RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Sunday in Vancouver it's a first-ever Women's World Cup finals rematch as the U.S. plays Japan. Japan beat the U.S. for the soccer championship in 2011. This time around, the Americans are brimming with confidence after defeating No. 1 ranked Germany in the semifinals. Japan needed some luck to get to the title game. NPR's Tom Goldman spoke to fans in soccer-crazy Portland, Ore. about this weekend's big matchup.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Somewhere between the shrieks of joy in Japan and cries of anguish in the U.K., there was this in Portland on Wednesday.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, no.
GOLDMAN: Oh, no, indeed, as the scoreboard confirmed. England defender Laura Bassett's own goal gave Japan a 2-1 semifinal win and sent the Japanese to a second straight World Cup final. At Portland's Bazi Bierbrasserie, Bassett's gaffe seen 'round the world wasn't ridiculed. The Bazi crowd knows soccer, and Matt Hasti, wearing a soccer scarf even in 90-degree heat, said Bassett had to try to break-up the pass, a move that sent the ball into England's goal.
MATT HASTI: But if that defender doesn't touch that ball, the Japanese player's got it and she's got a damn nice shot on gold. So the defender's got to do something.
GOLDMAN: So England was gone. And moments after the U.S.-Japan final was set, Hasti and friend, Justin Brown, already were talking strategy.
JUSTIN BROWN: Every team that I've seen try to play long ball against Japan has not worked, even with the height advantage.
GOLDMAN: Hastie agreed, despite its players average height of 5-foot-3, Japan's speed and positioning on defense has effectively countered the tactic of bombing-in long passes to tall forwards, a preferred tactic by the U.S., often to superstar Abby Wambach.
HASTI: I mean, she's a great player. All the props to her, you know, best scorer - men or women - in the world, in this kind of stage. But when you long-ball it to her, she's old. She can't catch that ball anymore - what you were saying.
GOLDMAN: What Brown said was the U.S. played the long-ball strategy the first few games of the tournament and was ineffective on offense.
BROWN: Whereas the last game against Germany, there was a lot more passing and possession, and it was a much more enjoyable game to watch.
GOLDMAN: As the U.S. has changed strategies, Wambach has started games on the bench, where she's been an enthusiastic cheerleader. It even prompted a tweet and, of course, Twitter controversy, when former men's star Landon Donovan said, quote, "love the enthusiasm and veteran presence of Abby Wambach, despite not playing much. That kind of leadership is priceless during a World Cup." It was seen as a slap at men's coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who left Donovan off the team that played in last year's World Cup in Brazil. Donovan denied ulterior motives.
But, you know what? That's the men's soap opera. The U.S. women are united, playing their best soccer, and Portlander Angie Renee Wright can't wait to see them Sunday in person, after her fourth seven-hour drive from Portland to Vancouver during this World Cup.
ANGIE RENEE WRIGHT: We drive through the night because he doesn't like the car seat.
GOLDMAN: He is 11-week-old Azul, who'll be decked-out Sunday in a onesie decorated with a soccer ball. Azul slept through the Japan-England game. His mom watched carefully, and knows Japan is a lot more dangerous than it showed in the semis.
WRIGHT: We saw the Japanese versus Netherlands. They played an excellent game. They're going to recalibrate and hone in on some of the things that they weren't so tight on this game.
GOLDMAN: The juicy storyline of U.S. versus England is gone, no fight for American independence two on Fourth of July weekend. But the rematch should keep fans everywhere riveted to a first-of-its-kind World Cup finale. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Portland.
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