VANCOUVER, Canada — It’s not about revenge, Abby Wambach says.
Sure, the United States’ loss in penalty kicks to Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final stings to this day.
The United States had that game won, but coughed up two leads, the second time on a goal just three minutes from what would have been the end of the extra time.
Then the penalty kick shootout was a disaster. The Americans missed their first three attempts.
But the all-time leading scorer in international soccer said Friday her team isn’t focused on payback, but on the trophy, something the United States hasn’t won since 1999.
“Heartbreak never goes away but now we have an opportunity, and it’s not about revenge or avenging that loss because this team is different,” said Wambach, who is in her final World Cup. “I feel an air of confidence (for the World Cup final).”
The two nations meet again Sunday at 7 p.m. ET in Vancouver, British Columbia. The United States, ranked No. 2 in the world, is a clear favorite over Japan, the No. 4 team.
“But we don’t overlook Japan for one second because they are very, very organized and a good team,” Wambach said.
It’s a revenge match for Japan, too. They lost to the United States in the 2012 Olympics final by a 2-1 score.
Japan’s captain Aya Miyama says she thinks about winning the Cup four years ago, but also about losing the gold medal the next.
“That bitter feeling I had that day has stayed with me for the past three years,” she told reporters Saturday.
Strong desire to win
Though the two teams have only played one official match since the Olympics, they feel very familiar with each other.
Through the years, they’ve played more than 20 times. But they’ve also practiced together, when the Americans were in Japan for the 2012 Kirin Cup.
They’ve scrimmaged each other, too.
“We (have) learned a lot from them,” Japan coach Norio Sasaki said.
As Wambach pointed out, Japan is a well-disciplined team, and it is one of the best passing teams. But they don’t just always try to string eight, nine, 10 passes together.
Sasaki says his team is also very dangerous after creating a turnover and counterattacking quickly.
And this World Cup, they also have something other teams say is a U.S. strong point — self-belief.
“We have the image in our mind that the outcome will be a win,” Sasaki said.
Miyama said she hopes her team scores first (as they often do), but more importantly it needs to control the rhythm of the game.
Her respect for the United States was clear as was her coach’s admiration. Sasaki called the U.S. a powerful team — one that plays physically and can overwhelm you with its speed. But he also complimented U.S. players’ ability to stay in support of each other, tactically and emotionally.
“They have a strong desire to win,” he said.
Pick the right moments
Japan won’t be the only team looking to play a passing game, U.S. coach Jill Ellis said.
Her team will have to play smart and know just the right moments to pressure Japan, looking to get the ball back. Japan had tough matches against Australia in the quarterfinals and England in the semifinals, when those two teams defended farther up the field in attempts to disrupt Japan’s flow. It worked much of the time, but Japan still eked out wins.
“You can’t press and chase and make it a physical game for 90 minutes,” she said.
Wambach, a target striker, likely will start the game on the bench. When the United States looks to play a long pass up field, swift striker Alex Morgan will try to get behind the Japan backline or go one-on-one against her defender.
But the Americans, will also try to find midfielder Carli Lloyd, who has been given more freedom to roam the field. She’s used that freedom to play in a more attack-minded role and has scored three goals. As she has stepped up her play, so has the team.
“This is a U.S. team that finally found its form in the last few games,” two-time World Cup champion Julie Foudy said.
The former U.S. star also pointed to the U.S. defense as the reason the Americans are in the final. The defense hasn’t allowed a goal in 513 minutes (more than five games). Germany took plenty of shots against the U.S in their semifinal, but only one was on goal. Before that, the No. 1 Germans had been averaging 12 shots on goal per match.
Julie Johnston has been the defender getting the most attention, but other members of the back four — Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger — have played extremely well, too.
The U.S. players may be nervous about the rematch, but they didn’t show it Saturday as they joined in their last practice selfie posted by striker Heather O’Reilly.