SALTA, Argentina (AP) – Ahead of Sunday's final of the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup, Jenna Pel identifies seven key match-ups to watch during the US's quest for a third world title.
Abby Wambach vs. Homare Sawa
Both players share common links, and not only in that they were former teammates at the Washington Freedom of Women's Professional Soccer . Wambach and Sawa are each talismanic performers that play integral (albeit different) roles for their respective teams.
Sawa operates Japan's midfield engine room, and it's not just her extraordinary playmaking vision that makes Sawa so special. It's also her clinical finishing. Japan's no. 10 is currently tied with Marta for most goals scored in the tournament (four).
Wambach is not far behind with three goals, scoring one goal in each of the preceding three games. The lethal forward is the US's emotional leader and has ably spearheaded the team's attack.
Both players' names already belong in the pantheon of women's soccer greats. Sunday's final only helps determine positioning in the hierarchy.
Precision vs. Power
It's not hard to pick out which team has which. These stylistic differences will be on full display on Sunday.
Despite playing less-than-sparking soccer throughout the knockout round, the US has willed itself to victory off of brilliant moments from individual players. Japan, meanwhile, constantly works as a unit. It's a full team collaboration in both the defense and attack, allowing the team to concede possession with the knowledge they'll soon regain the ball.
The Americans managed to abandon their "pass and rush" style against Japan during the team's May meetings, two 2-0 victories for the US. The team displayed some fine, patient build-up play from midfield that resulted in well-worked goals in both games. Will the U. try to replicate the same success again, or will they be tempted to stick to their tried and true tactics?
Rachel Buehler vs. Becky Sauerbrunn
It might be a more complicated question than previously thought. Center back Rachel Buehler has arguably been the team's most consistently solid defender this past year. She had a nightmarish pair of games against Sweden and Brazil, however, in which she got shown up by Sweden's quick attackers before getting red carded out of the US's now famous quarterfinals match.
That necessitated Becky Sauerbrunn's inclusion in the team's starting line-up against France. The 26-year-old had an impressive outing and brought a sense of composure to the backline.
Sauerbrunn's tactical intelligence and positional awareness are her best playing characteristics, both of which might be needed against Japan's clever forwards. Interestingly, Sauerbrunn has recent experience playing Japan, as she got the nod to start in both of the May friendlies.
Will Pia Sundhage show loyalty to Rachel Buehler or be tempted by Sauerbrunn's unique skills?
A-Rod vs. A-WOL
Forward Amy Rodriguez has started every game so far this World Cup, but she has yet to make much of an impact. The 24-year-old is known for her blazing speed, but her skill set has been mitigated by poor decision-making on the ball. She has yet to effectively link up with Abby Wambach and often looks marooned in the final third, looking more "A-WOL" than then A-Rod.
The real kicker is that Rodriguez scored in each of the US's friendlies against Japan. They were lovely efforts, too, complicating any suggestion that Rodriguez should lose time on Sunday.
Rodriguez's weapons could again come in handy against Japan. She just needs to find her shot to truly make the difference.
Alex Morgan vs. Reality
Rodriguez's starting spot looks ever more tenuous when 22-year-old Alex Morgan has good games. She had one in the semifinals, scoring her first ever World Cup goal, effectively killing off the match.
Regardless of Morgan's form, Sundhage isn't likely to select her over Rodriguez. And that's somewhat out of loyalty to A-Rod, but it's also because Morgan offers something off the bench. It would be foolish to take away the team's security option now, especially against a team as fit and sharp as Japan.
Familiarity vs. Risk
If a close match wears into the final, which coach breaks with tradition first?
Japan seemed completely content to sit back and methodically tease out defenses against both Germany and Sweden. The goals finally arrived, and Japan earned deserved wins in both matches.
Will Pia Sundhage flinch first? If the US is on a unfavorable score line, the head coach might want to abandon the 4-4-2 throw numbers forward into the attack. And hey, it worked wonders against Brazil.
The Usual Suspects vs. Brave New World
Are we entering an age that will see a new world order take root in international women's soccer? This will be a historic clash pitting the two-time world champions and habitual favorites versus World Cup final debutants.
It's hard to remember a team as technically gifted or as possession-oriented ever making it this far in the tournament. Japan might be a harbinger of things to come, as new emphasis is placed on technical skill and players begin to develop at earlier ages. It's an emphasis that's allowed Japan to assume a waning China's distinction of being the world's best team from Asia.
Meanwhile, the United States in many ways represents women's soccer in a bygone era, and not just because of the two stars above the team crest. The team's bruising physicality and outstanding athleticism have outlasted opponents, but can it outlast the cyclical force that seems to determine these things? If that brand of soccer is phased out, Japan's sleek, pass-happy style may be on the way in.
Either way, it will be fascinating to watch the two styles go head-to-head in what is surely one of the most anticipated (and perhaps unexpected) Women's World Cup finals of all time.