DALLAS – On their recent trip to Japan, the U.S. women’s soccer team got striking views of two things that left a lasting impression.
One was the lingering devastation from the earthquake and tsunami that hit the northeast coast of Japan’s main island 14 months ago.
The U.S. players’ reaction to what they saw included leaving a crate full of gear behind so some Japanese girls could make soccer a piece of a brighter future. It wound up at Nishi Kesennuma High School in Sendai, one of the areas hardest hit by the disaster.
The other was the way these Japanese girls were learning the game. It left some U.S. players thinking their country’s development program needs to adopt similar methods.
Those ideas helped create the style of play that carried Japan to victory over Team USA on penalty kicks in the final of the 2011 World Cup and both a win and a tie against the U.S. women in matches this season.
What seemed like a shock in the World Cup – after all, the U.S. was 22-0-3 against Japan before then – had been coming since Japan slowly began about a decade ago going from pushover to potent rival.
“Japan is the Barcelona of women’s soccer,” U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said, referring to the Spanish team’s ability to string passes together and keep the ball.
Japan’s Messi would be Homare Sawa, the world women’s player of the year in 2011 and leading scorer at the World Cup, even if Sawa is more of a grinder than the graceful Argentine, a master of legerdepied.
“She perfectly symbolizes the kind of football (soccer) that our team tries to pull off,” Japanese coach Norio Sasaki told fifa.com.
World Cup and Olympic veteran Lloyd thinks the skills to play that kind of soccer come from “small-sided soccer,” which emphasizes possession, ball control and multiple short passes. It means having younger athletes play games that are 5 on 5 in restricted areas rather than 11 against 11 on full-sized fields.
“Over the years, we (the U.S.) have relied on athleticism and fitness,” Lloyd said during this week’s Olympic media summit in Dallas. “But times are changing, and we can’t rely on that any more.
“It’s very hard to defend against a team like Japan that moves and possesses the ball so well.”
Teammate Heather O’Reilly, headed for a third Olympics, had a similar take.
“Japan is a more technical team than the U.S.,” O’Reilly said. “They can keep the ball more easily.
“When you play on big fields (as a young player), there is not much demand for clean technique. I developed technique later. When I went to college, I still had a very weak left foot.”
After watching a group of 14-year-old Japanese girls train five-on-five, Lloyd was struck by how little emphasis there was on going to goal compared to that on keeping possession.
“If you play 8-on-8 or 11-on-11, (some players) can look up at the sky for a couple minutes,” Lloyd said. “In small-sided games, you can’t take plays off. The girls we saw training were all totally engaged.
“You can’t start to do that at age 25. It has to begin at under-8, under-9. It’s the only way we are going to reach a skill level like Japan’s.”
Japan’s style has brought success when it added some U.S.-type aggressiveness near the goal.
“They needed to have more bite in the final third, to mesh the possession style with a more American grit,” O’Reilly said.
Under coach Pia Sundhage, the U.S. women have worked on a possession game rather than continue launching long balls toward the imposing figure of goal scorer extraordinaire Abby Wambach.
The teams meet again in a pre-Olympic tune-up June 18 in Sweden. If each wins its first-round Olympic group, they could head to another showdown in the final.
“You always want to play teams that have been beating you,” Lloyd said.
And if you can’t beat them the way you did in the past, it would be time to join their school of soccer thought.