Now it's time for the final, and ratings aside, this one has the kind of stuff sports legends are made of. Sports thrive on rivalries: Yankees versus Red Sox, Sampras versus Agassi, Army versus Navy. In women's sports, the rivalries might seem fewer, but they should be no less storied: Navratilova versus Evert on the tennis court; Tennessee versus UConn on the basketball court; USA versus Canada on the ice.
Enter Japan versus the United States on the soccer pitch.
When the two teams square off Sunday at BC Place Stadium in Vancouver, British Columbia, it will be the third meeting in as many major finals. In 2011, they battled to a 2-2 draw. While the United States seemed to outplay the Nadeshiko, they lost on penalty kicks, powerfully demonstrating how soccer can be a cruel game (just ask England's Laura Bassett). A year later in London at the Olympics, the United States prevailed, the third consecutive gold medal for the Americans.
This time, this game, matters more.
It is hard to pick a favorite. The Americans have played 513 shutout minutes; no one has scored on them since their opening match against Australia almost a month ago. And Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Ali Krieger, Meghan Klingenberg, and Hope Solo have no intention of letting Japan's midfield powerhouse Aya Miyama break that streak. But Japan's patient passing game begs to differ. This squad hasn't dropped a game this entire tournament, and doesn't intend to start now.
Both teams are looking at a whole lot of history to be had. Only Norway and Germany have reached consecutive WWC finals and both times they won. The United States is looking for a historic third title; Japan is looking to defend, as Germany did in 2007. Both teams have veterans looking to go out on top: Homare Sawa wants to add another trophy to her shelf, while Abby Wambach is looking for the one crown that has eluded her.
Think of it: Wambach, the leading all-time international scorer, men and women, with two Olympic gold medals to her name (she missed Beijing with a broken leg), doesn't have a World Cup title.
Regardless of the outcome, Wambach can rest assured she is leaving a squad that has, over the course of this tournament, demonstrated a viable future, with the likes of Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, and Solo joined by rising talents like Johnston and Morgan Brian. The future of soccer's governing body, however, is more unstable, something that could have a powerful -- and perhaps even positive -- effect on the women's game.
Without question, FIFA has been through a well-deserved rough patch of late with the indictment of FIFA officials this spring and the resignation of head Sepp Blatter, a man who once suggested that "tighter shorts" could help the women. Such an attitude demonstrates how on the women's side, the rough patch has been perpetual: a lack of global frenzy surrounding their games, the inane use of artificial turf, and the odd seeding of teams.
"At some point they have to stop taking us for idiots
," ranted France's Camille Abily, frustrated after her team's loss to Germany in the quarterfinals, a headlining sort of match-up that left many scratching their heads as to whether they had just watched the game that should have been the final.
But despite the fact that "Women's" is still used to make sure we all know this isn't, for FIFA, the real World Cup, change may be in the air. In addition to the record number of Americans watching games, Abily isn't the only one speaking against inequity. While the players dropped their lawsuit against FIFA over the artificial turf issue, they made their point loud and clear, with Wambach and Brazil's Marta acting more like Billie Jean King than Pele. And when Blatter stepped down, Rapinoe shouted it from the rafters. "Ding dong the witch is dead
," she tweeted. "Daddy got his hand caught in the cookie jar."
Boston soccer fan David Alperovitz, in the stands when the United States hosted the World Cup in 1994, made the drive to Montreal for the semifinal and was somewhat shocked by what he encountered this time around. "Getting over the border took forever because of the huge U.S. pilgrimage," he said. "Once there, I was amazed by the energy from the U.S. fans -- young kids in USWT jerseys, strangers high fiving each other, singing, chanting."
One thing in particular struck him: how well these fans understood the game and that the crowd seemed equally mixed between girls and boys, men and women.
Last summer, more Americans watched the World Cup than ever, despite the fact that the U.S. men's team had virtually no chance of making it to the final rounds. Last summer, more Americans watched a World Cup final on television than ever -- Germany versus Argentina. This summer, the Women's World Cup is the biggest women's sporting event to ever take place. This summer, the United States has made it to the show.
So let's do this. Sunday night. USA versus Japan. Women's World Cup.
Let's watch women for a change.