On paper, the 2011 Women’s Soccer World Cup finals in Frankfurt, Germany seems like a clash of dueling emotions: The U.S. feels it s a team of destiny in search of redemption.
In 2007, they were knocked out of the World Cup play prematurely by Brazil, the very team they beat last Sunday to advance after Abby Wambach’s amazing header tied the game with seconds remaining. The U.S. beat Brazil on penalty kicks, defeated France 3-1 Wednesday, and on Sunday find themselves on the precipice of taking home their first cup in 12 years.
“I am the most honored person to be on the receiving end of that great ball served in from Megan Rapinoe,” Wambach, 31, tells PEOPLE of the goal against Brazil. “But that was just another game in the grand scheme of what we’re trying to accomplish here. We have one game left and in order to make that the most historical goal of this tournament’s history, we have to win the World Cup.”
The lone obstacle remains Japan, a talented, ball-control team that in recent weeks has found its mojo – or “bite on the field – as well as a sense of purpose, cheered on by a nation craving for good news after the devastating tsunami and nuclear disaster earlier this year.
“They have talked about their country’s need for having positive things to rally around,” ESPN soccer analyst Julie Foudy tells PEOPLE. “The Japanese team was still in a daze when we saw them in May; it was, ‘Don’t drink the water,’ ‘Don t eat this.’ Their practice fields were next to the [devastated] Fukishima nuclear plant and were asphalted over for emergency rescue crews. Now, Japan is playing with a renewed spirit and a tenacity I have never seen before.”
The key for the U.S., says Foudy, will be its ability to play a great ball control game on offense against the patient Japanese. That, and a comfort factor from knowing that if they must, the Yanks can rely on the potential heroics of two of the best players in the world: Forward Abby Wambach and goalie Hope Solo.
Having that talent in any game, and it’s more than a few players, you can get away with not playing as good as the other team, and gut it out,” says Foudy.
Japan may be the “surprise team of the tournament,” says U.S. midfielder Lauren Cheney, “but they play beautiful soccer.” She promises the U.S. will be ready.
“We have spent the last few days getting our legs back and preparing for Japan,” Cheney, 23, tells PEOPLE. “We’re focusing on our game. This is going to be very exciting to watch.”
The game will be televised at 2 p.m. EST on ESPN.