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Usual US finals foe Japan won't be at the 2016 Olympics

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Japan have been eliminated from AFC qualifying.

Erich Schlegel-USA TODAY Sports

Three times now in the past five years, the United States have faced Japan in a major tournament final.

In 2011, the United States lost in heartbreaking fashion in the World Cup final after going to penalty kicks. For Japan, though, it was a moment of hope for a nation that had so recently been devastated by a tsunami, and the popularity of the Nadeshiko subseqently skyrocketed.

In 2012, the Americans took some consolation in beating Japan at the London Olympics, coming away with a gold medal and a renewed thirst for the next World Cup.

In 2015, fate (or a whole lot of lucky results and the bracket structure) brought Japan and the United States together again for another World Cup final. Carli Lloyd's stunning hat trick and the overall 5-2 scoreline firmly tipped the balance of this respectful rivalry, and brought home a third World Cup for America.

You might have expected Japan to continue the story at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but in a slightly shocking twist, Japan instead washed out of AFC Olympic qualifying. Out of the six nations competing (Australia, China PR, North Korea, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam), Japan currently sit fourth. The top two nations in the tournament, Australia and China PR, will go to Rio instead. Japan managed a 1-1-2 record, losing to Australia and China PR, tying South Korea, and then stomping AFC minnow Vietnam 6-1.

But the fact that Vietnam was able to score at all on Japan is an indicator of the cracks in the team, cracks that savvy viewers might have spotted at the 2015 World Cup as Japan sometimes struggled in their scoring. They never won a game by more than one goal, and it took a truly astonishing own goal by England in the semifinals for Japan to advance over them. Former Nadeshiko captain and footballing icon Homare Sawa herself had, by her standards, some harsh for the team.

So the United States will now go to the Olympics while the Nadeshiko go home. Longtime head coach Norio Sasaki will resign. Japan has one more game in AFC qualifying, a consolation match against North Korea that may prove to be no consolation at all, considering North Korea has a fairly strong squad.

It won't quite be the same for the United States without their most respected rival. It's also a major shake-up to the world of women's soccer and an announcement from Australia that their program is finally ready to start reaping the rewards of their development.

America knows that feel, Japan, washing out of a tournament they were expected to dominate. We just got lucky that ours was the relatively impactless Algarve 2014 instead of a tournament qualifier. Here's to 2019 and a newer, stronger squad for us to beat.