Hucles embodies U.S. team's fighting spirit
If the U.S. women's soccer team could encapsulate its entire Olympic tournament in one word, it'd be "comeback." After stumbling in the 16th minute and allowing Japan to score first, the U.S. embraced its short-term memory and quickly shook off the goal, charging ahead to a 4-2 victory in front of a crowd 50,137.
The U.S. patiently probed the Japanese defense until forward Angela Hucles and defender Lori Chalupny connected on back-to-back goals in the 41st and 44th minutes. In the second half, the U.S. settled for gyroball-like "shot-crosses," as Heather O'Reilly's floater in the 70th minute and Hucles' second goal from Japan's end line left the Japanese defense undone.
"There is a good leadership in the team," Chalupny said in a FIFA.com statement. "This kept us focused, we never became nervous and we believed that we were going to have a chance to come back. We use pressure as a motivation. We look forward to those pressure situations."
Now the U.S. women have a date with destiny in Beijing, meeting Brazil in the gold-medal game for a rematch of the 2004 Athens final (which the U.S. won 2-1), and the 2007 World Cup semifinal (which Brazil won 4-0).
This time, there will be no goalkeeper fiasco, no counterproductive coaching decisions, no drama, and hopefully, no surprises. Coach Pia Sundhage has made sure of that, and the U.S. women have as well.
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The Americans' appearance in the gold-medal match puts them in another historic category. The U.S. is the only country to advance to all four Olympic finals since women's soccer was added in 1996.
But before it takes on Brazil, the U.S. coaching staff needs to walk through a serious tactical evaluation of the team's lethargic start against Japan. The U.S. defense gave up several corners and free kicks in the opening minutes, struggling to string together passes in Japan's compressed, high-pressure defense. This kind of uninspiring opening will leave Sundhage's side swimming against the riptide that is an opportunistic Brazil squad.
The U.S. central midfield and back line failed to play quick, accurate, one-touch passes until the 30th minute, and the excessive ball holding resulted in several dangerous Japanese counterattacks. If Shannon Boxx and Carli Lloyd continue to dribble in circles, Brazil's Marta and Cristiane will take the midfield to town.
"I don't think the win was comfortable," Sundhage said in a FIFA release. "Japan played well, if you see how they kept possession of the ball, that could be a role model for women's football in the future. There were a lot of different personalities out there, that's why we won tonight."
Hucles is one emerging personality in particular who has made a tremendous impact on the team. If anyone embodies the "comeback" story, it's the 30-year-old Hucles, who has earned a starting spot up top in place of the injured Abby Wambach. Ironically, five years after Sundhage, then the coach of the WUSA's Boston Breakers, traded her for Aly Wagner, Hucles has played every minute of the Olympics and scored a team-leading four goals.
"Angela Hucles is a fantastic story," Sundhage said. "She has been one of the most important players in the team."
Despite the story line of the U.S. women's rising stars, Brazil owns the celebrity category now. Cristiane and Marta alone have combined for eight of Brazil's 11 goals in the Olympic tournament, and the U.S. has to assume one or the other will score in the final. The key to staunching Brazil's offensive flow will be the Americans' own attack.
The United States can't afford to make any mistakes against Brazil. Expect U.S.-Brazil to be a high-scoring bonanza -- a final to conclude the most exciting women's soccer Olympics to date.
U.S. player ratings (scale 1-10):
Hope Solo, 7 -- Solo made a number of game-saving stops, all bookending the first and last 15 minutes of the game. Her composure on a long-range shot from Shinobu Ohno kept the U.S. from going down 2-0 in the 22nd minute.
Christie Rampone, 5 -- Rampone made uncharacteristic errors against Japan, leaving Ohno and Eriko Arakawa unmarked in the box, allowing them both to score. She'll have to play the defensive game of her career to stop Brazil.
Kate Markgraf, 5 -- The anchoring defender made a few dangerous mistakes in the back, and looked sluggish against Japan's fleet-footed offense in the second half.
Heather Mitts, 5 -- Mitts looked slightly flat-footed in the game, slipping during several dangerous attacks made by Japan.
Lori Chalupny, 7 -- Arguably the most talented player on the U.S. team, Chalupny nailed one of the best goals of the tournament while being swarmed by Japanese defenders. Her creative runs consistently break down defenses.
Lindsay Tarpley, 5 -- Tarpley played a solid defensive game, but let Chalupny steal the show on the left flank.
Carli Lloyd, 4 -- She played aggressively against Japan, but still seems to be stuck in a funk when it comes to playmaking. Lloyd badly missed on one of the best breakaways of the game, kicking the ball right into the keeper.
Shannon Boxx, 5 -- Boxx kept the energy up in the midfield, doing double duty to shut down Homare Sawa and Mizuho Sakaguchi -- both went scoreless for the game.
Heather O'Reilly, 6 -- The half-volley O'Reilly quickly lobbed into the top-corner of Japan's open net is just another example of the midfielder's field awareness and quick touch. O'Reilly did well to rack up corner kicks for the U.S.
Angela Hucles, 8 -- Hucles is starting to look more and more like a suitable replacement for Abby Wambach, notching two more goals in an Olympics in which she was originally slated to be the 12th woman.
Amy Rodriguez, 5 -- Rodriguez made several unpredictable inside turns against Japan, and showed her final pass ability on a handful of scoring runs. Her pace gave the U.S. offense a huge boost against Japan.
Natasha Kai, 5 -- Kai made a couple of nice breakaway runs, but seemed to be holding back on her shot selection. Would have liked to see her follow through on some of her one-on-one attacks.
Lauren Cheney, 5 -- Cheney earned herself more plaudits after she entered the game in the 83rd minute, working well off Kai and showing a good nose for the goal.
Stephanie Cox, NA -- Subbing in for Mitts at the culmination of the game, Cox let Karina Maruyama get by to slot in a pass for Arakawa's goal in stoppage time.
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 email@example.com.