LONDON, England (AP) — Japan's coach has a good rapport with his players, jokingly introducing his captain as the women football team's "guardian angel" and the goalkeeper as "its goddess of fortune."
That team spirit was forged at the 2011 World Cup, when the team beat the Americans in the final and signaled its arrival as a new power in the sport. It could now be key to beating the United States and its exciting attacking lineup Thursday, when the two teams meet again, this time to battle for an Olympic gold.
"Maybe the United States have the greater drive to win and we know this team is very motivated to avenge the World Cup defeat," said coach Norio Sasaki, who has been with the team since 2008, and before that was involved in the youth program.
"So we need to be as one in order to strengthen our own desire to triumph. It's not so much that the strongest team wins, but whoever wins is the strongest."
Compared to the effusive Americans who met the media directly afterward, the Japanese team were giving little away.
Goalkeeper Miho Fukumoto said the idea was to score first, and make sure the team didn't concede before halftime. Stripping football down to its essence, she then summed up:
"We want to make sure that they don't score and that we do," said.
Japan and the United States are both unbeaten in the tournament so far, but the United States has had a more exciting journey, scoring 14 goals and three times coming from behind against Canada in its semifinal. Japan has scored five times and never conceded first, but beat Brazil 2-0 in the quarterfinals.
The teams met four times in 2011, and respect each other's abilities.
"Each time it's great that we're able to play against the best team," captain Aya Miyami said.
"We both want to win, of course. They (the U.S.) are always a very strong opponent."
The hallmarks so far of the Japanese have been a disciplined defense, accurate quick passing and the ability to take whatever few chances they have created. Whether that will be enough to tame the United States and their flair players, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan, could be key to the game.
"In terms of Abby Wambach's crossing of the ball, we have been working on our heading. And we know that Morgan is very fast and very strong," Sasaki said. "But this is something we have experienced many times and we have done our preparation to deal with these very powerful players, so we are quite confident."
Sasaki has struck a lighthearted tone when dealing with the media, and his introductions to his players were in that vein. Asked to explain the nicknames, he said in a roundabout way they were puns on the Japanese characters for their names. "And I apologize to the interpreter," he said.