LINDA WERTHEIMER, host: The United States plays Japan this afternoon for the women's World Cup championship. The U.S. team has attained the top ranking in the world, but it still remains in the shadow of the team that won the championship in 1999. And as thrilling as the ride has been so far in this tournament, the players know that a great journey deserves a great ending.
From Frankfurt, Germany, NPR's Mike Pesca reports.
MIKE PESCA: A short while before this tournament began, U.S. striker Abby Wambach was asked what it takes to win the World Cup. Wambach is the right person to ask because she combines experience with a certain indomitability.
ABBY WAMBACH: What is it going to take? It's going to take some guts. It's going to take some luck. It's going to take some skill, some goals, some defending.
PESCA: Let's take them one by one. Guts. Well, what else can you say of the USA's quarterfinals victory against Brazil? The Americans were down a player after being assessed a tough red card. They were down a goal after a very tough penalty re-kick. They were down to a minute of two left in playing time left. But they were never down on themselves.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER GAME)
IAN DARKE: Now USA have it. And they've just got to get everybody aboard now. No sense defending anymore. Lloyd's got to get this pass off. To Rapinoe. And everybody's going to bum forward now.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
DARKE: Rapinoe gets a crossing. (unintelligible) drive. Oh, can you believe it? Abby Wambach has saved the USA's life.
PESCA: The call from ESPN's Ian Darke.
The second trait Wambach listed was luck, the shifty-eyed cousin of the amazing comeback. For all the thrills, it's important to note that over their last three games, the U.S. has actually lost in a non-elimination game, staged that amazing comeback you just heard, and let France score an equalizing goal in the second half. Bluntly, the U.S. has shown its weaknesses.
Christie Rampone, the only member of the current team to have played on the 1999 squad, the last to win a World Cup, talked about the team's biggest problem after their win against France.
CHRISTIE RAMPONE: We've been coming out a little slow in the second half, which we'll have to fix for the final, but amazing, once again, battle back.
PESCA: The U.S. was likely exhausted during that game - the effect of having played so much extra time a player down against the Brazilians. That shouldn't be a factor in the finals. Also, against the Japanese, the U.S. should own the air. The 5'11" Wambach will face no defender taller than 5'7". That addresses Wambach's pre-tournament list that included goals.
The defense, also on the list, will be anchored by Hope Solo, arguably the best goal keeper in the world. The last thing on Wambach's list was skill, and that has been the key for the U.S. The team's skill extends beyond soccer ability. Their real skill has been of the mental variety. They embrace their role as champions of a sport, and champions for a gender. They're always asked, what does your success mean for soccer - and specifically for girls' soccer?
Members of the Green Bay Packers or Miami Heat don't have to answer questions of that type. But the U.S. women never fall back on the pre-programmed athlete-ese of, we can't worry about that, or, we're just focused on winning. A big reason for this mindset is their coach, Pia Sundhage, who knows how keep all the pressures and directives in harmony.
PIA SUNDHAGE: It's funny, this life, it's about a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, and of course the players feel the same thing. Then I just tell them (singing) Slow down, you move too fast. You got to make the morning last, yes. Just kicking down the cobblestones. Looking for fun and feeling groovy.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
PESCA: So let's draw some inspiration from the Paul Simon-loving coach and note that it's still crazy after all these years to think that the U.S. women's team is without vulnerabilities. But if they play their game, the World Cup trophy could very well be homeward bound.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, Frankfurt, Germany.
WERTHEIMER: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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