute, when midfielder Aya Miyama capitalized on a defensive miscue to send the game to extra time.

Then, despite an 104th-minute goal by star forward Abby Wambach — whose dramatic performances led the U.S. through the knockout rounds — the lead was once again spilled away. Playing in her fifth World Cup, Sawa added to her legacy in the 117th-minute, redirecting in a corner kick to help send the game into a shootout, where the U.S. saved its biggest disappointment for last.

Shannon Boxx, Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath all missed their spot kicks to give the U.S. little chance at victory. Japan didn’t shrink in the moment, but thrived. Goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori made two saves and Saki Kumagai sealed the stunning comeback on her team’s fourth attempt.

History will be remembered differently, however, on the other side.

The U.S., the top-ranked team in the world, saw two leads slip away carelessly, and by the run of play, the game shouldn’t have even been close. From the opening minutes coach Pia Sundhage‘s side looked primed to continue its dominance over Japan.

Shot from all angles peppered the goal, hitting the post, hitting the crossbar, hitting everything, it seemed, but the back of the net.

Led by 22-year-old forward Alex Morgan, a second-half substitute, the U.S. offense finally figured out its confounding finishing issues. Morgan, the longtime girlfriend of Sounders FC rookie midfielder Servando Carrasco, had a goal and an assist, but late in the game it was the defense that let down.

The U.S. effort, scintillating at times, was ultimately incomplete. Each missed shot and failed clearance kept Japan’s faint hopes alive and set up a fitting finish for a memorable tournament.

Riveting. Unpredictable. Soccer at its best.

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