U.S., Japan clash for Women's World Cup title

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, Last Updated: 7:22 PM ET

FRANKFURT, Germany - The United States is back in the Women's World Cup final for a third time, but a country playing for much more than the title that comes along with a win Sunday presents the final obstacle.

Japan was devastated in March when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake - the largest in the country's history - triggered a tsunami, which in turn led to a full-scale nuclear crisis at one of the country's power plants.

More than 15,000 have been confirmed dead - thousands more are still missing - and Japan continues to recover months later, as it remains in the early stages of rebuilding.

And out of nowhere, a group of 21 women have lifted the country's spirits with an improbable run to the Women's World Cup final in Germany.

"Playing for something bigger than the game," U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said on Thursday, "that's hard to play against."

Japan arrived at the Women's World Cup as a long shot to make its first final, but coach Norio Sasaki refused to target anything less than the last game this Sunday at Commerzbank-Arena.

Now his country has to find a way to defeat the U.S. for the first time.

Led by captain Homare Sawa, Japan progressed through group play despite a loss to England - although Sasaki seemed to care less about the match with his team already secured of a quarterfinal berth.

And in the quarterfinals, Sasaki's team upset two-time defending champions and host Germany, 1-0. A 3-1 win over Sweden, which downed the U.S. in group play, followed in the semifinals.

"It was proof of the quality we're capable of and in the end it was enough to earn a result," Sasaki said.

With Sawa engineering the offense with four goals and an assist, she could end the tournament as the top scorer. Brazil's Marta finished with four goals and two assists.

In addition, Aya Miyama has a goal and three assists, as Japan has used a good combination of possession, skill and accurate passing to surprise opponents in the tournament so far.

Although Japan lost a pair of friendlies against the U.S. in May, both 2-0, it was as the country was emerging from the aftermath of the tragedy.

"Japan has obviously gone through a lot the past few months," U.S. defender Rachel Buehler said, "and it's amazing how their ... team has recovered from that."

Although the U.S. cannot draw comparisons to problems in Japan, the trouble on the field was evident for the Americans until just over a week ago.

Pia Sundhage's club lost to Mexico in World Cup qualifying, forcing it to beat Costa Rica, then Italy in a two-legged playoff, just to advance to the World Cup.

Losses to Sweden and England followed early this year and another loss against the Swedes in group play left more doubt, before a memorable finish against Brazil sparked the U.S. to a finals appearance.

After Marta scored in the second half to tie the match, then scored in extra time to put Brazil in front, the short-handed U.S. - which had Rachel Buehler sent off in the second half - tied the game in the final seconds.

Abby Wambach headed home a cross from Megan Rapinoe in the 122nd minute, and a 5-3 shootout win followed to break the 2-2 tie. Wambach scored the game-winner in a 3-1 win over France in the semifinals as well.

"Because we had such a bumpy road, we came out stronger and we learned a lesson we cannot take anything for granted," Sundhage said.

Sundhage admitted the U.S. needed to be "a little more unpredictable" against Japan, which is disciplined and tough to break down. The U.S. is 23-0-2 all- time against Japan, but Mexico was winless in 25 games against the Americans before its stunning victory late last year.

Wambach, like every player on the U.S. but captain Christie Rampone, has never won a World Cup. And even Rampone, who was an unused substitute in the final 12 years ago, has never played in a final.

"This isn't good enough for me," Wambach said about reaching the final, as the U.S. finished third in the last two tournaments. "Getting to the final is only halfway part of our dream coming true."

"Our one and only goal is to win this tournament," Solo said.


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