For all the talk that Japan was in a rebuilding phase, they came out looking like a team determined to forget what happened last summer at the World Cup. Even with a new coach and some new, young players, they played quintessentially like Japan for much of the game with their trademark patient technicality.
The United States came out in a 4-3-3, hoping that the dynamism of Crystal Dunn on the right and Tobin Heath on the left would help create opportunities for Alex Morgan. Both Dunn and Heath have become creative engines for their respective NWSL clubs this season, but it was not to be - at least not for the first quarter of the game.
Japan got on the scoreboard first in the 14' when Mana Iwabuchi hit a beautiful curving ball from the top of the 18.
Then Japan struck again only seven minutes later in the 22', with Megan Klingenberg unable to control her attacker and prevent a cross that landed in perfect position for Yuki Ogimi to finish off with a low shot.
The game slowed down a little bit after that as the United States sought to regroup and push forward again, which they did in the 27'. The US sent a quick ball forward; Mallory Pugh directed it into the box, and a very open Alex Morgan pounced on it to finish low past 20-year-old Ayaka Yamashita.
At this point there were only three shots in the game, and all three resulted in goals in the span of 13 minutes - an indicator that this was going to be one of the more exciting American friendlies so far this year.
For the rest of the first half, Japan kept the pressure on the United States, disrupting any attempt to build a rhythm or maintain possession. A few times players managed to break out and make runs up the flanks, but despite last-minute pressure from the US, the were unable to score again.
The second half started with the United States finding a few seams in the Japanese defense, just like they started the first half, but this time the game settled into more of a back and forth with Japan already on an even keel. And then, in the 57', Japan veteran and goalscorer Ogimi picked up a second yellow for going into Julie Johnston from behind. Perhaps the card was harsh, but Ogimi knew she was already on a yellow and was already chasing a ball deep into American territory. There was no good reason for the tackle and she was sent off, leaving Japan to fight with 10 for the rest of the game.
Jill Ellis made her first substitutions in the 61', pulling Morgan Brian and Dunn and entering Lindsey Horan and Christen Press as like-for-like subs.
The US scored their second goal not by taking advantage of fresh legs against a team down to 10, but in the 64' on a curling free kick from Tobin Heath that found Alex Morgan running at it. Morgan's header seemed to catch the keeper by surprise and earned her a brace on the night.
Yamashita was in position to save the ball and probably should have done so, her relative youth doing her a disservice in this game, but it got the US to 2-2 and gave them a push to go into the last 25 minutes with some more energy.
Another sub came in the 74', with Klingenberg out and Ali Krieger in, shifting Kelley O'Hara over to the left. O'Hara has proved her versatility with these shifts between sides within games, and if this game is any indicator, she'll be a starter in Rio.
As the last 15 minutes of regulation ticked down, the US was possessing with some patience, but Japan was fighting back and cagily holding the ball while searching for openings. Heath, Horan, and Allie Long's club connection almost opened up an opportunity around the 18, as they deftly one-touched the ball through each other, but it sadly did not yield results.
The last US sub came in the 84' with Heath coming out for Samantha Mewis, who assumed the defensive mid role and pushed everyone up in front of her.
Then in the 89' what seemed to be the goal that would break the deadlock as the US' good ball movement reached O'Hara in the attacking third. O'Hara sent it into the box where Lindsey Horan out-leapt two Japanese defenders and the goalkeeper to head it in, making it 3-2.
At this point Japan was clearly tired and still playing with 10, but then deep into stoppage, they had the presence of mind to do this.
It was a bad look for the US defense overall as Sauerbrunn went in too hard and Johnston was caught ballwatching, seemingly unaware that she had anyone to her left. That leveled it at 3-3, with no time to try for a game winner. Japan will surely be going into the next friendly feeling confident.
As for the United States, they scored partially off some goalkeeper errors and were forced to make up a two goal deficit early on. The fact that they did make it up, and off of Alex Morgan, is very encouraging, but they did break down at times in terms of possession, reverting a little bit to their old hoof-it-and-hope ways as they sought to get back in the game.
They'll want to work on not falling apart under high pressure and moving the ball quickly through the midfield, like the one that earned them their first goal. They may also want to consider trying a keeper other than Hope Solo, not just because she hasn't been as sharp as usual, but because there is literally no reason not to try either Ashlyn Harris or Alyssa Naeher in goal to provide whoever will be Solo's backup in Rio with some actual experience.
The United States faces Japan for their second friendly on Sunday, June 5 at 12:30 PM ET in Cleveland.