Five wins in as many games, including an emphatic group-phase defeat of the side they would face in the final, with 15 goals scored and none conceded. Those were Germany’s statistics going into Saturday’s showpiece match of the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup Japan 2012 against the USA.
Thanks to that flawless record, the Germans held a psychological edge ahead of the big game, but it would count for nothing as the Americans dug deep to show they have plenty of mental fortitude of their own.
The 3-0 defeat they suffered at the hands of the Germans in the first phase proved a turning point for the Stars and Stripes, fuelling them with a desire for revenge should the opportunity come their way.
“I think things changed after that first game,” said Maya Hayes, the USA’s top scorer with four goals, in conversation with FIFA.com. “We learned a lesson but we didn’t let our heads drop, because we knew that it was the start of a new competition for us. We knew how to turn our slow start and that defeat to our advantage. That gave us a lot of belief come the end of the tournament.”
The USA’s ability to change and develop in certain key aspects after that heavy loss proved vital to their third world title in the category. Attaching more importance to their mental preparations than their training sessions, the Americans’ coaching staff spent the build-up to the return match with the Germans locked in a constant dialogue with the players.
“I don’t think the big shift came about because of the training sessions or the games we played. It was a change in our mindset that made the difference,” commented Kealia Ohai, the scorer of the only goal in the final. “We were all agreed that that defeat helped us grow mentally in some way. There was no option really: either we picked up our game and gave it all we had in the knockout matches or we could kiss the tournament goodbye. That was what helped us step it up a level.”
Having learned to deal with the pressure, the Americans then set about shifting it on to the seemingly unbeatable Germans, who had made such serene progress to the final.
“We went into this game knowing they hadn’t let a single goal in and that they hadn’t been put under pressure like that,” said Crystal Dunn, who played the pass that set Ohai up for her tournament-winning strike. “That goal totally changed everything because it put them into a situation that was new to them. And it came about at just the right time.”
For the versatile Dunn, who proudly showed off her gold medal, Saturday’s outcome was a far cry from the final she appeared in at the FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup New Zealand 2008, when she ended on the losing side. Just as she had done in the quarter-final against Korea DPR, when she seemed to cover every blade of grass and played in the cross for Chioma Ubogagu’s extra-time winner, the right-back made a decisive contribution.
It was Dunn’s incursion from the right and precise cutback that allowed Ohai to score the game’s only goal. Not known for her scoring ability, the USA’s matchwinner was delighted to be in the right place at the right time: “I think I saved the best till last. I don’t score that often because I play more down the flanks, but I end up getting a few chances when I come through the centre. When I saw Crystal on her run, I knew she was going to put it in the middle. So I ran in and got myself in a good position.”
Ohai’s strike soothed American nerves and frayed German ones. Nothing would go right for the reigning champions as they sought to pull level, and when the final whistle sounded it was Steve Swanson’s charges who were celebrating. And they could hardly contain themselves when they did so, setting off on a lap of honour and pretending to swim through the celebratory ticker-tape before enjoying a raucous singsong in the dressing room.
“The celebrations were excellent, unforgettable,” said Dunn. “It was a chance for us to get our breath back because it was a very tense game.”
“Everyone could see how happy we were,” added Hayes. “We were all singing and dancing together, just like a team, and that’s what’s so great about this side. I hope the flight back, which will take us 12 hours, will be just like that too: one big party.”