SENDAI, Japan (AP) – It was one of those games – one of those really big games – that just doesn’t sit right for U.S. women’s football coach Pia Sundhage.
As far as she is concerned, her team played better than Japan in last year’s World Cup final. She still thinks they should have won.
Now, she is looking ahead to the Olympics. And again, Japan is on her mind.
“We have something to prove every time we play Japan,” Sundhage said Saturday ahead of a matchup between the two rivals at the Kirin Challenge Cup on Japan’s home turf.
The exhibition tournament features three of the top four-ranked teams in the world. The U.S. national team is ranked No. 1 just ahead of Germany, while Japan is No. 3. The other team competing for the title, Brazil, is No. 4.
The U.S. women’s squad, which plays Japan on Sunday, goes into the match the favorite. They have a solid record against the Japanese – 22-1-4 – but have lost some big ones lately.
In the victory that made them national heroes, the Japanese team came from behind twice and held on to better the U.S. women in a penalty shootout following a 2-2 draw to win the World Cup final in Germany last summer. It was the team’s first win over the United States, and came as the country was still coming to grips with the devastating earthquake and tsunami that ravaged the northern coastline of Japan in March last year.
“In the World Cup, I think we played better than Japan,” Sundhage said. “I think we were a little bit unlucky.”
But in their most recent game, the Japanese also won 1-0 on March 5 to advance to the final of the Algarve Cup in Portugal. The U.S. had to settle for third place, but went out strongly with a 4-0 win over Sweden. Japan lost the final to Germany.
Both teams are now looking ahead to the Olympics, which start in July in London.
“We are ready and well,” Sundhage said. “I don’t think we are as well connected as we will be for the Olympics. We are building up for that.”
Japan’s coach, Norio Sasaki, said his team is at it peak, although it will be playing without star midfielder Homare Sawa, the FIFA women’s world player of the year.
“This is a really important chance for us to beat the United States and Brazil ahead of the Olympics,” he said. “They are both great teams.”
Sundhage said her team will be focused on playing an aggressive game and will try to keep possession of the ball so that they do not have to defend as much against the Japanese, who are a highly skilled, technical squad.
“One thing is absolutely clear – they have always been a technical team, and they are a more physical team today,” she said.
After Sunday’s opener, the U.S. plays Brazil on Tuesday. The final game, Brazil vs. Japan, is on Thursday.
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