The United States’ greatest Women’s World Cup nemesis hadn’t been itself for most of the past few years.
Japan, which beat the United States in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final and finished as the runner-up in 2015, missed the 2016 Summer Olympics altogether and didn’t make a great first impression when it finally got back on the world’s stage Monday.
Argentina, which had never scored a point in the World Cup, managed to pull out a scoreless draw with Japan to open Group D play. Japan, which came to France with a No. 7 world ranking and one of the youngest rosters in the tournament, looked more the part of youthful than the part of contender.
Maybe Japan is already growing up.
Japan, which started six players younger than 23 in its second game of the group stage Friday, got on the board early and put together a much more convincing performance with a 2-0 win against Scotland in Rennes.
Japan outshot Scotland, 18-1, and edged Scotland in shots on goal 6-4 despite taking a lead in the 23rd minute, then doubling the edge in the 37th on a questionable penalty call. Japan finally conceded a garbage-time score in the 88th minute.
Japan also did get helped when a good chance by Scotland was called offside in the first half, but the signs of progress were encouraging for a young team.
If Japan is going to threaten the United States again in the 2019 Women’s World Cup, it will be because it rapidly improves as experience starts to match talent. There were moments at Roazhon Park when the convergence began to happen.
The real test for Japan will come Wednesday when it faces England on Wednesday in a match which could determine the winner of the group. It will be a rarity this decade for Japan. In all likelihood, Japan will be the underdog at the World Cup against the No. 3 team in the world.