When the U.S. women's soccer team faces off against Japan in the World Cup final today, many more people will be watching than when the two teams played in Cary on May 18. But the U.S. squad will be hoping for similar results as the teams clash again on a much bigger stage.
In their second-to-last match before the World Cup, the Americans prevailed 2-0 in front of 5,323 spectators at WakeMed Soccer Park. Five days earlier, the U.S. beat Japan by the same 2-0 margin at Columbus, Ohio.
Frankfurt's Commerzbank Arena can hold up to 48,837 fans, and millions more will be watching the championship on television. The Americans' "Pressure Makes Us" moniker will certainly be tested.
A key for the U.S. could be UNC alum Heather O'Reilly. She was involved in both scoring plays during the match in May, dishing an assist to forward Amy Rodriguez in the 28th minute before scoring in the 69th minute.
O'Reilly has always had success on the field near her alma mater. It was her 29th career international goal, and she got it in the same stadium where she got her first in 2002 against Italy.
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage knows the level of competition will be higher than when the teams played in Cary.
"They're a much better team now, more sophisticated," Sundhage said in a news conference call Thursday. "They're going into the attacking third [of the field] more, and they're good at controlling the ball."
Defender Rachel Buehler also praised Japan but thinks that O'Reilly could have another big game on today.
"Japan's a very connected, technical team. They're great at crossing," Buehler said. "[But] Heather did very well against them. She always comes out and plays with such a huge amount of passion."
O'Reilly has already proved to be a catalyst for the American squad in this World Cup.
She scored the team's first goal in the match against Colombia, a booming strike from about 30 yards out that was praised by commentator Ian Darke as "the goal of the tournament" when it hit the back of the net. That declaration could be contested now thanks to Marta's brilliant second goal against the U.S., but it's a close call.
O'Reilly then missed the following game, a 2-1 letdown against Sweden in the group play finale, due to a groin injury.
Now she appears to be at full health again after tallying an assist in the 3-1 semifinal victory over France on Wednesday.
Hope Solo and Abby Wambach have gained national attention because of their heroics in this year's World Cup - if O'Reilly can duplicate her performance in May today, then she's up next.
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