So no one told you life was gonna be this way
Jill Ellis is stuck, no luck
Your midfield’s DOA
It’s like you’re always stuck in second gear
When it hasn’t been your Olympics, your SheBelieves
Or even your year
The United States has had a rough time of it in their second mini-tournament go round this year. First they came last at SheBelieves in March. Now they’re struggling at the Tournament of Nations, falling to Australia and having to dig out of a hole of their own making in a crazy 4-3 game against Brazil. Next up: Japan.
Japan is a team that is also working on a rebuild, somewhat removed from their triumphant 2011 World Cup surprise win. (It wasn’t that much of a surprise if you were paying attention to them before then, but even their biggest fans probably wouldn’t have predicted 2011 as the year for them.) For this tournament they’ve brought in a relatively young roster, with lots of players 23 or younger. They tied Brazil 1-1 in their opening game, and then went down in a slightly shocking 4-2 loss against Australia.
Japan very clearly could not handle Australia’s speed, which left their back line vulnerable for large parts of the game. If they so much as thought about leaving the defensive third, Australia was there to remind them not to do that. It seemed like child’s play for Sam Kerr to nip through and behind the Japanese defense. Between Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, and Christen Press, the United States should definitely be taking note of that exploit. But Japan is also capable of very smooth transitions through their midfield, patiently possessing their way into position for a cross to target their attackers in the box. Seattle’s Rumi Utsugi is one player to watch, clearly brought along as one of the older players to hold down a key position deeper in midfield and providing a solid base for the younger players around her.
One of those younger players who has been intriguing to watch for Japan in this tournament is 23-year-old Mina Tanaka. Tanaka has good movement around the box and is willing to try clever little slip balls and cheeky backheels to put her teammates in. She could be something of a handful for the United States’ shifting defense, capitalizing on any little hesitation or moment of confusion if our back four have been mixed ‘n matched again.
As for the United States, there are a couple of players who have yet to see the pitch. Jane Campbell and Abby Smith, both backup goalkeepers, probably won’t get even a half out of this game. Jill Ellis already stated her intentions to start Alyssa Naeher for all three games, and after Naeher had a whopper of a bad game against Brazil, perhaps it’s even more important for her to follow that up with a good 90.
Ali Krieger is the only defender who hasn’t yet taken the field; Ellis really seems to want to give Taylor Smith a run out. It’s a bit of a shame considering Krieger is currently sitting on 98 caps, but between Smith, Kelley O’Hara, and Casey Short, Ellis doesn’t seem to have room for Krieger.
Likewise Margaret Purce is the only midfielder who hasn’t taken the field yet. So far the United States has had noted issues in the midfield, relying heavily on width for their attack. (See: Megan Rapinoe vs Australia.) If Japan is vulnerable to speed, then Purce could be an option.
Among the forwards, they’ve all technically played, but thus far Lynn Williams has only seen one sub on in stoppage. She could be another option for width in the attack if Ellis really wants to keep playing her midfield too deep to connect to the forwards.
JAPAN ROSTER BY POSITION
GOALKEEPERS (3): Sakiko Ikeda (Urawa Red Diamonds, Japan), Ayaka Saitoh (Vegalta Sendai, Japan), Ayaka Yamashita (Nippon TV Beleza, Japan)
DEFENDERS (7): Nana Ichise (Vegalta Sendai, Japan), Hikaru Kitagawa (Urawa Red Diamonds, Japan), Kaede Nakamura (Albirex Niigata, Japan), Ayumi Oya (Ehime FC, Japan), Riho Sakamoto (AC Nagano Parceiro, Japan), Aya Sameshima (INAC Kobe Leonessa, Japan), Hikari Takagi (Nojima Stella Kanagawa Sagamihara, Japan)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Madoka Haji (Iga FC Kunoichi, Japan), Yui Hasegawa (Nippon TV Beleza), Emi Nakajima (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Yu Nakasato (Nippon TV Beleza), Hikaru Naomoto (Urawa Red Diamonds, Japan), Mizuho Sakaguchi (Nippon TV Beleza), Rin Sumida (Nippon TV Beleza), Rumi Utsugi (Seattle Reign)
FORWARDS (5): Yuka Momiki (Nippon TV Beleza), Yuika Sugasawa (Urawa Red Diamonds, Japan), Mina Tanaka (Nippon TV Beleza), Shiho Tomari (AC Nagano Parceiro), Kumi Yokoyama (FFC Frankfurt, Germany)
USA vs Japan kicks off at 10 PM ET on Thursday, August 3 at StubHub Center in Carson, California. It will air live on ESPN2.