Events this month:
Two against Japan, June 2 and June 9
Getting ready for Rio
The U.S. women have two games scheduled in June, both against Japan.
Tonight’s game is on Fox Sports 1; Sunday’s is on ESPN2.
Lately, though, the scales have tipped in Team USA’s favor, most notably in the drubbing that Carli Lloyd & Co. delivered in last summer’s World Cup title match.
That led to the resignation of Norio Sasaki, the veteran coach who guided the team through its most successful years.
He was replaced by Asako Takakura, the first female to coach the Japanese women’s team.
Takakura, 48, was an accomplished midfielder for Japan, earning 79 caps and appearing in the 1991 and 1995 World Cups as well as the 1996 Olympics.
But her coaching experience is limited to Japan’s youth programs; her team won the under-17 Women’s World Cup in 2014. These two games against the United States will be her first as coach of the senior team.
Japan is without its greatest star and all-time leading scorer, Homare Sawa, who announced her retirement at age 37 on Dec. 16 — the same day that Abby Wambach, a close friend, played her final game for the United States. After Japan’s World Cup victory in 2011, Sawa was honored as the Women’s World Player of the Year, the only recipient in the award’s 15-year history who was not from the United States, Germany or Brazil.
Despite the past year’s tumult, Japan could prove to be a handful for the high-flying U.S. women, who are 11-0-0 in 2016. Japan is still ranked No. 7 in the world. The United States won’t have Carli Lloyd, who is still recovering from a knee sprain.
And if there’s one accomplishment that could bring a ray of light to what has been a dark year for Japan, it would be upsetting the world champs on their home soil in Team USA’s run-up to this summer’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
That would go a long way toward achieving what Takakura says is her first goal as coach: Restoring her team’s self-esteem.
“The players have to get their confidence back,” she said in a May interview.
The U.S. women will only play twice more before heading to Brazil. On July 9, they face South Africa in Chicago. One other July game has yet to be announced.
NWSL season at the half
An August recess for the Olympics
The 10 teams of the National Women’s Soccer League will reach the midpoint of their 20-game schedule in June. Most teams have played seven games so far; a couple have played six.
The big surprises to date are found near the bottom of the standings. FC Kansas City, the defending champion, is in second-to-last place with a record of 1-4-2. The team has scored just four goals in seven games. Seattle Reign FC, which dominated in the regular season last year — finishing 13-3-4 to take first place by a comfortable 10-point margin — is tied for sixth, at 2-3-2.
This year, it will take a strong second-half surge for either to even have a shot at making the playoffs.
The regular season ends the weekend of Sept. 24-25, with the top four finishers advancing to the playoffs. The dates for the two semifinal games and the championship have yet to be announced.
The league will take a break from Aug. 1 to Aug. 25, when many of its star players will be at the Olympics — and soccer fans’ attention will be focused on Rio.
New rankings — same as the old, we hope
USA should remain on top
The new women’s rankings come out June 24.
Barring a dazzling performance by Japan, there won’t be any change at the top:
June 2 – Abby Wambach turns 36
June 6 – Becky Sauerbrunn turns 31
June 9 – Heather Mitts (photo) turns 38
June 12 – Christine Sinclair turns 33
June 24 – Christie Rampone turns 41
June 25 – Jill Loyden turns 31
June 29 – Shannon Boxx turns 39