American soccer stars Abby Wamback, right, and Megan Rapinoe listen to… (Karl Mondon / McClatchy-Tribune )
LONDON — The U.S. women's soccer team has won more than 80% of its games since Abby Wambach was added to the roster a dozen years ago. But it's one game she didn't win that has fueled her for the last 13 months.
For Wambach, last summer's World Cup final was the one that got away. The U.S. led twice, including once in overtime, only to see Japan storm back and win the title on penalty kicks.
Thursday the teams meet at Wembley Stadium with an Olympic gold medal on the line. And this time, Wambach said, it's personal.
"There is no better motivation than losing," she said. "This team has something to prove. It's important that the freshness of that loss is stuck in our minds, and honestly, in our hearts."
Most of her teammates agree.
"It's definitely redemption," midfielder Carli Lloyd said. "But it's also an opportunity to show the world that we're the No 1 team in the world. This game is going to be different from the World Cup game."
Different in a lot of ways, starting with the attendance. The final 5,000 tickets for Thursday's game were snapped up shortly after the Americans' overtime win against Canada in Monday's semifinals, assuring a sellout crowd of 83,000.
That will not only shatter the Olympic record for a women's soccer game, but it will be the largest crowd for a women's game in Britain and the largest to watch the U.S. women play since the 1999 World Cup final at the Rose Bowl.
And although the Olympic tournament has been overly chippy, the final figures to have both teams on their best behavior.
"We have such respect for each other that I can almost guarantee none of that will happen," Wambach said of the physical play the U.S. endured against Colombia and Canada. "You know teams use it as tactics because they may not technically and tactically be better than us. The Japanese team is so good and we are so good, that it's about soccer.
"Hopefully, people will become legends [Thursday]."
The teams are a contrast in styles, with the aerial abilities of Wambach and the speed of Alex Morgan giving the U.S. a huge edge on the front line. Japan has the advantage on the back line and in the midfield, which is led by Homare Sawa, FIFA's world player of the year.
Japan plays a game reminiscent of Spain's World Cup and European champion men's team, relying on possession, precision passing and defense. The U.S. presses forward, often in numbers, and can be deadly with the long ball.
"It's not so much that the strongest team wins but whoever wins is the strongest," Japanese Coach Norio Sasaki said through an interpreter. "We won the World Cup so it follows that our players are very strong."
The U.S., which has won three of the four Olympic tournaments for women, is undefeated in the London Games, having outscored opponents, 14-5. Japan played Sweden and South Africa to scoreless draws in group play before outscoring Brazil and France by a combined 4-1 in the knockout rounds.
More important, though, may be that Japan is the only team to have beaten the U.S. since July 2011, winning the World Cup final and beating the Americans, 1-0, in March in the Algarve Cup in Portugal. That's the only time Wambach and company have been shut out since November 2008.
"The best way to defend against Japan is to keep the ball," U.S. Coach Pia Sundhage said. "We have to make sure we are compact. The way Japan keeps possession and finds that ball in front of the backline, they don't create too many chances, but they create enough and they have been winning games."
Including one last summer that U.S. players still haven't forgotten.
"It is redemption," team captain Christine Rampone said.
"They did take away that dream of winning a World Cup."