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Former U.S. players understand pressure facing teams in Women’s World Cup final

There are two women above all others who are especially qualified to voice an opinion about the Women’s World Cup final between the U.S. and Japan on Sunday in Frankfurt, Germany.

Shannon MacMillan and Tiffeny Milbrett are two of the finest attacking players the U.S. has produced. Gold-medal winners at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and silver-medal winners four years later at the Sydney Games, they also were teammates on the U.S. side that won the 1999 Women’s World Cup.

In other words, they know very well the kind of pressure the players on both teams will be under Sunday, and they also know firsthand that something special will be needed to make a difference.

In 1996, MacMillan scored the winning goal in overtime against then-world-champion Norway, putting the U.S. into the Olympic final. Not to be outdone, Milbrett scored the winning goal against China in the final.

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More important in terms of Sunday’s game, however, is the fact that the former University of Portland standouts spent part of their professional careers in Japan, playing for a club called Shiroki Serena.

Japan’s women’s program was in its infancy in the mid-1990s, but already there were signs that the country could develop into the women’s soccer power that it is today.

“Even back then you knew the Japanese could be dangerous players if they were to get stronger in a physical dimension,” Milbrett, who is in Germany to watch the tournament, said Saturday.

“They always had ball skill but could never really hurt you because they were weaker.

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“I have always seen the Japanese being able to play, but they usually died after 45 minutes or so and could get knocked off the ball easily. Also, they wouldn’t get near being dangerous around the goal and couldn’t be a threat consistently in the final third.”

That is no longer the case, and Coach Norio Sasaki’s Japanese players of 2011 are as tough as they are technically skilled.

“They’re doing everything they couldn’t do before,” Milbrett said. “They’re strong, dangerous in the final third, finishing and running just as hard in the waning moments of a match.

“I’ve never seen this from them before, so I’m quite surprised and shocked.”

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MacMillan isn’t.

“It’s not a surprise that Japan has produced a team like this,” she said Saturday. “The Japanese are very proud and my teammates [at Shiroki Serena] always worked incredibly hard. They weren’t considered professionals, so they would work for the company all day and then head out to train. The girls would spend hours out on the field.

“They had the talent; they just needed the resources. The Japan Football Assn. finally got behind the women’s team, which is why we see them in the final.”

MacMillan, who lives in Southern California and is “busy coaching and chasing my 2-year-old around,” said the devastating March earthquake and tsunami added another dimension to Japan’s quest.

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“I think with the tragedy Japan has faced this year, these women have become an inspiration and have brought an amazing sense of pride to their country,” she said.

Japanese captain Homare Sawa, now 32 and playing in her fifth and probably final World Cup, has led the way in that regard and is perhaps the main threat facing the U.S. on Sunday. She has a tournament-high four goals, tied with Marta of Brazil.

“Sawa is just a class person and player,” Milbrett said. “I’ve known her for many years, playing against her on the field and having mutual friends off the field.

“Her play in this World Cup has been amazing. I really just can’t say enough about the great person she is and I am so happy for her to be in this final.”

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MacMillan echoed the sentiment.

“Sawa is an amazingly talented player and I am so excited to see Japan experiencing this success while she is still part of the team,” she said. “She is very humble and works incredibly hard to make this dream a reality for herself and her teammates.”

As for predicting the outcome Sunday, Milbrett and MacMillan took different tacks.

“How can you predict a final when even the U.S. was predicted to go out of this tournament early?” Milbrett said. “And no one in their betting pool would have thought Japan would be anywhere near a final for maybe 10 years. So I say it’s wide open. It will be a fantastic final.”

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And from MacMillan: “I think this is going to be a tremendous final. After the journey the U.S. women have been on, as well as Japan, there is no doubt that every single player will leave their heart and soul on that field. With that said, I see a very unique sense of unity within the U.S. team that will play a big role in the outcome.”

grahame.jones@latimes.com


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