Sasaki pleased with Japan’s progress



World champion Japan may have missed out on a third consecutive win over the United States on Sunday, but coach Norio Sasaki insists the 1-1 draw in the opening match of the Kirin Challenge Cup has given him further cause for optimism ahead of the London Olympics.

Defender Yukari Kinga fired Japan, missing star midfielder Homare Sawa, into a 32nd-minute lead in Sendai, and the hosts looked to be a good bet to add to their victories over the Americans at the 2011 World Cup final and last month’s Algarve Cup.

But late pressure from the visitors paid off as in-form Alex Morgan leveled in the 72nd minute with a goal that looked set to be disallowed after a linesman had initially flagged for offside.

“We didn’t quite get the result that we wanted but I am pleased with what my players were trying to achieve,” said Sasaki, voted FIFA Women’s Coach of the Year after making Japan the first-ever Asian world champion with its 3-1 penalty shootout triumph over the U.S. in Frankfurt last July.

“We didn’t win the match but the players showed their determination to get forward and attack and hopefully this is something that we can build on.

“We have really made progress with the way we are going forward in our matches against the U.S. We created chances and got ourselves into shooting positions tonight.

“But we did make a few poor decisions when we were under pressure and we could have avoided that if we had kept our cool a bit more. Being able to change the tempo is something that we need to work on.”

Kinga, whose goal was her fifth in national team colors, said, “We are getting much more possession of the ball than we did in matches in the last few years against the U.S., and I now feel that we can always give them a game.”

Sunday’s match was the latest chapter in what has become an intriguing rivalry since Japan won the World Cup with its first ever victory over the United States in 25 attempts.

“It (the rivalry) is very recent, since Japan showed up during the World Cup and did great. Since then, they’ve really had a target on their backs,” said Morgan.

“They’ve taken the target off our backs a little bit, but at the same time, it’s great to have a rivalry and we need to mentally prepare for each game we go against them. They are always on top of their game and we need to be tactically aware of that and how to expose their weaknesses.”

Goalkeeper Hope Solo added, “It’s a good, healthy rivalry. There’s been a lot rivalries in the past that have been ugly games, and you are going in hard for tackles and it might be a little cheap, but this is a rivalry in which both teams want to play good quality soccer and respect each other so much on the field. It’s more than a rivalry, it’s some of the best soccer you’ll see in the women’s game.”

The Americans play Brazil in Chiba on Tuesday before Japan wraps up the three-team Olympic warmup tournament against the South Americans in Kobe two days later.