By Jacob Klinger
As Kelley O'Hara scrambled toward the Japanese corner, then back, all the while holding off three desperate Japanese defenders, the Americans' gold medal-winning performance was explained.
After an uneasy, if not altogether sloppy 90 minutes of grinding with a technically superior Japan side, the U.S. still had just enough. Just enough to make the sliding clearances, life-preserving saves and entirely necessary runs back to slow down a fully firing Japanese enslaught. Japan played better soccer, but the U.S. was barely, just barely, the better team.
Even when the U.S. turned into full-on defend-and-counter mode both the defending and the countering were imprecise. Becky Sauerbrunn's failure to play, much less clear the ball as a Japanese attacker bore down on her in the 83rd minute nearly cost the Americans the lead. If not for more fine work from Hope Solo Japan surely would have equalized and very well might have won the game in regulation. The marking on Japanese crosses was suspect throughout. The American defenders left far too much space for their opponents to move within as they sought separation for headers. But time and again an ultra-athletic play from Abby Wambach or Hope Solo would turn Japan away. Never mind the multiple and justified appeals for a Japan penalty. Young defenders often hear the soccer maxim "bend, but don't break.' In that sense the U.S. was flexible if nothing else.
Yet Alex Morgan's faulty touchs repeatedly killed off or seriously injured potentially meaningful counters. While doing what she does best in running at goal and the defenders in her way, her chops were sloppy. When they did work, they still moved her out of position. It was far from Morgan's best outing.
At the same time, her presence alone was just as crucial in maintaining the late lead as the chasing and tackling of Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd. Japan had no choice but to respect Morgan's speed. That respect pinned Japanese full backs to the defensive half, giving her teammates one less attacker to worry about.
Japan more than threatened the American defense. It was cut open widely enough and often enough that the World Cup champions had ample opportunity to take home gold. But they didn't.
There were tactical advantages in addition to the technical superiority the Japanese showed over the Americans. Late American free kicks from midfield were bombed into the box when they should have been passed back into a Japan-less backfield. Christie Rampone made senseless runs upfield. The U.S. was naive.
Yet that naiveté did something for the American players. They ran when there was no need. They finished when they had to. They made last-ditch tackles and won the requisite 50-50 balls to keep Japan out.
A cold-blooded pregame analysis would have led to prediction of victory for Japan. But in the too-raw athleticism of this American team was an unbreaking resolve. And it broke Japan.
By the time Kelley O'Hara found herself running the clock out, Japan had already burnt itself out trying to run in and around the American goal. The Japanese were spent and the Americans were the ones with extra bursts of energy.
When Abby Wambach's 93rd-minute flick of yet another seemingly aimless long ball rolled out of play it looked like Japan would get one last desperate shot at an equalizer upfield. Then Bibiana Steinhaus blew the whistle before Miho Fukomoto could put a goal kick in play. It was appropriate.
After all, this was a team and a game of just enough.
Jacob Klinger is a contributing writer to Soccer 365 where his column "Ready, Set, America" appears regularly. He also writes for No Short Corners and is currently a journalism student at Syracuse University. Jacob's love for the game goes back as far as he can remember, but was truly christened during the United States' cardiac qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. Between classes and columns, he still plays. You can follow him on Twitter @MrJacobK or email him at email@example.com.
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