The USA and Japan met in three consecutive world finals in the first half of this decade -- the 2011 Women’s World Cup, the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 Women’s World Cup -- forever linking these two countries together in soccer history. As the teams prepare to meet again at the 2019 SheBelieves Cup, here are five things to know about Nadeshiko Japan.
Japan Women’s National Team Roster by Position:
GOALKEEPERS (3): 18-Ayaka Saitoh (Mynavi Vegalta Sendai Ladies), 1-Rei Takenaka (Inac Kobe Leonessa), 21-Erina Yamane (Real Betis, ESP)
DEFENDERS (8 ): 6-Saori Ariyoshi (Nippon TV Beleza), 5-Nana Ichise (Mynavi Vegalta Sendai Ladies), 4-Saki Kumagai (Olympique Lyonnais, FRA), 23-Moeka Minami (Urawa Res Diamonds Ladies), 24-Asato Miyagawa (Nippon TV Beleza), 12-Risako Oga (Nojima Stella Kanagawa Sagamihara), 3-Aya Sameshima (Inac Kobe Leonessa), 22-Risa Shimizu (Nippon TV Beleza)
MIDFIELDERS (7): 14-Yui Hasegawa (Nippon TV Beleza), 16-Arisa Matsubara (Nojima Stella Kanagawa Sagamihara), 17-Narumi Miura (Nippon TV Beleza), 7-Emi Nakajima (Inac Kobe Leonessa), 8-Moeno Sakaguchi (Albirex Niigata Ladies), 9-Hina Sugita (Inac Kobe Leonessa), 2-Rumi Utsugi (Reign FC, USA)
FORWARDS (5): 19-Jun Endo (Nippon TV Beleza), 13-Mayu Ikejiri (Suwon Urban Development Corporation WFC, KOR), 11-Rikako Kobayashi (Nippon TV Beleza), 15-Yuka Momiki (Nippon TV Beleza), 20-Kumi Yokoyama (AC Nagano Parceiro Ladies)
AFC Champions, Asian Games Champions and Qualified for France 2019
Japan has already booked its ticket for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, making them one of seven nations to have participated at every FIFA Women’s World Cup with the USA and Brazil also have appeared at every tournament. Japan won the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, their second consecutive continental title, and the 2019 Asian Games, and heads into the SheBelieves Cup on a nice run of victories.
Despite the winning its World Cup qualifying tournament in April, it was a challenging ride for Japan which defeated Vietnam, 4-0, and then had a scoreless draw against Korea Republic. A 1-1 draw against Australia (courtesy of a Mizuho Sakaguchi goal) in the final group match clinched second in the group and automatic passage to France. Japan then defeated China PR 3-1 in the semifinal and got late winner from Kumi Yokoyama to defeat Australia 1-0 in the championship game.
Rebuilding with Sights Set on World Cup and Olympics
Following its failure to qualify for the 2016 Olympics, Japan fell from fourth in the world to seventh (and is now eighth). Since then, Japan has rebuilt its team and features many younger players with a focus on winning a medal at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, but the core of the roster still features some vastly experienced players. Rumi Utsugi (111 caps/6 goals) who plays in the NWSL with Reign FC and Emi Nakajima (65/13) lead the midfield while defenders Aya Sameshima (103/5) and Saki Kumagai (100/0), who plays for UEFA Champions League title holders Olympique Lyonnais, have been fixtures in the back for years. Defender Saori Ariyoshi has 63 caps.
Aside from those players, no other player on the Japan roster has more than 35 caps, with that younger segment led by Yokoyama, who has 16 career international goals. Japan, which has a strong and engaged domestic league, has just four players on its SBC roster who play their club soccer outside of Japan -- Utsugi for the Reign, Kumagai for Lyon, uncapped forward Mayu Ikejiri who plays in South Korea, and 6-foot-2 goalkeeper Erina Yamane, who plays in Spain for Real Betis.
Woman in Charge
Japan head coach Asako Takakura assumed the reins in 2016 with big shoes to fill, as predecessor Norio Sasaki led Japan through a golden period which included two Women’s World Cup Finals – including the title in 2011 – and a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics.
The four-time Asian Women’s Coach of the Year made her National Team debut at the age of 16 and was a midfielder in her playing days. She earned 79 caps for Japan while scoring 30 goals. She played in the 1991 and 1995 World Cups, as well as the 1996 Olympics. She has been an integral part of the Japanese coaching infrastructure for years, having coached every age group from Under-13 upwards. She led Japan to the 2014 Under-17 Women’s World Cup title and the 2015 Asian U-19 Championship while also serving on the FIFA technical study group at the last World Cup. She also coached Japan to third place at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea, defeating the USA 1-0 in the bronze medal game.
Long-Time Rivals, Long-Time Respect
The USA and Japan have a rich history dating back to 1986, the second year of the U.S. WNT program. While the streak of meeting in three straight world finals ended at the 2016 Olympics, the matches between the USA and Japan have been some of the most watched women’s soccer games in history.
The USA lost in penalty kicks at the 2011 Women'sWorld Cup Final after a 2-2 tie over regulation and overtime but rebounded to win the 2012 Olympic goal medal game, 2-1, when Carli Lloyd bagged the game-winner, and the historic 2015 Women's World Cup Final, 5-2, on a hat trick from Lloyd and goals from Lauren Cheney and Tobin Heath. Since falling in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup Final, the USA has gone 6-1-3 against Japan, outscoring them 25-12.
Tournament of Nations to the SheBelieves Cup
The most recent meeting came at last year’s Tournament of Nations with the USA winning 4-2. Alex Morgan scored a hat trick and Megan Rapinoe also added a goal. In that game, the USA scored in the 18th minute, Japan tied it in the 20th, and then the USA scored three in a row (26th, 56th, 66th) before Japan pulled one back in the 76th minute.