The United States women’s soccer team entered the 2011 World Cup in Germany surrounded by more questions and speculation than perhaps any No. 1 seed in tournament history.

Three weeks later, with the final against Japan set for Sunday, the U.S. team is one win away from bringing the trophy home for the third time.

Despite a No. 1 FIFA ranking, the Stars and Stripes were not considered the tournament favorite. After winning the last two women’s World Cups, host-nation Germany was expected to dominate. Brazil, with five-time player of the year Marta, was expected to contend. The United States was expected to be in the mix, but there were doubts about the team’s status as a perennial dominator.  

Never mind the fact that the U.S. women have appeared in every women’s World Cup and have finished third place or higher in every tournament.

However, as the team entered the 2011 tournament, some began to wonder if we were seeing cracks in the armor. While the United States always has been a power on the women’s world stage, other nations have made great strides in the last two decades narrowing the gap.

This U.S. team squeaked in at the 11th hour, earning the 16th spot in the 16-team tournament. Failing to secure a World Cup berth in the CONCACAF qualifier, the United States faced a must-win against Costa Rica, followed by a home-and-home series against Italy in November.

Of course, none of that mattered upon arriving in Germany. The United States posted a pair of shutouts in its first two group-play matches before being handed its only loss of the tournament to date, falling 2-1 to Sweden.

The U.S. rebounded in dramatic fashion just four days later, eliminating Brazil in penalty kicks. The game, which also proved to be a winner in television ratings, saw the United States bounce back from a 2-1 deficit in the final seconds of overtime off a header from forward Abby Wambach. The play saved the U.S. team from what had appeared to be certain elimination. The last-minute highlight even nabbed an ESPY award for “Play of the Year” earlier this week.

In PKs against Brazil, goalkeeper Hope Solo also came up big, saving the deciding goal. The moment was especially sweet for the U.S. keeper after being benched in the United States’ World Cup game against Brazil four years ago.

In the semifinal game, the United States put France away late to secure a 3-1 victory and advance to its third World Cup final in the tournament’s six editions.

Japan, ranked No. 4 in the world, cannot be overlooked, but the United States’ record of  dominance against Japan (22-0-3 in 25 games) makes the Stars and Stripes a heavy favorite to win the tournament.

The 2011 women’s World Cup has had its share of upsets,  but Japan pulling off a shocker against the United States, though possible, is incredibly unlikely. The U.S. team has battled opponents, critics, doubters and skeptics to get this far. And in U.S. women’s soccer, when it comes to the World Cup, anything less than a first-place finish would be finishing below expectations.

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