Japan v USA (U23 World a Championship Final – Women’s Division)
World Under 23 Championships were held in St Albans in 2015. The Women’s Final was a rematch of a group game, where USA had comfortably defeated Japan 17-13.
The USA in fact remained unchallenged on route to the final, with a points difference of +85 through 9 games. This was fairly unsurprising, USA has by far the biggest junior and collegiate Ultimate communities and as a result produces some terrific young players. As a result USA came into the final as heavy favourites.
The USA had success in the group stages playing high tempo, aggressive offence. The team had less chemistry than other nations due to only coming together for a one week preparation camp shortly before flying to London. As a result they most played a fairly vanilla horizontal stack.
Japan’s journey to the final included more bumps, including defeats to USA and Canada in their group. However, USA were likely disappointed when Japan exacted revenge on Canada with a 13-10 win in the semi-final. In recent years Japan Women have had great success unsettling and disrupting the offensive rhythm of American teams, including a stunning victory over USA in the senior World Championships in Japan in 2012.
Youth Ultimate is far less established in Japan (Women’s team finished 11th at World Junior Championships 2016) so they rely on a competitive University scene to develop players. They also displayed the best team chemistry at the tournament with impressive offensive timing and movement, and intelligent and versatile defensive sets.
On offence Japan ran a very short vertical stack. Their strategy took traditional concepts such as ‘create space around the thrower’ and threw them out the window.
#2 – Jesse Shofner – For any young person learning to play Ultimate, Shofner is one of the best to learn from. She plays with great speed, confidence and creativity.
#22 – Jaclyn Verzuh – Only 18 in June 2015, Verzuh was already playing for Seattle Riot, one of the top club teams in the US. Her physicality, speed and size made her an obvious mismatch against the much shorter Japanese players.
Coach – Eri Enzu – Eri Enzu had captained the Japanese National Team to World Championship Gold in 2012, whilst producing the most dominant individual performance I have ever seen in the sport. Her strengths, agility and quick movement in small spaces near the disc, plus precise break throws are evident throughout this Japan team.
#0 – Yuri Hamashima – In a squad of players that preferred to move the disc through short passes in small spaces, Hamashima provided the offensive depth with quick and intelligent deep cutting.
I actually had the pleasure of commentating on this game, alongside my Great Britain Under 23 Coach Jools Murray, so I’ll make occasional references to some of the colour commentary.
Immediately we see a ‘poaching’ strategy from the Japanese defence. Japan are playing 1v1 defence but whenever their offensive player is in an area of space that they don’t regard as dangerous, they stop marking them and instead ‘sag’ into more dangerous spaces.
This leaves players unmarked for easy passes, but it disrupts the rhythm of the USA offence and forces them to think about their offensive mentality. Do they continue to be aggressive and throw into these dangerous areas despite the extra defenders, or do they take the unmarked passes and adjust to a more patient strategy?
At 2:23 we see an example of this constricted vertical stack from Japan, with all 7 offensive players within 15 metres of the disc.
Japan convert for the opening goal thanks to patient, short passes and some amazing catches. You’ll see throughout the game that Japan’s catching is exceptional. It is often overlooked skill in Ultimate but this game shows how important it can prove.
At 9:35 Japan play a zone instead of 1v1 defence. What this means is that each defender is responsible for defending a particular space. Jools Murray does a great job of explaining how this zone functions on the commentary.
At 12:10 USA play a zone of their own. Earlier in the tournament Japan had struggled against some zones by being too patient and too passive, resulting in them completing lots of passes without getting closer to the endzone.
At 14:30 we see an example of exactly how USA want to play offence and what Japan are trying to prevent. A USA receiver catches a disc going forwards and has an isolated receiver cutting deep downfield. A good deep shot throw, a good catch and an easy, aggressive two pass goal.
USA take the lead 6-5 with some aggressive offence, but then lose the lead playing more patiently whilst Japan complete 3 deep throws to go up 8-6. At 31:25 I talk about the importance of sticking to your game plan under pressure.
Ideally USA would have discussed how to adjust their offence to counteract the poaching defence from Japan whilst sticking to their positive, impatient style of play. This could mean playing with one fewer reset (USA mostly played with 1 thrower, 2 resets, 4 downfield cutters) meaning one less defender to clog the space, or having reset cutters sprint straight to the deep space whenever their defender started to ‘poach’.
You can see at 32:00 that when one of the reset cutters clears downfield, it creates enough spaces in front of the disc for a USA receiver to attack.
At 36:30 USA turnover on another simple pass to an unmarked player. It is clear that a combination of nervousness and discomfort with adjusting to Japan’s defensive game plan is creating uncharacteristic turnovers.
At the time the point at 11-10 felt crucial. USA had scored 3 in a row and Japan were now going upwind and facing a zone that they had struggled against. However Japan do adjust, taking higher risk, higher reward options to attack the space behind the USA defenders.
At 51:20 Shofner cuts under to receive a pass. As soon as she catches the disc, she pivots aggressively in the opposite direction. This creates an opportunity to throw the deep shot before the force can recover.
I’ll let you enjoy the remainder of the game in peace 🙂
Overall an exciting game, with Japan producing their strongest performance in the game that counted. Their was some criticism in the US of their teams performance, which I felt was unfair. This was a very high quality game for Under 23 level.
However given the similarities between this game and the World Championship Final of 2012, I do think the coaches could’ve prepared better for the tactics that Japan would use on offence and defence. Interestingly Colombia clearly were watching and produced a game plan that nullified the Japanese strategies as they produced a surprise semi-final victory at the World Championships this summer.
Here is an article with more detailed analysis of the game: