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US women look for soccer gold against Japan

Abby Wambach (left) and Sydney Leroux have a ball while preparing for Thursday’s game.

Nigel Roddis/Reuters

Abby Wambach (left) and Sydney Leroux have a ball while preparing for Thursday’s game.

LONDON — So if it’s not about revenge, it’s at least about redemption. More than a year later, the stinging loss to Japan on penalty kicks in last year’s World Cup lingers for Abby Wambach.

“I’m still heartbroken about losing the World Cup in the way we did,’’ said the US women’s soccer forward, whose team gets its coveted rematch Thursday night at Wembley Stadium, this time with gold on the line. “If we can be standing at the top of the podium at the end of this tournament, that would be one of the most relieving feelings, knowing that we are the best. ‘’

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It’s about resiliency. The two-time defending Olympic champions three times were down a goal to Canada in the semifinals, only to respond each time before advancing, 4-3, on a header by rising star Alex Morgan in overtime.

“Canada was a really emotional game, but we gave ourselves [Tuesday] to talk about Canada, to go over all the stories we had about Canada,’’ said Morgan, 23. “Now today it’s all about Japan. We think it’s fate that us and Japan are playing; it could have turned out so differently.”

It’s about respect. There’s a familiarity between these teams — after all, they’ve played three times this year (an appropriate 1-1-1). But that certainly doesn’t breed contempt. In a tournament that has featured extreme physicality, sucker punches and even head stomping, Wambach doesn’t expect a similar strategy by the finesse Japanese squad, which is attempting to become the first world champion to win gold at the Olympic Games.

“We have such respect for each other, our teams respect each other so much, that I can almost guarantee none of that will happen,’’ she said. “Teams use it [physical play] as tactics because they may not technically be better than us, and it would maybe, in their opinion, even the playing field. The Japanese team is so good, and we are so good, that it’s about soccer.’’

Added Morgan, “We know their strengths and weaknesses and they know ours, so it’s going to be a battle on the field. We need to bring our best game, like we have this tournament, and it’s more about us than them.’’

What Wambach will preach to her team against a Japanese squad that relies on precision passing and excellent execution is discipline.

“We have to be aware that they do like to possess the ball and stay patient in our defending,’’ she said. “Stay committed to each other, and of course in the end, it’s all about who finishes more of their opportunities.’’

Though not inexperienced, there’s a nice blend of young and old (12 former gold-medal winners) that has resulted in a significant upgrade in the team’s depth. But according to coach Pia Sundhage, the biggest difference between the Cup team and this year’s captivating bunch is simply, “Alex Morgan and Abby Wambach. They’re good together.’’

Morgan’s rapid ascension from bench player (she was the youngest player on the Cup team) to potent scorer (20 goals this year) and the chemistry with Wambach is a major reason the team is playing for the right to hear the Star-Spangled Banner Thursday night.

“It has taken my game to a whole other level,’’ said Morgan. “We have really been on the same page in the last couple of months and every 90 minutes we grow together as players. There’s no better way to learn than from Abby, who is breaking records.’’

Records are nice, but they can be lost. Gold is a keeper.

“We know what it’s like to be at this level, playing in the biggest game of our lives,’’ said Wambach, who missed the Beijing Games after suffering a broken leg in the final game before the Olympics. “The last time, in the World Cup, they got the better of us. I think that this time, we hope to change that.

“Hopefully, [Thursday] night will be our night. They’re going to watch some beautiful soccer happen, some amazing goals scored. And hopefully, people will become legends.’’

Scott Thurston can be reached at sthurston@globe.com.
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