The first meeting between the U.S. Women’s National Team and Japan took place in 1986, the second year of existence of the U.S. WNT program. The match in the far-flung locale of Jesolo, Italy, was notable in that it was the fourth win in U.S. history, but no one would have known back then it was the start of a series which would eventually include the last three world finals for women’s international soccer. While the rivalry has been very one-sided over the 32 times the teams have met, with the USA holding a 25-1-6 record and outscoring Japan 92-22, the clashes in the last two World Cup Finals and the 2012 Olympic gold medal match were all epic in their own way.
It’s those games that have created one of the richest and most intense rivalries in international women’s soccer, forever etching the names of these two countries in the history books and in the hearts of those who love the game, and the teams that play it at the highest levels with entertaining flair and passion.
USA vs. Japan
2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final
July 17, 2011 – Frankfurt, Germany
The first of the three finals took place at the end of a tremendously well-staged Women’s World Cup in Germany. The USA made it to the Final after defeating Brazil in a dramatic quarterfinal penalty shootout, after an even more dramatic late overtime equalizer from Abby Wambach – in a game that’s still one of the most incredible in World Cup history – and then downed France 3-1 in the semifinal. Japan earned its place in the championship game after one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, a 1-0 defeat of two-time defending champion and host Germany in the quarterfinals, followed by a 3-1 win against Sweden in the semifinal.
The WNT celebrates a converted penalty kick during the penalty shootout against Brazil.
The storyline was thus: the star-studded United States of America, a team making its third appearance in a World Cup Final, having won the previous two times it had reached that stage, and Japan, which was making its first. For many, Japan was the underdog, certainly not because of a lack of talent – there were phenomenal players all over the pitch – but because it was their first time in a game of this magnitude at the senior level.
The Americans started strong and had far more dangerous chances throughout the match – and in fact probably should have been up a goal or two at halftime – but the game had to wait until late in the second half. It was the USA, as many predicted, who struck first. Young Alex Morgan scored in the 69th minute on a semi-breakaway to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. Japan’s Aya Miyama found the equalizer in the 81st minute, pouncing on a loose ball in front of the U.S. net. Neither team could find a game-winner in regulation and the match went on to extra time.
Fourteen minutes into extra time, Wambach tallied her 13th career World Cup goal on a powerful header off a cross from Morgan to put the USA ahead, 2-1. As time wound down, it seemed as if the USA would finally win its elusive third World Cup title, but Japan had other plans, once again getting an equalizer. Legendary captain Homare Sawa scored in the 117th minute of extra time to make it a 2-2 game, thus sending it to a penalty shootout. Japan went on to defeat the United States 3-1 in penalties to become the first team from Asia to win the FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach celebrates Morgan's second goal in the 2011 WWC Final.
For Japan, the somewhat unexpected title was a beacon of hope and an achievement that came when its country needed it the most. In March of that same year, merely four months before that World Cup Final, Japan suffered through a devastating earthquake and tsunami that took the lives of thousands of people. The World Cup success was a powerful moment for the people of Japan and it signaled the rise of women’s football in that nation. They were no longer underdogs but absolute contenders, thus establishing a rivalry that would be renewed in the years to come.
USA vs. Japan
2012 Olympic Games Gold Medal Game
August 9, 2012 – London, England
Following that devastating loss in Germany, the USA would meet Japan four times in 2012. On March 5 at the 2012 Algarve Cup in Portugal, Japan prevailed 1-0 and on April 1 in Sendai, Japan the teams drew 1-1. The USA started to turn the tide back to red, white and blue on June 16 in Halmstad, Sweden, with a 4-1 pounding of Japan. But of course, the most important game of that year came later in the summer.
A little over a year after the 2011 World Cup Final, the teams met again in a final, this time for Olympic glory. The memory of that World Cup loss was certainly still fresh in the minds of the U.S. players and this was the game they had wanted all along; a rematch on one of the biggest stages and a chance to take back the title of best team in the world.
An extraordinary crowd of 80,203 fans watched the gold medal game at Wembley Stadium in London, England. With the stadium filled to the brink, the electricity and anticipation was palpable in this rematch between two world powers. Would Japan come out on top like it did the year before or could the USA regain its place atop the podium?
Eight minutes into the match, Carli Lloyd put those questions to rest, giving the U.S. a 1-0 lead with a difficult header off an excellent cross from Morgan. She would score again in the second half, dribbling her way through defenders before hitting a rocket into the left corner of the net for a spectacular finish to give the USA a 2-0 lead in the 54th minute.
U.S. WNT tackles Carli Lloyd after winning the gold medal match.
Japan pulled a goal back through Yūki Ōgimi in 63rd minute, but U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo was spectacular and solid throughout the match, helping seal the gold with some late-game heroics. In the 83rd minute, Asuna Tanaka broke into the penalty box and Solo made a stellar diving save to preserve the lead and the eventual victory. The 2-1 win was sweet redemption, especially after waiting almost a whole year to make things right again. It was the USA’s third consecutive Olympic gold medal and fourth overall.
USA vs. Japan
2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final
July 5, 2015 – Vancouver, Canada
Following its triumph in London, the U.S. would not meet Japan again until the 2014 Algarve Cup in Parchal, Portugal, which ended in a 1-1 draw, but the teams were on a collision course to once again meet in the final of a world championship for the third time in five years.
The 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup was the first time 24 teams were competing at the event and the first time a team would need to win seven games to raise the trophy. Despite the increased competition and longer path to the final, the same two teams were standing at the end. Like any other final of a major tournament, the game was a must-watch, but add the many storylines that revolved around yet another USA-Japan matchup and the hype surrounding the game was off the charts. It did not disappoint.
History will show the USA put in one of the greatest clutch performances in soccer history, defeating Japan 5-2 to become the first team to win three FIFA Women’s World Cup titles. The win was certainly dominant and of course much different from 2011.
Like in 2011, the USA attacked from the start, but this time, the goals flowed in, and in 16 minutes of play the Americans had built a 4-0 lead. U.S. captain Lloyd, who would go on to win FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, netted the fastest hat trick in Women’s World Cup history (3rd, 5th and 16th minutes) while Lauren Holiday added a goal in the 14th minute. Lloyd’s third goal was one for the ages, as she blasted a shot from just over midfield.
The WNT raises the WWC trophy for the third time.
Japan ended the USA’s shutout streak at 539 minutes with a goal from Yūki Ōgimi in the 28th minute for a 4-1 score line at the half. Japan built a bit of momentum early in the second half as a free kick skimmed off defender Julie Johnston’s head and into the U.S. net in the 52nd minute, but Tobin Heath responded two minutes later, finishing a perfect pass from Morgan Brian after a corner kick to make it a 5-2 game and seal it for the USA, capping the highest scoring final in FIFA history.
The game was the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history for either men or women, clocking in just under 23 million viewers, an increase of 77% compared to the 2011 Women’s World Cup Final.
Which brings us back, or more accurately forward, to the Spring of 2016 as the U.S. WNT prepares to face Japan in a pair of June friendlies, the first meetings since the Women’s World Cup Final.
The streak of the USA and Japan meeting in the title game of a world championship will end at this summer’s Olympics - Japan failed to qualify out of a tough Asia qualifying tournament – but any time these two teams meet history will be on the field with them.
Every USA and Japan game features the best of international women’s soccer as well as the bright future of the game. The two countries pride themselves on their work ethic, determination and skillful attacking play, qualities that always produce highly entertaining matchups.
And hopefully, at some point down the road, another meeting with a world title on the line.