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US women open exhibition tournament against Japan

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SENDAI, Japan (AP) - It was one of those games - one of those really big games - that just didn't sit right for U.S. women's soccer coach Pia Sundhage.

As far as she is concerned, her team outplayed Japan in last year's World Cup final. She still thinks they should have won.

Now, she is looking ahead to the Olympics and Japan is once again on her mind.

"We have something to prove every time we play Japan," Sundhage said Saturday ahead of a matchup between the rivals at the Kirin Challenge Cup on Japan's home turf.

The exhibition tournament features the top four teams in the world. The U.S. is ranked No. 1 just ahead of Germany, while Japan is No. 3 and Brazil is No. 4.

Though the U.S. women go into Sunday's match against Japan with a solid record in the series - 22-1-4 - two recent losses have hurt.

In a victory that made them national heroes, the Japanese came from behind twice and held on to beat the U.S. in a penalty shootout following a 2-2 draw to win the World Cup final in Germany last summer. It was the team's first win over the United States, and came as the country was still coming to grips with the devastating earthquake and tsunami that ravaged its northern coastline last March.

"In the World Cup, I think we played better than Japan," Sundhage said. "I think we were a little bit unlucky."

And in the teams' most recent game, the Japanese won 1-0 on March 5 to advance to the final of the Algarve Cup in Portugal. The U.S. had to settle for third place, but went out strongly with a 4-0 win over Sweden. Japan lost the final to Germany.

Both teams are now looking ahead to the Olympics, which start in July in London.

"We are ready and well," Sundhage said. "I don't think we are as well connected as we will be for the Olympics. We are building up for that."

Japan's coach, Norio Sasaki, said his team is at it peak, although it will be playing without star midfielder Homare Sawa, the FIFA women's world player of the year.

"This is a really important chance for us to beat the United States and Brazil ahead of the Olympics," he said. "They are both great teams."

Sundhage said her players will focus on being aggressive and trying to keep possession so that they do not have to defend as much against the Japanese, who are a highly skilled, technical squad.

"One thing is absolutely clear - they have always been a technical team, and they are a more physical team today," she said.

After Sunday's opener, the U.S. plays Brazil on Tuesday. The final game, Brazil vs. Japan, is on Thursday.

Copyright 2014 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.
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