Japan’s strength is its system, not stars

i-ecc9a5376f3f6196583c76407b819840-japanesecelebration.jpgSomething to celebrate: Japan’s inspirational win over Sweden has given the disaster-stricken country something to rally around ahead of Sunday’s World Cup final against the U.S. (AP Photo).

Those who saw the 3-1 victory over Sweden in the Women’s World Cup semifinals already know the disciplined Japanese approach is all about playing to its strengths and recognizing its limitations.

The Swedes, however, were either incapable or unable to recognize that, continually pumping pointless long balls up field the Japanese defense was easily able to handle. Good thing the U.S., under Coach Pia Sundhage, has eschewed the long-ball approach for a more possession-oriented style.

Associated Sports Writer Raf Casert has more on the surprise World Cup finalists ahead of the tournament finale against the U.S. Sunday:

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — Meticulous planning and execution are everything in Japanese soccer.

So when the team falls behind, there is a system to rely on, a belief there is still a
way to win.

Japan is in its first Women’s World Cup final, and its quick passing could pose a challenge for the favored United States on Sunday.

Coach Norio Sasaki has been planning for this moment since the 2008 Olympics.

“In Beijing, we finished fourth and, at the time, it was our intention,” Sasaki said. “This
time we said, ‘Let’s go to the final.’”

Then March 11 arrived. The earthquake and tsunami left nearly 23,000 dead or missing.

The club of national team defender Aya Sameshima, withdrew from the Japanese
league for the season. She eventually signed as a free agent, half a world away, with the
Boston Breakers in the United States.

The Japanese league was delayed by a month at a time when national team preparations were getting intense. But Sasaki knew his players’ fundamentals were strong, drilled into them by the years of the hard training for which he is known. He had no doubt the team would endure in the face of catastrophe.

His team did more than that — it thrived.

In the quarterfinals, Japan played a two-time defending champion German team boosted by a sellout home crowd. Hours before the start, Sasaki had his players look at slides of the devastation from March. Aya Miyama, the former LA Sol player, said the images touched everyone.

Against great odds, Japan won 1-0, setting up a semifinal with Sweden. This time, there was no need for photographs and shock treatment. Now the challenge was tactical, with the small Japanese facing the big Swedes.

On their 21-player rosters, the Japanese have only one woman taller than 5-foot-7, while the Swedes have only five smaller than that height. Many thought the Swedes would exploit that advantage. Japan won 3-1.

“We just paid a lot of attention and our coach told us to keep the ball low, not to play any
high balls,” Miyama said. “That is what we did.”

Sasaki says the key is ball control, good passing, team spirit.

“Everyone has to be involved,” he said.

Japan, by far, has showcased the most discipline during the three-week tournament, and its dedication is never more evident than when the team is down. Sweden scored early, but Japan’s approach did not change. It had been facing such games for years.

“We stayed calm and we decided: We are just going to do what we practiced, and if we do that there will be a good result,” Miyama said.

Three goals eventually came, giving the fans back home something to cheer.

“Even little things, like a win, can give people courage and hope,” Sasaki said. “And when we play the final, we are not going to think about the end result. We are just going to do what we can.”

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Wednesday Quick Kicks

Galaxy beat writer Billy Witz has more on the challenges facing new Chivas USA CEO Shawn Hunter.

As expected, Torrance resident Simone Carmichael remained on the bench for New Zealand today, blasted 5-0 by Brazil at the World Cup.

The Cal State Dominguez Hills Men’s Team, winners of four straight games, moved up to No. 13 from No. 22 in this weeks National Soccer Coaches Association of Americas Top 25.

Finally, the Long Beach State Women’s Team (2-3-0) suffered their third-straight loss to a top-25 team Tuesday, losing 1-0 at No. 24-ranked Brigham Young. Long Beach played played the final 20 minutes with 10 players after freshman defender Tara Corcoran received a red card. The 49ers return home to play at 5 p.m. Friday against Oklahoma and 1 p.m. Sunday against Baylor.

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U.S. Women Escape With Tie in World Cup Opener

Hope Springs in Goal to Save U.S. Hopes

The greatest team you’ve never heard of (to borrow from the Nike ad campaign) tied the greatest team that don’t want you to know about them when the U.S. drew 2-2 with the secretive North Koreans in China today in the World Cup opener for both nations.

The U.S. were fortunate to get the draw against a fast, highly technical Korean team and required a sublime Hope Solo save in second half stoppage time to preserve its unbeaten record stretching back to 2004.

Here’s the (highly detailed) game report from U.S. Soccer.

And here’s a roundup of the day’s action from FIFA.

Meanwhile, former U.S. Women’s National Team player Brandi Chastain is out promoting next Tuesday’s DVD release of the 2005 HBO documentary “Dare to Dream: The Story of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team.”

Torrance’s Tough Carmichael Makes Kiwi World Cup Team

Torrance resident Simone Carmichael, who overcame a ruptured Achilles tendon in May to make the New Zealand World Cup squad, is the subject of my weekly column.

i-e23cf241a1c8da26f54474c6160b52e9-Simone_Ferrara1.jpg

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Women’s World Cup Monday & More

Women’s World Cup Underway

The 2007 FIFA Women’s World Cup began this morning with Germany crushing Argentina.

The U.S. Women begin play at 1:55 a.m. Tuesday so set your TiVo. Coach Greg Ryan believes the first game against North Korea will be his team’s toughest test in group play.

Fox Soccer Channel will have a preview that airs at 5 and 8 tonight.

More than 200 countries will watch this year’s tournament, up significantly from the 144 that watched the 2003 version from the U.S.

I’ll have more on the World Cup in Tuesday’s weekly column including news of a second Southern California resident playing in the tournament (Torrance’s Shannon Boxx is a starter for the U.S. of course).

Weekend Roundup

A summary of the U.S. and Mexico games and other Sunday soccer action is here.

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