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Just How Good Is The U.S. Defense?

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How will Japan challenge U.S. defense?

ESPN FC's Kate Markgraf and Kristine Lilly explain why Japan's ability to hold on to the ball might pose as a challenge for Team USA in the FIFA Women's World Cup finals.

The U.S. women are 90 minutes away from proving that defense really can win championships.

The U.S. has allowed just one goal in six games entering Sunday's Women's World Cup final against Japan. Germany is the only previous Women's World Cup finalist to allow fewer goals through the semifinals, making it through the entire 2007 tournament without allowing a goal. However, with the field expanding to 24 teams this year, the United States has already played six matches, one more than all other previous teams to reach the final.

Fewest goals allowed through semifinals -- by Women's World Cup Finalist

2007: Germany, 0
2015: United States, 1
1995: Norway, 1

The United States also enters the final having not conceded a goal in 513 consecutive minutes, the second-longest streak in tournament history. The U.S. women can set the single-tournament record with 28 more scoreless minutes in the final (Germany went all six games without conceding in 2007, a 540-minute span).

Longest shutout streaks -- Women's World Cup history

2003-11: Germany, 679 minutes
2015: United States, 513*
1999-03: China, 442
* Active streak

And while Hope Solo tied Briana Scurry's record of 10 World Cup shutouts in the semifinal win over Germany, these defensive accomplishments have been the ultimate group effort. Consider this about the U.S. back four of Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Meghan Klingenberg:

• Johnston and Klingenberg made their World Cup debuts this year
• Krieger suffered a concussion in mid-April and played fewer than 90 minutes in all three pre-tournament matches

• They've played all but nine minutes together at this WWC (Lori Chalupny replaced Krieger in the 81st minute against Colombia)
• Made a total of 12 starts together (six of which came at WWC); posting a 10-0-2 record and allowing two goals

How has the defense been so successful?

1. Forcing opponents to take bad shots: Solo has 12 saves this tournament but apart from some early-game heroics against Australia, she hasn't really been tested. In the last five games, Solo has had to make just one save on a shot from inside the 18-yard box. In fact, the 58 shots the United States has allowed this World Cup have come from an average distance of 25.8 yards. And as Germany discovered on Tuesday evening, good luck beating the best goalkeeper in the world from that range.

Germany entered the semifinals with the highest scoring offense at the World Cup, but was held to a tournament-low 15 shots in Tuesday's loss, which came from an average distance of 25 yards. Nine of those shots were from outside the 18 and only one was on frame.

2. The best defense is a good offense: It's difficult to score when you don't have the ball. The U.S. women have had the possession edge in all but one game this World Cup (51 percent advantage for Germany in the semifinal), which limits the amount of time the U.S. team has to spend in its defensive third.

Outside backs Klingenberg and Krieger have been instrumental in the attack, leading the team in overall touches and ranking third and fourth, respectively, in touches in the attacking third. In addition to providing crosses and combination play on the flanks, their inclusion in the attack forces opposing outside midfielders and/or strikers to drop back and defend.

Most touches in attacking third -- U.S. women at 2015 WWC

Megan Rapinoe, 138
Alex Morgan, 96
Meghan Klingenberg, 94
Ali Krieger, 91

3. It's not just the back four: While the back four and Solo have been the focus of most of the praise, the United States has defended well as a team. Case in point: Morgan Brian in the United States' semifinal win over Germany.

The youngest player on the U.S. roster and a natural attacking midfielder, Brian teamed with Lauren Holiday to play a more defensive role against Germany. In doing so she led the team in tackles (six), interceptions (10), and helped shut down Germany's midfield duo of Anja Mittag and Lena Goessling.

Entering the match Goessling and Mittag had combined to create 25 of Germany's 94 chances, but created just one opportunity against the U.S. women and were dispossessed 5 times.

What does it mean going forward?

From a defensive standpoint, the biggest question for Sunday's final is which formation Jill Ellis will employ. Will the United States build on Tuesday's success and stay with the 4-5-1 or go back to a 4-4-2? As evidenced against Germany, the 4-5-1 clogs up the midfield, which could be necessary against a possession-oriented Japan. Japan has the highest pass completion rate of any team at the Women's World Cup and is one of the most -- if not the most -- technical teams in this tournament. This style of play has given the United States trouble in the past (2011 WWC Final against Japan; loss to France in February 2015).

Highest Pass Completion Percent -- Teams at 2015 WWC

Japan 79.7
France 77.5
Brazil 76.6
Switzerland 76.3