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July 6, 2015 — Takeaways from a dominating performance

On the morning after the U.S. women’s soccer team’s 5-2 win over Japan in the final of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, there is still an afterglow from the dominating performance by the Stars and Stripes.

The reasons for the World Cup result are obvious: the defense of Megan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Ali Krieger, and Becky Sauerbrunn in front of goalkeeper Hope Solo. Also, the way that the team responded with the advancement of Carli Lloyd into an attacking midfield role, the master stroke of head coach Jill Ellis in this tournament.

But there are several other aspects of the Americans’ journey victory that cannot be forgotten.

1. Taking an opponent’s strength and throwing it right back at them. The U.S. women’s national team has been a creature of habit and work ethic over its history, but not necessarily of adaptability. The team has relied on shooting with pace, running at defenders, and occasional goals on set pieces taking advantage of a target player such as Michelle Akers and Abby Wambach. But the Norway teams of the 90s, Brazil in 2007, and Japan in 2011 showed that quick football could scissor through the U.S. defense, even with good coverage and goalkeeping.

The United States, during their run through the knockout stages of the 2015 tournament, played quick “tiki-taka” passing in the midfield and in the penalty area. The team owned the principle that the ball moves faster than the player, making the stout defenses of Germany and Japan look positively ordinary.

It is a reminder of the kind of play that Herb Brooks conjured up in the lead-in to the 1980 Olympic hockey team’s victory over the Soviet Union.

2. Don’t let up. The first 16 minutes of last night’s game should go down in legend as a lesson as to how to manage intensity and a dream start. The U.S. team got two goals in five minutes and could have parked the bus defensively for the last 85 minutes of the match. Instead, the Americans kept on going for goals. Lauren Holiday took advantage of a poor header in the Japan box and punished a volley into the back of the cage, then Lloyd, in a Beckham-esque feat of cleverness, chipped the goalie from about 54 yards.

Given the fact that Japan scored twice yesterday, it was perhaps a good thing that the U.S. didn’t park the bus after five minutes.

3. Taking advantage of every little edge, even if it may seem insignificant at first glance. The United States was the single most vocal team in protest of FIFA’s decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial grass. Yet, the U.S. team was able to finish off the final using the turf to advantage. The plays leading to the first two U.S. goals were started from within a few yards of each other on the right wing; Megan Rapinoe on the opening corner, and Lauren Holiday on a free kick.

On both occasions, the ball was driven on the ground towards their intended targets. It’s a tactic heretofore unheard of, but the U.S. team saw a chance to turn the turf into an advantage. The kicks didn’t slow down like they would on natural turf, and would sometimes take skips and bounces, ones Japan could not deal with.

Lloyd’s third goal also took advantage of a small edge. As captain, she won the pre-game coin toss and elected to have the Japanese team defend the end of the pitch at BC Place on which the sun was shining through the fabric roof. Lloyd, in the 16th minute, was able to lance the ball over goalie Erina Yamane’s head because of the difficulty of the ball coming from shade into the sun.

4. Tiffany Bashore’s Game Plan. So, what does the late Ewing (N.J.) field hockey coach have to do with this World Cup win? Her trademark motivation includes this sentence:

Respect the contest, yourself, and your opponent.

The American side yesterday not only commanded, but gave respect. When Abby Wambach entered the game 20 minutes from time, she received a hand-slap from Japan’s Homare Sawa, her former teammate from the Washington Freedom of WPS. But it was also the acknowledgement of two world-class warriors on the soccer pitch that it could be the last time either of them would be playing in an international match of consequence.

The American team also did something I’ve never seen before in a FIFA closing ceremony: they lined up in a guard of honor and applauded the Japanese team as they ascended the stage to accept their silver medals. That’s a sign of tremendous respect in the world of soccer.

But within the U.S. team, the respect that Christie Rampone and Wambach have earned for their service over the years was more than repaid at the close of the medal ceremony. Though Lloyd was the captain for the match, she handed off her blue armband to Wambach when she subbed in. Wambach then gave the 40-year-old Rampone the captain’s armband before they ascended the stage to get their medals and to hoist the Women’s World Cup trophy together.

It was a moment that crystallized what all of those shuttle runs, lifting sessions, and drills have meant to these women.

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