In the immediate aftermath of the World Cup, like literally five minutes later, our opponents basically ceased to exist, be thought of, or mentioned. Part of this was the unfortunate nature of the way the U.S. won the game. But let’s acknowledge that most other teams would have folded immediately after that barrage of bad luck. The Japanese team showed amazing fortitude and resilience. Most teams would have simply folded. They scored two goals (granted, one an own goal) and remained competitive before our fifth broke them completely.
Aside from benefiting from an equally flukey success on the other side of the equation during their semifinal (and that own goal would not have happened had they not been pressing), Japan played a strong tournament that was largely overlooked. They once again presented a creative, dynamic, and organized possession style of soccer. For most of the tournament I was speculating about whether we could get their coaching staff to come work with the USWNT.
It is equally worth noting that Japan has success across the board in women’s sports. While its gender dynamics are different from those in the United States, they are equally patriarchal. Women face hurdles and lack of institutional support, the same as anywhere else, and that includes the Scandinavian countries with their vaunted claims to national feminism. Recall the Japanese men’s soccer team flying business class to the 2012 Olympics while the women, reigning World Cup champions, flew coach. As I understand it, though, there has historically been less resistance to girls participating in sport (correct me if I’m wrong there). Japan’s softball team is consistently among the best in the world, and their individual athletes pop up all the time in various sports. You can also see clearly the team sports where there is a national will to improve. Soccer was one of these. Japan used to have a reputation as an OK team that wasn’t physical enough and didn’t have ideas in the final third. Thanks to the rise of a few key players and the will to build a system, they are now an international powerhouse. Hockey is another. To have a nation lacking a long hockey history or culture be able to compete in the top tier and hold their own is a testament to the way Japan develops and trains its athletes, and the fortitude of these athletes. In all the hoopla over the U.S.’ win, let’s take a moment to remember and honor their opponents, and as hockey fans look forward to seeing their continued improvement.