DRESDEN – In the run-up to the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, onlookers had hoped the tournament would show that women's soccer had entered a new era, that the gap between the elite and the emerging nations had narrowed, and that a sizeable portion of the 16-team field had a real shot at claiming the top prize. But after a thoroughly exhilarating weekend of quarterfinal matches, the women's game already may be in the middle of that new era.
Japan's shock 1-0 victory over two-time defending world champion Germany was the first indicator. Prior to the event, the hosts had not conceded a World Cup goal since 2003 and had not suffered a loss in since the 1999 edition. Japan, meanwhile, had only managed to earn three World Cup victories in five tournaments and had only advanced out of the group stage once.
The surprises didn't end there. Along with Japan, resurgent Sweden and upstart France also claimed their places in the semifinals. The United States - a familiar force - cemented its spot, too, after a thrilling comeback win against bitter rival Brazil.
The United States is perhaps the only team whose appearance at this stage was expected. In fact, the US is the only previous Women's World Cup holder represented in the semifinals. That means there's a three out of four chance that a new World Cup winner will be crowned on Sunday.
Japan, Sweden and France are similar in that they have been surprise packages this summer. Japan long has been considered a rising force, but only recently has delivered on its promise. Sweden was the foremost figure of the Scandinavian wave that dominated women's soccer through the '90s and early '00s but recently has been eclipsed by Germany. France is making just its second appearance in a FIFA Women's World Cup and looked to be potentially outmatched in a hyper-competitive Group A alongside the hosts, Canada, and Nigeria.
The trio of countries share another common thread. The three teams are easily among the most technically proficient sides in the tournament. Brute force and innate athleticism alone are no longer enough to make the difference in the international women's game. A premium also must be placed on technical skill, finesse, and tactical sophistication.
It speaks to each team's developmental system and the positive influence a stable domestic league has on the country's national team.
All but four players listed on Japan's 21-player roster ply their trade in the local L-League. Sweden's Damallsvenskan is one of the most stable women's top-flight leagues in the world and has provided a breeding ground for new talent. France's Feminine Division continues to make strides and is most well-known for featuring one of the best club teams in the world, Olympique Lyonnais.
Of course, none of this explains why heavily favored Germany was handed its earliest elimination in Women's World Cup history. The hosts certainly tick all the boxes mentioned above. Germany is a pioneer in the way the women's game has developed from an organizational standpoint over the past decade.
But should we be that surprised Japan was capable of knocking off the two-time defending champion?
From a competitive perspective, no. Japan has made considerable inroads of late - an advance reflected in its all-time high FIFA No. 4 world ranking. The country continues to produce fine young players, including teenage wunderkind Mana Iwabuchi. Japan's efforts at the youth development level were rewarded as the country reached the title game at the 2010 U-17 FIFA Women's World Cup last fall.
However, media coverage of the women's game in Japan is hard to come by. It's possible to track the exploits of players that play in Germany's Frauen-Bundesliga - like Yuki Nagasato and Kozue Ando - but the Japanese L-League and national team matches remain virtually inaccessible.
Perhaps this tournament will help spur interest in the team and increase its exposure. Maybe then results like these won't be that surprising. In fact, they might even become predictable.
One thing that has remained a truism in the Women's World Cup is the United States' presence late in tournaments. But the team stumbled in its effort to qualify out of the CONCACAF region late last year, further evidence of increased parity.
The US did manage to earn its ticket to Germany, however, and has acquitted itself well so far. Despite a poor showing in its last group match against Sweden, the team regrouped. On Sunday, the US pulled out an inspired victory on penalty kicks to upend Brazil and stave off elimination at the quarterfinal stage.
The team will have to make do with a semifinal opponent in France that is technically superior, but the US showed its fierce mental resolve this past weekend.
It begs the question whether this US team, with its immensely fit athletes and hardened self-belief, will continue to be a fixture in future World Cup knockout rounds. Germany was passed off the park by a refined and composed Japan while a pass-and-rush England team looked to be outwitted (but not necessarily outscored) by a tactically adept France.
The method in which the women's game is being played and developed is undergoing fundamental changes - likely for the better. Is the global hierarchy of international women's soccer following suit?