On November 27, 2010, the US women's national team was preparing to face Italy in the second leg of a qualifying playoff with the last World Cup spot on the line.
Now, nearly eight months later, they are 90 minutes from being crowned world champions as they prepare to play Japan in Sunday's final (2:45 pm ET, ESPN).
“Because we had such a bumpy road, the fact that we had to play a playoff game against Italy, we came out stronger,” said head coach Pia Sundhage in a conference call with reporters on Thursday from the team’s hotel in Frankfurt. “We’ve learned a lesson: We can’t take anything for granted, and we try to … be grateful for every day.”
Perhaps because of their backs-against-the-wall situation coming into the 2011 World Cup, Sundhage credited her players for rallying around each other.
“We create a phenomenal atmosphere in that locker room,” she said.
That team camaraderie has undoubtedly helped carry the US through a lot of adversity, including their thrilling come-from-behind win over Brazil in the quarterfinals, as well as their 3-1 victory over France in Wednesday's semifinal.
“The Brazil game was a confidence-builder for us,” said forward Abby Wambach, whose 122nd-minute equalizer sent the match to penalties and kept their World Cup hopes alive. “We really believe that we can be dealt any hand and can be dealt any situation, and we can actually come through on top in the end of it.”
Sundhage acknowledged that while her team has produced some impressive performances, she was disappointed in the amount of defense they were forced to play.
“We need to keep possession a little better,” said Sundhage. “We need to be more patient. If we do that, [our opponents] have to work on their defending.”
The US women should have no trouble meeting Sundhage’s expectations by adjusting to a more fluid version of soccer as she has given them the freedom to tailor the game to their own personal style of play.
“From the moment Pia stepped in, she changed the entire dynamics of this team,” goalkeeper Hope Solo said. “She makes us think when we watch film, and she makes us dissect the game so that when we step on the field, we can think for ourselves. She lets the game come to us.”
Heading into their clash with tournament-surprise Japan, the US are prepared to take on a much different Japanese side than the one they faced in May in two exhibition games in the United States.
“They are more sophisticated going into the attacking third,” said Sundhage. “[They’re] still very good on the ball between the boxes, but now they look a little more dangerous.”
Japan will surely be upset-minded again, having taken out tournament-favorite and host Germany in the first round of the knockout stages before disposing of Sweden 3-1 in the semifinals.
The US got off to early leads against both Brazil and France before enduring an onslaught and ultimately squandering their advantage. Even with a reshuffled back line, the US are confident moving into Sunday’s final.
“We have great communication,” said right back Ali Krieger, who has started every game for the US during the World Cup. “[It doesn’t] matter who comes in because we have such depth on this team.”
The United States will look to capitalize on their wealth of available players as they head into the championship game. They are looking to capture their third World Cup title and first since 1999.
“We all know what we want, [and] we all keep on the same page,” Krieger said. “We’re all going towards the same goal.”