London • Abby Wambach’s black eye is healed, Carli Lloyd’s head is fine and Hope Solo wasn’t allowed anywhere near a microphone on Wednesday.
The U.S. women’s soccer team is ready to take on Japan for a gold medal.
After an Olympics road that has been violent, controversial and dramatic, the concluding match is one we’ve seen before.
So it stands to reason that when members of United States team came face to face with Japan’s top players between media conferences Wednesday, they stood side by side and smiled for photos. Up in arms? These two teams were linked by them.
It was refreshing and symbolic. After Japan beat the U.S. in last year’s World Cup in Germany, the teams have been closely associated.
“We have so much respect for each other,” Wambach said.
But don’t expect the teams to come together mid-pitch at Wembley Stadium on Thursday to sing campfire songs.
“It’s definitely redemption,” Lloyd said. “But it’s also an opportunity. An opportunity to show the world that we’re the No. 1 team in the world.”
The Americans are shooting for their third consecutive Olympic gold medal, but Japan is the reigning champ.
The U.S. almost didn’t get the rematch. Tied 3-3 with Canada on Monday at Old Trafford in Manchester, the Americans were bailed out by a 123rd minute header by 23-year-old Alex Morgan.
It was one of the shining moment of these Games, which in the context of U.S. soccer, have been a gossip columnist’s dream.
Solo started a Twitter war with former national team star (now broadcaster) Brandi Chastain over comments Chastain made about defender Rachel Buehler. Wambach was sucker-punched in the right eye against Colombia. And the Canada match? Where to start. In video replays, Canada’s Melissa Tancredi appears to intentionally step on Lloyd’s head, a foul that came before Canada was on the receiving end of a controversial time-wasting call against its goalkeeper, Erin McLeod.
But against Japan, the mood is different.
“There’s no animosity,” midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “They snatched our dream last year, and we still have that respect for them.”
Japan is led by 33-year-old midfielder Homare Sawa, the team’s captain who last year won FIFA’s Ballon d’Or. The award is given to the world’s best women’s player. A former teammate of Wambach’s with the Washington Freedom of the now-defunct Women’s Professional Soccer league, she’ll be a primary focus for the U.S.
“I think that Homare Sawa has proven herself to be one of the best players in the world,” Wambach said.
Wambach was thrilled to talk about Japan and the U.S.’s hopes. She deflected the only question tossed her way about the wasting time call, which Wambach has said came after she began counting into the referee’s ear every time McLeod held the ball.
The victory over Canada raised the profile of women’s soccer, if only during the Games, but Wambach has another achievement level in mind.
“Hopefully,” she said, “people will become legends tomorrow night.”
It will take a strong effort from the Americans to avoid a second straight loss in the game of the year. A strong possession team, Japan’s players said they need to score early against the U.S.
But the Americans have a strategy, as well.
And, yes, coach Pia Sundhage said, they have been practicing penalty kicks.
• After losing to Japan in last year’s World Cup final, Team USA has its eyes on redemption.
• The match will be played at historic Wembley Stadium.
• The U.S. is coming off one of the most dramatic and controversial games in the history of the sport, a 4-3 victory against Canada.
P USA vs. Japan12:45 p.m. TV • NBCSN