The U.S. women’s soccer team is ranked No. 1 in the world, but it certainly did not take the easy path to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup championship match against Japan, which is set for Sunday afternoon in Frankfurt, Germany.
But what has nearly eliminated the Americans has only made them stronger.
The United States entered the tournament as the reigning Olympic champions and the top-ranked team in the world despite being the last team to qualify for the World Cup.
In addition to having to play two matches against Italy just to get into the tournament, the Americans also lost to England for the first time since 1988 this season. The Americans started off on the wrong foot as well as the United States opened the year with a loss to Sweden. The two loses combined marked the first time the Yanks lost twice in one year since 2004.
“We realized we needed to change some things,” coach Pia Sundhage said of the humbling loss to Sweden. “Because we had such a bumpy road ... we learned a lesson that we can’t take anything for granted and we have to be grateful for every day.”
The Americans certainly are feeling grateful now.
After scoring an equalizing goal in the 122nd minute that led to a win against Brazil in penalty kicks, Team USA defeated France in the semifinals by breaking a 1-1 tie in the 79th minute.
“They keep using the phrase, 'It’s been a bumpy road' and at times it has almost created a crater,” ESPN play-by-play commentator Ian Darke said.”But the team has an enormous faith that they will get out of every corner and they have gotten out of every corner so far.”
But traveling that bumpy road all the way to the World Cup final is exactly why the team has struck a chord with thousands of fans on the home front. The Americans have played with grit and heart that has captivated young girls and grownups alike as well as the support of their predecessors --- the members of the 1999 U.S. women’s soccer team that was the last American team to win the World Cup title.
“The road we’ve taken isn’t the one anyone thought we’d take,” said Abby Wambach, the U.S. forward who netted headers against Brazil and France to lead the Americans to this improbable final. “But we’re here.”
The players have said they have felt that support from across the Atlantic, especially by accessing Facebook and Twitter.
When asked if she realized the commotion the team has created back home, Wambach said, “Absolutely, there’s a thing called technology. People are emailing, texting, tweeting, using every form of technology.”
They also know, however, that clawing out of one last corner against Japan Sunday would send fans into a frenzy. A win would also make the Americans the first U.S. squad to win the World Cup since 1999 and the first nation in history to win three World Cups. Viewing parties have been cropping up around the country, and fans are planning to gather in Times Square to watch the final on the big screen in the Big Apple.
But the Japanese will be just as hungry. Making its debut in a World Cup final, Japan is nearly as big of a darling in dance this year as the Americans are.
The Japanese collected the biggest upset of the tournament by beating the two-time defending champs and host nation, Germany, 1-0, in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals they beat Sweden, which had defeated the United States earlier in group play.
“The Japanese team is one of the most fun teams you’ll ever watch,” ESPN commentator and three-time Olympian Julie Foudy said of a squad known for its remarkable passing and ability to maintain possession of the ball for the majority of matches.
The Japanese are also the sentimental favorites since they are trying to uplift their country, which in March was devastated by earthquakes and a tsunami. The disaster killed more than 15,000 people, decimated the country and the women’s national team’s season.
“They are playing for something bigger and better than the game,” U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “It will be an incredible final that people didn’t expect to see.”
Before beating Germany the Japanese coach showed his team slides of the wreckage left by the earthquake and tsunami.
“This is a side with a sense of destiny,” Darke said of Japan. “I think they are the best footballing side in this tournament. “Having said that, I think if the USA plays their game, if they resist, learn to cope with the fact that they may not have the lion’s share of the possession in the game, I think they have the players to win the game and I think they will win the game.”
The United States has beaten Japan three times this season including two prep games before the World Cup. In those tune-up matches, the U.S. women autographed jerseys and donated proceeds to help with relief funding in Japan.
Darke’s sentiments seem to match the general consensus of prognosticators, who when making their predictions point to the fact that the Americans are so incredibly battle tested.
“This team has fought through a lot of adversity,” Wambach said. “The Brazil game was a confidence booster for us. After that we felt we could be dealt any situation and come out on top.”
Wambach knows a thing or two about adversity. The youngest in a family of seven children, she has had to scrap her way in her own household, not to mention to her way as one of the best soccer players in the world. Wambach scored the game-winning goal for the United States at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games and had hoped to represent the United States in the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, but in the team’s final pre-Olympic tune-up game, she broke her leg.
Although she has scored heroic goals for the United States in this World Cup, she is also dealing with a sore Achilles tendon.
But don’t expect to hear Wambach moan too much about that.
“If you're feeling pain going into the next game, the final, there's something wrong with you as a soccer player.” Wambach said.
Still, Wambach noted that getting to a final is one thing and winning is another.
“It’s an amazing, amazing accomplishment to be where we’re at, and we know no matter what the result is, we're going to make America proud.”
Story courtesyRed Line Editorial, Inc. Justin A. Rice is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.