SENDAI – Alex Morgan snatched a second-half equalizer to deny women’s world champion Japan another ego-boosting win over the United States in a 1-1 draw in the opening game of the three-nation Kirin Challenge Cup exhibition tournament on Sunday.
Defender Yukari Kinga prodded Japan into a first-half lead on a bitterly cold night in Sendai, but Morgan struck 18 minutes from time to secure the Olympic champion a share of the spoils.
Japan was coming off back-to-back wins over the U.S., having followed up a stunning 3-1 penalty shootout victory in last year’s World Cup final with a 1-0 win at the Algarve Cup in Portugal in March.
The U.S. meets Brazil in Chiba on Tuesday, before Japan wraps up the London Olympic warmup tournament against the South Americans in Kobe on Thursday.
“I think we dug in and were patient when we needed to be and attacked aggressively,” said Japan coach Norio Sasaki.
“We would liked to have won for the people of Tohoku but it was not to be. The U.S. is a very good team. This is a valuable draw ahead of the London Olympics.”
Using the pace of Heather O’Reilly to good effect on the right flank, the U.S. looked a constant threat in the early stages and Rachel Buehler tested Japan goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori with a close-range header after 14 minutes.
But it was the Japanese, missing talismanic midfielder and World Player of the Year Homare Sawa as she recovers from vertigo, who took the lead slightly against the run of play 13 minutes before halftime.
Nahomi Kawasumi picked out Kinga’s run into the box and the latter squared for Yuki Nagasato. U.S. keeper Hope Solo clawed Nagasato’s shot away but Kinga was nicely positioned to bury the loose ball for her fifth national team goal.
A momentary lapse in concentration from Kaihori nearly cost Japan in the 57th minute but Morgan was unable to capitalize on the goalkeeper’s poor clearance.
Kozue Ando won her 100th international cap when she came on for Nagasato in the 61st minute, and Japan nearly went 2-0 up moments later, Kawasumi screwing narrowly wide of the post after collecting a through ball from captain Aya Miyama.
With the game really opening up as the United States probed for an equalizer, Kawasumi then beat the offside trap to shoot at Solo before the visitors leveled.
Morgan steered home a shot and the goal stood after Chinese referee Li Juan initially appeared to have disallowed it after a flag had gone up for offside.
Sunday’s match was preceded by a moment’s silence in memory of the victims of last year’s March 11 earthquake and tsunami that ravaged Japan’s northeast coastline and triggered the worst nuclear crisis in a generation.
“I am so happy we could play soccer here (in Tohoku),” said Miyama, the reigning Asian Player of the Year. “It is a shame we could not deliver a win for people affected by the disaster.”
“We played well in the first half but we need to have more quality in the second half if we want to win the Olympic gold medal.”
U.S. coach Pia Sundhage said she was pleased with the way her team had fought back in the second half.
“It was a very important game for us and I am really happy between the first and second half and the fact that we changed our playing style a little bit.
“It was way too much defending in the first half because we gave away the ball. In the second half I think we showed a little more composure and it looked a little bit better.”