Wednesday, April 4, 2012

USWNT 1 at Nadeshiko Japan 1 - Kirin Challenge Cup - April 1, 2012

The Kirin Cup has been a annual tournament for the Japanese men's team since 1992. Each year, they invite two other nations to participate in a round-robin that usually takes place after the European season finishes. These tournaments are popular in Japan, but not given much notice elsewhere; last year was particularly forgettable as Peru and the Czech Republic joined the hosts in a 3-way tie for the Cup as all three fixtures ended 0-0.

Kirin also sponsors a series of single friendly matches throughout the year, with each known as the Kirin Challenge Cup. Until recently, these have been exclusively for the men's team, but with Nadeshiko Japan winning the World Cup last year, women's soccer is beginning to gain recognition here. Sensing a chance to exploit this newfound popularity, the JFA has created a Challenge Cup featuring three of the top women's teams in the world with the US and Brazil coming here for a three-game tournament. The first game was a rematch of last year's World Cup final between Japan and the Americans and was played in Yurtec Stadium in Sendai.

I had visited this stadium over two years ago to see the Vegalta Sendai in an Emperor's Cup match and was glad to return after it had been damaged in the earthquake last year. I was surprised at the number of fans walking from the subway station, the final crowd was 15,159, about 75% of capacity, a bit more than I expected. I didn't have a ticket and was debating between the 5,500 yen reserved seat or 2,500 yen general admission option. As I checked the seating map, I saw a young guy trying to part with a ticket. It turned out he had an extra GA ducat and was selling it for the advanced ticket price of 2,000 yen. Deal! I told him that I would be rooting for Japan as I was Canadian rather than American and he invited me to sit with him and his two friends. When I saw that his pals were two very cute young ladies, I didn't need much persuasion.

Ren, Kana, and Akane are Vegalta Sendai supporters who travel the country watching their team on the road during the J League season. They were so happy that I took the ticket off their hands that they bought me a giant yakitori stick and generously shared their beer with me. With four of us, we were forced to sit high in a corner but still not that bad a seat as the stadium is rather cozy.

We spent the pre-game chatting about various cities and travel experiences. Unlike me, they drive everywhere in Japan, and it got me to thinking about doing my own true road trip before I leave. The big problems are finding parking in the big cities for a reasonable price and expensive toll roads that make the trains a better alternative when traveling alone. If I could bring along a couple of friends, it would be a lot easier to choose the car option. Nagoya next week anyone?

After both national anthems were sung, there was a moment of silence for the victims of last year's disaster as the players stood around the midfield circle (above). It was a good touch and nobody here screamed anything as they often do during these moments back home. Once respects had been paid, the game kicked off.

The Game

The US had the better chances early but Japan opened the scoring in the 32nd minute. The play started when Nahomi Kawasumi lobbed a pass to defender Yukari Kinga playing deep in the box. Another Japanese player was offside at the time but did not participate in the play so there was no flag raised. Kinga passed to Yuki Nagasato whose shot was saved by Hope Solo (below punching her teammate in the head), but the ball slid away from her and Kinga pounced on the rebound, chipping it home. The Japanese gained confidence after the goal but couldn't add to it and the half ended 1-0 Nadeshiko.

The second half saw some good action as both teams traded chances with several near misses and good saves by both keepers. The US kept the pressure up and were rewarded when Alex Morgan converted what looked to be a nifty pass from Carli Lloyd. The lineswoman ruled offside though and the referee went over to discuss. It turned out that Lloyd has been tackled by Shinobu Ohno, whose touch sent the ball to Morgan. No offside in this case and the goal stood.

Japan had a late chance to tie with a corner but Kawasumi drove a shot over the net from the top of the box and the squads settled for a 1-1 draw, a fitting result. Highlights can be found here.

After the game, the Japanese players did a lap around the stadium so that fans could take pictures.

Women's soccer is much different than the men's game, with fewer fouls and less posturing. There were no cards in this match and both teams clearly respect each other. The technical play was good too; sitting in the end you could see each team's strategy at work as they tried to poke holes in the opposition defense through long balls or criss-cross passing. Despite the frigid weather, I really enjoyed the experience, including meeting my new friends, which is often the best part of these roadtrips.


America beat Brazil 3-0 yesterday in Chiba in a game that was moved from an 8pm start to 4pm as the Kanto area was pummeled by a massive storm. All tickets were refunded and entrance was free, but I wasn't about to leave the comforts of home in the raging wind. The tournament finishes with Brazil and Japan doing battle tomorrow in Kobe.

Next Up

I'm flying to Sapporo tomorrow where I will watch the Nippon Ham Fighters hosting the Orix Buffaloes in my first visit to the Sapporo Dome. Saturday will see recently promoted Consadole Sapporo taking on last year's champs Kashiwa Reysol, again at the dome. Looking forward to seeing this venue in both of its guises. Check back on the weekend for recaps.



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