The United States Women’s National Team opened the 2023 SheBelieves Cup with a 2-0 win over Canada. The tournament continues, this time with a match against Japan. While a bit past the glories of a decade ago, the program is still a power in the Asian Football Confederation, claiming two of the last three AFC Women’s Asian Cups. The fixture is scheduled for Geodis Park, a 30,000-seat venue in Nashville, Tennessee.
This is the 39th all-time meeting between the two nations, with the USWNT holding a 29-1-8 advantage, the lone blemish coming in the final of the 2011 World Cup. Japan is currently ranked 11th in the world by FIFA. なでしこジャパン (Nadeshiko Japan) qualified for the upcoming World Cup by reaching the quarterfinal round of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, a tournament run that ended in the semifinals against eventual champions China. The defeat could represent a changing of the guard as a regional and global force, a hypothesis unchallenged by a 1-0 loss to Brazil in the opening round of the SheBelieves Cup.
Futoshi Ikeda was appointed to the manager role in October of 2021. The 52-year-old spent the majority of his coaching career in the youth ranks, leading Japan to the 2018 U-20 World Cup. He hopes to punch above the team’s weight at the World Cup by minimizing mistakes and “taking more action.”
Ikeda named a 23-player roster for the SheBelieves Cup, a squad with an average of 24.3 years old. The Japan Women’s Empowerment Professional Football League is home to 12 call-ups, while a further five compete in England’s Women’s Super League. Notable absences are Asato Miyagawa, Yika Sugasawa, Mina Tanaka, and Hikaru Naomoto.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Ayaka Yamashita (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Chika Hirao (Albirex Niigata), Momoko Tanaka (Tokyo Verdy Beleza)
DEFENDERS (9): Saki Kumagai (Bayern Munich), Shiori Miyake (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Ruka Norimatsu (Omiya Ardija Ventus), Risa Shimizu (West Ham United), Kiko Seike (Urawa Reds), Miyabi Moriya (INAC Kobe Leonessa), Moeka Minami (Roma), Saori Takarada (Linköping), Rion Ishikawa (Urawa Reds)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Yui Hasegawa (Manchester City), Hina Sugita (Portland Thorns), Honoka Hayashi (West Ham United), Fuka Nagano (Liverpool), Hinata Miyazawa (MyNavi Sendai), Jun Endo (Angel City), Aoba Fujino (Tokyo Verdy Beleza)
FORWARDS (4): Mana Iwabuchi (Tottenham Hotspur), Rikako Kobayashi (Tokyo Verdy Beleza), Riko Ueki (Tokyo Verdy Beleza), Maika Hamano (Hammarby IF)
Ikeda typically deploys a 4-4-2 formation but has explored an intriguing 3-6-1 in recent fixtures. He is hoping to “get into the penalty area more” and “emphasize aggressiveness” on the attacking side of the ball, while clogging the middle of the field and forcing turnovers. The back line is the focus during a methodical build-up, with the centre-backs serving as the progenitors of and necessary safety valves during possession. The second match of the tournament should lead to some rotation in the lineup.
Leading the squad is Ayaka Yamashita of INAC Kobe Leonessa, a 25-year-old who has earned 54 caps at the senior level since making her debut in 2015. The Tokyo native controls her line and gets down quickly when making saves. Her form has taken a slight dip after being named to the domestic league’s Best XI last season, already surrendering the same number of goals through January. She is prone to the occasional catastrophic error, struggling in possession and mishandling crosses on set pieces.
Captain Saki Kumagai continues to serve as a living legend in the sport, being named 2019 Asian Women’s Football of the Year and to the IFFHS World Women’s Team of the Decade. The Bayern Munich midfielder-defender is a fantastic passer from any distance, able to split the opponent and put the ball on a dime. Her likely partner is Roma’s Moeka Minami, a left-footed centre-back who serves as a complementary presence and has the pace to track down wingers. She reads the game well, knowing when to cycle possession or avoiding the press by hitting a clearance.
Long on the outskirts of the squad, Ruka Norimatsu has taken an increased role and started in the semifinal of last year’s Asian Cup. The Omiya Ardija Ventus fullback is described as being strong in the one-on-one with an “intimidating aura” and strong shooting from distance. On the other side of the formation is the highly-rated Risa Shimizu, who competes with West Ham and displays incredible fitness on the field. She constantly looks to overlap and has improved her physical strength in order to better contest opponents.
At the first holding midfielder position is Liverpool’s Fuka Nagano, a positionally-disciplined ball-winner who advances possession with dribbling and low passes to the wing. She tends to back off on the defensive side and looks to contain instead of diving into challenges, which can be exploited by quicker opponents. Her likely partner, Honoka Hayashi of West Ham, covers more ground and gets involved in the attack. She can cause issues in the final third and attempts to play the ball behind the defense, although many of the efforts are speculative.
Yui Hasegawa of Manchester City can play both as an attacking midfielder and winger, dancing and tricking her way around opponents. A whirling dervish of technique and skill, she can distribute to both short and long distances while also unleashing the occasional accurate shot from distance. Domestic-based Hinata Miyazawa should also get the start, having enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2022. The 23-year-old has a quick first step and looks to push the tempo after receiving the ball.
Riko Ueki is coming off a strong year at the international level, scoring seven goals in nine appearances. The Tokyo Verdy forward displays intelligent movement and uses her body in a variety of ways, whether cleverly shielding off opponents or throwing herself into dangerous situations to land a touch on the ball. Her partner is likely to be Mana Iwabuchi of Tottenham, serving as a second-striker with the abilities to both create and finish. Despite a diminutive height of 5’1”, she can play with her back to goal and uses quick turns to get away from defenders.
Riko Ueki gave Rebecca Spencer no chance— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) August 17, 2022
Tokyo Verdy Beleza strike first against Tottenham. pic.twitter.com/ueqqIFiu8X
The USWNT has rarely struggled to dispatch Japan, and this match should have a familiar outcome. While Japan possesses strong individual talent, the program is slowly drifting into a down period that is coming during the inopportune interval of a World Cup year. Expect a high-energy back-and-forth battle to start, before the home team takes over and grabs three points.
The match is scheduled for Sunday, February 19th at 3:30 p.m. Eastern, 12:30 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include TNT, HBO Max, Universo, Peacock, and FUBO TV (free trial).