Used to be, you could predict the lineup for the final four at the Women's World Cup before the tournament began.
The Americans were a given. The Germans, too. Brazil's been there to the bitter end in recent years, and Sweden or Norway were never a bad bet. This year? Anybody who predicted Japan playing in its first final and France making the semis either knew somebody on one of the teams or based their picks on uniform colors.
"It's amazing to see a team like France, a team like Japan in the final. Germany knocked out. Brazil knocked out," U.S. player Megan Rapinoe said Thursday. "It's amazing to have that (parity) — and that we are still right there, at the top."
Yes, the Americans are the lone constant in this topsy-turvy tournament.
The world's top-ranked team, the United States is trying to become the first country to win three World Cup titles when it faces Japan on Sunday. This may be the Americans' first appearance in the final since 1999, the last time they won it all, but they've won two gold medals in the interim and had a two year-plus winning streak going until November.
"It is a great opportunity for us," Japan coach Norio Sasaki said after the Nadeshiko beat Sweden 3-1 in the semifinals, their second big upset of the tournament. "It is going to be a huge opportunity for us and a big platform."
For all of women's soccer, really.
Back when Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Michelle Akers, Kristine Lilly and the gang ruled the world, the World Cup often wasn't a fair fight. Some of the scores in the group stage were laughable, and the gap between the elite and the second tier was more like a chasm. In the first World Cup, in 1991, the Americans routed Taiwan (7-0) and Brazil (5-0) while Sweden romped to an 8-0 win over Japan.
But unlike softball or women's hockey, where the rest of the world has failed to keep pace with the one or two dominant teams or had no interest in doing so, countries all over the world have been pouring money and resources into their women's soccer teams. The results could be seen clearly in Germany as, slowly but surely, the gap between good and great narrows.
There were no blowouts in the tournament, the 4-0 wins by Japan over Mexico and France over Canada the most lopsided of the matches. There were 19 draws or one-goal victories in the first 30 games, and the scoring average is down to just 2.63 from 3.81 in 1991 and '95.
"France is obviously a bit of a surprise but, when we played them, we gave them a lot of respect in the locker room," said Abby Wambach, whose header in the 79th minute broke what had been a tense tie with France, which reached the semifinals in its second World Cup appearance. "All of us were talking about what pretty soccer they played, how exciting it was to watch their front four or five players. Not that we want to play like anybody else, but it was exciting to see.
"This game has come a long way, a long way since '99."
And should continue to do so.
Colombia and Equatorial Guinea made their World Cup debuts in Germany. Though each exited after the first round, neither embarrassed themselves. The Americans — the Americans! — had to win a playoff just to get a spot in Germany after being humbled by Mexico in qualifying, El Tri's first victory over its neighbor to the north in 25 tries.
"Sometimes, it's frustrating for us. If we don't smash every team or win every game, it's like, 'What's wrong with U.S. Soccer? What's wrong with the women's side?'" Rapinoe said. "We see it as a good thing. I don't want to beat every team five-nil. I would rather lose a few games and have the games be much more equal."
At least the Americans made it to Germany.
China, a traditional powerhouse, failed to qualify for this World Cup. Italy, one of Europe's strongest teams, went undefeated in winning its qualifying group and it still wasn't good enough to get the Azzurre a trip to Germany. As for the Germans, not only did they bow out in the quarterfinals here, they won't be going to next summer's London Olympics.
Sweden, the 2000 Olympic gold medalist, got one of UEFA's two spots. The other went to France, which has never appeared in an Olympic Games.
"The growth of soccer has been amazing," said U.S. captain Christie Rampone, the lone holdover from the 1999 squad. "It's just amazing to see Japan in the final and the growth of soccer and support behind it. All these teams putting more effort and time and training. ... All these games are tight. You can see the pressure's out there. There's great goalkeepers, great attacking players, great defense.
"You don't see blowouts, which is great for the sport."