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Aug 16, 2008

U.S. faces a revitalized Japan for final berth

After 12 days of laboring in a shroud of near-invisibility on the outskirts of China's Olympic hub, the U.S. will step into the light for the women's Olympic soccer semifinals hosted at the Beijing Workers Stadium.

Monday's semifinal clash between the United States and Japan pits the two most improved teams in the women's Olympic tournament against each other. After shaky Olympic beginnings, both sides have blossomed in the past two games, putting down roots of confidence and branching out with alternative game plans and personnel.

As far as momentum goes, Japan and the United States are speeding freight trains fueled by gold medal aspirations. The U.S. stormed back to capture Group G after losing to Norway 2-0, and the Nadeshiko sprinted ahead after beating China in the quarterfinals 2-0. Japan has a tournament-leading nine goals, seven of which came in the past two games since the U.S. shut the team out.

"There were so many players who stepped up in the final 30 minutes [against Canada] and played really hard," defender Kate Markgraf said in a U.S. Soccer release. "We're getting some momentum. We lost our first game, but we've played well ever since. Hopefully that momentum will carry on through the semifinals."

The U.S. women have already secured a top-four finish (at the worst), but the semifinals are familiar territory for a team that has made the championship match for three consecutive Olympics. Japan, on the other hand, has never found itself beyond quarterfinal terrain.

U.S. women's schedule
U.S. vs. Japan
Monday
Beijing
9 a.m. ET

Not surprisingly, for those who watched the U.S. barely edge Japan 1-0 in group play, the Nadeshiko have become the sleeper hit of the tournament. Veteran Homare Sawa is this year's 30-year-old version of Brazil's Marta, leading her team's offensive assault with three goals, determined to single-handedly carry her teammates to the final two.

The Nadeshiko are unexpectedly good with their heads, which was evident in Sawa's nod-in against China off an Aya Miyama corner kick. The U.S. will have to play exceptionally disciplined defense to avoid giving away corners and fouls in its defensive third, because Japan has one of the most dangerous set-play offenses in the world.

As for the U.S. women, the current FIFA No. 1 team finally seems to be performing up to its premier title standards. However, the Americans have yet to face a top-four team in the Olympic tournament (Norway is ranked No. 5). The Americans will have to carefully recalibrate the level of competition if they move on to face Germany or Brazil, ranked second and fourth, respectively.

The U.S. has shown impressive reactive growth, quickly rallying to rebuild after suffering massive structural (and emotional) damage.

Since the loss of goal-scoring maven Abby Wambach, each player has stepped up to share the load of scoring and defensive responsibilities. In fact, as midfielder Heather O'Reilly said in U.S. Soccer's report following Friday's 2-1 win over Canada, "The cool thing about this Olympics so far is that we've had so many different goal scorers. I think that is what's making us so special right now. We've had six different goal scorers for seven goals, so that's a pretty cool stat, and that's what's making us so unpredictable."

However, the collective mentality the U.S. now embraces has also contributed to the team's struggles in set pieces that were once guaranteed goal-scoring opportunities. The U.S.'s corner kicks and dead-ball plays no longer bring the same threatening urgency for other teams: in the Canada-U.S. match, there were many wasted balls flying past the goalmouth with nary an American head or foot in sight.

U.S. coach Pia Sundhage should emphasize a full-out opening attack in the first 15 minutes against Japan, and consider inserting Natasha Kai or Lauren Cheney earlier in the game to keep the full-field pressure on.

Sundhage's side will need to readjust tactics coming off an aerial battle of 50-50 balls against Canada and refocus on the ground game. The U.S. back line must exercise patience and tight defending against a technically proficient Japanese team, which has earned a handful of highlight-reel goals.

Despite the U.S. women's psychological advantage over Japan, the mere two days the Americans have to recover from a four-hour endurance test against Canada might not be enough to recharge the tanks of a team running close to empty.

But if there's anyone who can get the team in motion again, it's songbird Sundhage, who might just dig out another inspiring gem from her vocal repertoire.

Lindsey Dolich is a contributor to ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at soccerdols@gmail.com.

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