When the United States won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, the moment marked the team as a soccer superpower. US Women’s Soccer has been a prohibitive favorite in every major tournament since the ‘91 Cup, with three World Cup wins and four gold medals in less than 30 years. Unsurprisingly, when the 2011 World Cup rolled around, the USA was expected to emerge victorious yet again.
After a tense win over Brazil in the quarterfinals, the team looked confident. In interviews before the championship match, US players dismissed their opponent’s chances and promised another Cup, Solo calling their group a “team of destiny.” They faced a Japan team that had never finished above fourth at the Olympics or World Cup before. Still, the team had a solid core behind stars like captain and midfielder Homare Sawa and their head coach, Norio Sasaki. What followed was stunning. Japan twice came back when down by a goal to equalize, including late in extra time, and won the World Cup on penalties. The underdog had won, and the “team of destiny” came through--it just wasn’t the US.
The loss was disappointing for the US Women’s Team, but ended up representing a major turning point for the team. The next year, the US made it to the gold medal match against Japan in the 2012 Olympics, and as such, revenge made for a key subplot of the match. On a Japan indirect free kick in the first half, Tobin Heath of the US extended her arm to make contact on a ball into the box, in what should’ve been a clear penalty, but the infraction was not called. Japan couldn’t complete a comeback this time, and the US won by one goal, 2-1 to claim Olympic gold.
The teams would have to wait three years for the next chapter of the rivalry within the context of a major competition. Despite the 2012 win, US media cast the match as “revenge” for the 2011 loss, although the Japanese team mentioned the 2012 match as impetus for their own revenge, especially considering the controversy that surrounded that loss. The game, in the eyes of many, made for a tiebreaker between the two powerhouses of the decade. In the end, the favorite won. Unlike in the previous two matches, the game wasn’t close, as Carli Lloyd poured in a hat trick within the first twenty minutes of the match en route to a resounding 5-2 win. The US’s “team of destiny” had come, just four years later than originally predicted.
The 2019 Women’s World Cup this June will be the final major competition in international women’s soccer this decade. Many of the old faces on both of the two powerhouse teams are gone. But as both put forth competitive teams this summer, it is worth noting how Japan brought a whole new storyline and excitement to international soccer by providing credible competition to a team that felt invincible and whose success felt inevitable. So USA fans, when you put on your vintage Hope Solo jersey, and cheer on Jill Ellis and the team this summer, don’t forget to tip your hat to Japan as well.