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US soccer team gets chance to avenge loss in World Cup final

By Scott Fowler, McClatchy Newspapers –

LONDON — This was the game the United States wanted – a chance to avenge its loss to Japan in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and to win an Olympic gold medal, all at the same time.

The U.S. and Japan will face off Thursday at 2:45 p.m. Eastern time at storied Wembley Stadium in front of a sellout crowd of more than 80,000.

(PHOTO: Alex Morgan and coach Pia Sundhage of the United States women’s soccer team answer questions during a press conference Wednesday, August 8, 2012, during the Summer Olympic Games in London, England.)

“It’s definitely redemption but it’s also an opportunity to show we’re No.1 in the world,” U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said Wednesday at a press conference in London.

That the U.S. team has finally made it to London is no small thing. It has been playing games all over the United Kingdom. But the way the bracket was drawn up, the U.S. had to get to the final to get to London at all.

“I feel like we’re finally at the Olympics,” forward Alex Morgan said.

The Americans wouldn’t be there without Morgan, who has a much larger role on the U.S. squad then she did a year ago when she was mostly coming off the bench. She and forward Abby Wambach are the primary American scoring threats.

In its semifinal against Canada, the U.S. rebounded from deficits of 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2 before finally winning in extra time, 4-3, on Morgan’s header off a perfect cross from Heather O’Reilly.

That kept alive the U.S. streak of making it to every Olympic women’s soccer final. The Olympics added women’s soccer in 1996, and the U.S. has won three golds and a silver in the four ensuing tournaments. In the last two Olympic finals, Team USA has beaten Brazil by a single goal.

The Japanese team knocked Brazil out this year and then edged France in the semifinal. Japan is known as the most technically sound of all women’s teams. “They keep possession of the ball better than anyone else on the planet,” Wambach said.

Certainly, the U.S. players have a physical advantage. At a photo opportunity Wednesday, when players from both teams stood beside each other for a group picture, it was striking how much taller and bigger the U.S. players were than their Japanese counterparts.

Japanese coach Norio Sasaki said Wednesday he understood that the U.S. was still stinging from the loss in last year’s final that was decided on penalty kicks. “I would certainly believe they would be very motivated to avenge their defeat at the World Cup,” Sasaki said. “So we need to strengthen our desire.”

Last year’s win had a symbolic appeal to the people of Japan, who had suffered greatly due to a powerful earthquake and resulting tsunami several months before that had killed thousands. “At that time,” Sasaki said, “Japan was undergoing a very tough time after the earthquake. But our victory gave energy to the people. It was very emotional.”

The U.S. has been involved in several controversies in this tournament, including Wambach getting sucker-punched and then the Canadian goalie getting penalized against the U.S. for holding onto the ball too long — a penalty that is hardly ever called.

Wambach said she expects nothing like that against Japan, a team the U.S. has long respected for its uncanny passing ability, fair play and graciousness on and off the field. “You’re going to watch some beautiful soccer and some amazing goals scored,” Wambach said. “We believe we’re the top two teams in the world, and this will be a great final.”

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