Despite spirited offense, Japan falls twice to U.S.
On Aug. 15, 2008, China formally conceded its title as the flag-bearer of Asian women's soccer to Japan, which beat the host nation 2-0 in the Olympic quarterfinals.
More recently, Japan again beat China 2-0 in a battle for the third and final Asian berth in the 2011 Women's World Cup. China, which made classic appearances against the U.S. in both the 1996 Olympics and 1999 Women's World Cup, will be conspicuously absent from this year's tournament.
Japan, on the other hand, moves into the tournament ranked fourth in the world, possessing flair and skill that can flummox the best defenders. The team's semifinal appearance in the 2008 Games was their best showing on the international stage to date.
But breaking through the Big Three of the USA, Germany and Brazil still poses a challenge. The gulf between Japan and Team USA was evident Wednesday night in a 2-0 U.S. win in Cary, N.C.
The good news for the Japanese team: The draw for the summer festivities in Germany couldn't be better. In group play, Japan will face New Zealand (ranked No. 24 in the world), Mexico (No. 22) and England (No. 10). If Japan wins that group and Germany avoids stumbling to second in its group, Japan will avoid the Big Three until the semifinals.
After the horrific earthquake and tsumani that struck the country in March, Japan will be a sentimental fan favorite in the World Cup. But they can also win fans with their style of play. They move the ball around quickly on offense and swarm on defense.
"I have so much respect for this Japanese team," said U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, who had to stay alert to deal with a late attempt to rally in Wednesday's game. "They're one of the most creative teams on the attack."
Given their speed, Japan can never be counted out. Young American star Alex Morgan learned that the hard way Wednesday, rounding the goalkeeper on a breakaway but finding her shot blocked by recovering defender Azusa Iwashimizu.
"Japan is a very good team," U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said. "That's two good games against Japan that will help us to work on several things going forward."
Japan also has had a steady stream of young talent. Homare Sawa, a 32-year-old who played in the U.S. with both the WUSA of the early 2000s and the WPA more recently, was the oldest player on Wednesday's roster by nearly four years.
Like Sawa, Aya Miyama, 26, has been in demand in the U.S., having played alongside Marta on the 2009 WPS regular-season champion Los Angeles Sol. The newest generation includes Mana Iwabuchi, an 18-year-old forward who won the Golden Ball at the 2008 Under-17 Women's World Cup.
Japanese fan Satoshi Honda, who made the trip from Birmingham, Ala., to see Wednesday's game, thinks his team has a chance to win it all this summer. He thinks an infusion of new players has raised the level of the team, but he also praises Kozue Ando, a veteran of the 1999 World Cup squad and still a key player for Japan and German club Duisburg: "She has much fighting spirit."
The team has one distinct disadvantage when facing teams like Germany and the United States. On Wednesday, the tallest players on Japan's 20-player roster were defender Saki Kumagai and goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, both 5-foot-7. That's not enough to cope with towering forwards like Germany's Birgit Prinz and the USA's Abby Wambach, who are both 5-foot-10.
Japan's front runners, Iwabuchi and Shinobu Ohno, are both 5-foot-1. Iwabuchi in particular was overmatched against the bigger U.S. back line, though her shot just over the bar was Japan's best chance at a goal in the first half.
Ohno and Iwabuchi also couldn't quite connect on the final pass, just as Ohno and forward Yuki Nagasato failed to connect in Saturday's 2-0 loss to the U.S.
"Sometimes they pass the ball a little too much in the 18-yard box," Solo said. "Sometimes they just need to pull the trigger. They're coming along, and I think they're going to do great things."
Japan's coach Norio Sasaki says his team is roughly 60 percent ready for the World Cup. He's still considering roster changes -- former Florida State star Mami Yamaguchi's absence was glaring on Wednesday -- and the team has more friendly matches planned before the trip to Germany.
Looking at the bigger picture, Japan still has a long way to go to match the strong grass roots of the USA and Germany.
"Women's football in Japan is developing," said Sasaki. "In volleyball, we have 600,000 players registered. In football, only 35,000.
"Japanese women's football has big potential. We want to follow the good example of the USA."