U.S. looks to win World Cup in front of partisan crowd

Abby Wambach, left, and Alex Morgan get in one last practice session Saturday before the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday against Japan.
Abby Wambach, left, and Alex Morgan get in one last practice session Saturday before the Women’s World Cup final on Sunday against Japan. Getty Images

Sixteen years have passed since the United States last won a Women’s World Cup, a dramatic, historic day in front of 93,000 fans at the Rose Bowl that will forever be remembered by Brandi Chastain’s iconic sports bra celebration.

The shadow of that trailblazing team — led by Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy and Kristine Lilly — continues to loom over U.S. women’s soccer. On Sunday afternoon, a new collection of gritty American players has a chance to write its own storybook ending.

Team USA plays Japan in the Women’s World Cup final at BC Place Stadium, a rematch of the 2011 final, which the Americans lost in a heartbreaking penalty-kick shootout. That day in Frankfurt, Germany, the Japanese were sentimental favorites as their nation was still recovering from a tsunami and earthquake that took the lives of more than 15,000 people.

This time, on Fourth of July weekend, with the match just across the U.S. border, the Americans will have the sellout crowd of 51,000 on their side. A record TV audience is expected to tune in. Tickets were going for as high as $850 — quadruple face value — and most buyers were from the United States.

Thousands of American fans were already partying Saturday afternoon at the Fan Zone across the street from BC Place Stadium, many of them decked in red, white and blue.

“Even though we’re in Canada, these matches have been feeling like we’re at home,” U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe said. “We have been selling out stadiums and they’re packed with mostly U.S. fans. I can’t imagine it being too much different if we were actually in America. We’re getting recognized all over Canada, and I expect another great U.S. crowd on Sunday.”

U.S. coach Jill Ellis, a Palmetto Bay resident, has been getting daily advice texted from her father, John — “Three deep breaths, keep going.”

Ellis said internally the team always knew what it was capable of, comparing it to an iceberg, where the outsiders “see only 10 percent, but we see the 90 percent under water and we know what we have in us.”

She is excited about the challenge of playing the final against Japan.

“These are two talented teams with a lot of history and rivalry, and I think it will be a classic matchup,” Ellis said. “Both teams have a lot of the same players from 2011, but that said, this is a different team on a different journey and I know all 23 players and our staff are tremendously excited for this next challenge.”

Fourteen players are back from the U.S. team that lost to Japan in the 2011 final. Seven players expected to start Sunday played in that game — Carli Lloyd, Hope Solo, Ali Krieger, Rapinoe, Lauren Holiday, Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath.

The Americans led that game 2-1 with nine minutes remaining, but then Aya Miyama scored the equalizer and the score remained tied at the end of regulation. U.S. star forward Abby Wambach put her team ahead again with a goal in extra time, but Japan’s Homare Sawa sent the game to penalty kicks with a late goal.

A year later, the United States turned the tables with a 2-1 win over Japan in the 2012 Olympic gold medal game. Lloyd scored both goals. But for soccer players, World Cups are the tournaments that matter most, so American players think they have unfinished business.

Team USA is peaking, coming off its best game of this tournament — a 2-0 semifinal win over top-ranked Germany. The U.S. defense has been nearly impossible to penetrate, having gone 513 minutes without conceding a goal.

Japan is coming off its worst performance of this Cup, needing a fluke own-goal by England in stoppage time to advance. Nevertheless, the Americans are expecting Japan to play its best Sunday. The Japanese keep the ball in possession better than any team in the world, and when their passes are connecting, it can be extremely frustrating for opponents.

“In order to be the best team in the world at the World Cup, you have to beat the best teams,” said Wambach, who will likely come off the bench Sunday. “We just beat the No. 1 team in the world in Germany and now we face Japan, another team that we have so much respect for. They have an amazing team and they’re the reigning World Cup champions, so I think it’s going to be a fantastic final. Everyone will have to bring their ‘A’ game, and whoever finishes their chances the most will come out on top. Hopefully it will be us.”

World Cup final

Who: U.S. vs. Japan.

When/where: 7 p.m.; Vancouver, British Columbia.

TV: Fox and Telemundo.

Road to final: U.S. — d. Australia 3-1, tied Sweden 0-0, d. Nigeria 1-0, d. China 1-0, d. Colombia 2-0, d. Germany 2-0. Japan — d. Switzerland 1-0, d. Cameroon 2-1, d. Ecuador 1-0, d. Netherlands 2-1, d. Australia 1-0, d. England 2-1.

Past champions

2011Japan (runner-up U.S.)

2007Germany (Brazil)

2003Germany (Sweden)

1999U.S. (China)

1995Norway (Germany)

1991U.S. (Norway)