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U.S. to face 'sentimental' favorite Japan in World Cup

By Michael Martinez, CNN
  • The women's World Cup will be held Sunday in Frankfurt, Germany
  • Japan is the sentimental favorite after a devastating earthquake and tsunami
  • The U.S. team is forming its own identity apart from the successful 1999 team

(CNN) -- Though the U.S. women's soccer team twice defeated them earlier this year, Japan remains a formidable opponent as they're the sentimental favorites in Sunday's World Cup, American players said Thursday.

The worlds collective heart sympathizes with how Japan was devastated by an earthquake and the ensuing tsunami this year, American players told reporters in a conference call from Frankfurt, Germany, where the United States and Japan will compete for the gold cup.

"Japan, they are the sentimental favorites in this tournament," U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "They're playing for something bigger and better than the game. When you are playing with so much heart, that's hard to play against.

"I think it's going to be an incredible final that people expect to see," Solo added.

U.S. defender Rachel Buehler agreed.

"Japan has obviously gone through a lot in the past few months," Buehler said. "I think everybody loves Japan."

But that's not entirely true, if social media and technology in the United States are any indication: the U.S. team's dazzling play, led by the headers of forward Abby Wambach, has captured the imagination -- and tweets -- of Americans and even local Germans who are making comparisons to the last U.S. women's team to win it all, in 1999.

But 2011 team members are quick to point out that while they are grateful for Mia Hamm and the other stars of the 1999 team, this era's squad has its own identity, and it's decidedly creative and crazy at once.

In the locker room, the players are known to sing and dance. On the field, the Americans have been trained to play with freedom, and that's due to the European influence of Swedish-born head coach Pia Sundhage, the team's first foreign coach.

That team character will face a Japanese squad that is significantly smaller in size (with an average height of 5-foot-4) and faster and more tactical in their play, the Americans said.

"They are the biggest surprise in the tournament," U.S. defender Ali Krieger said of her opponents. "The game is going to be quicker and it's going to be a passing game.

"We'll have to defend as a collective group," she added. "And hopefully we'll be successful."

Just as the 1999 team inspired a generation of young girls, this year's team is doing the same with today's kids, and the group is doing it with its own individuality.

"Respect has to be given to the women that came before," Wambach told reporters. "People are saying, 'Are you getting tired of the '99 story?' and if I say yes, it would be definitely slapping the face of the women who came before us, and I wouldn't do that."

Yet, a new era is dawning.

"We are a different team, and we are a different generation, and we are in a different time," Krieger said. "We're trying to write our own story and make this a new story for women's soccer and women's football around the world to enjoy."

Wambach recognizes that being a woman athlete is a special status -- as a role model and as a pro.

"We're professional athletes, something that not many women have the privilege to experience," Wambach said. "This job is almost a dream. It's our job as women and athletes to give women a platform to inspire themselves.

"A lot of people say, 'Is it a burden that there are so many young persons wishing to be here?' I don't say it's a burden. It's a responsibility," Wambach said.

Head coach Sundhage said she was brought to the team in 2008 to infuse it with new ideas.

"I guess there's a reason they hired me from a foreign country," she said. "They wanted change. It was risky to make too big of a change because then (the team) would lose a lot of confidence.

"I think we found that balance in a very good way in 2008: it started out with the expectation of the back four. I really dislike it when they just poke the ball out of bounds.... I expect them to keep the ball," Sundhage said.

She keeps team unity and positivity in mind.

"If you have high expectations, if you have positive expectations, very often it happens," Sundhage said. "I try to coach what is healthy.... The biggest mistake you can make is if you don't try.

"My glass is half full. I try to show them what works," Sundhage added.

That energy is evident in the locker room, players said.

"When you put a bunch of women in the locker room together, it can get crazy. You got singing. You got dance," Solo said, though she described herself as someone who keeps to herself. "It's quite fun."