VANCOUVER (Reuters) - When your game is built on possession and suffocating the opposition, the last thing you want to do is concede an early goal -- let alone four inside the first 16 minutes as Japan did in the Women's World Cup final on Sunday.
Frozen by stage fright and overwhelmed by a fired-up United States side, Japan were never in the contest once they fell behind and eventually handed over the title they had won so brilliantly four years ago by a humiliating 5-2 margin.
Coach Norio Sasaki had said on the eve of the final that a good start was vital for the reigning champions and he surely could not have conceived of the nightmare that would unfold before his eyes at BC Place.
A combination of two low balls into the box from set pieces and slack Japanese marking allowed Carli Lloyd to put the United States 2-0 up inside the first five minutes.
A poor clearance header from Azusa Iwashimizu gave Lauren Holiday the chance to volley home the third before keeper Ayumi Kaihori's poor positioning contributed to Lloyd's own third, a wonder goal from halfway.
"If we had been a bit tighter at the start (the result could have been different), but the players never stopped running until the end and I am proud of them," Sasaki told Japan's Kyodo news agency.
"We have had the pressure of being champions these past four years but to get to this stage the players have done really well."
Japan were in completely uncharted territory after the early onslaught, having not trailed in any of their six previous matches at a tournament in which they had conceded just three goals.
They faced a monumental task to clamber out of trouble but chasing a game when your style is all about patience and composure on the ball was always going to be tough.
Yuki Ogimi turned Julie Johnston to create space for a neat finish past Hope Solo in the 27th minute and early pressure in the second half reduced the deficit further when Johnston put through her own net.
But the Americans went straight up the other end to grab their fifth goal, again from the set piece, with Tobin Heath benefiting from Japan's inability to clear a corner.
Thereafter, Japan put in plenty of effort but Solo was equal to the few chances they created and when the final whistle sounded, it was the Japanese who were left wiping away tears of disappointment, as the Americans had after the 2011 final.
Homare Sawa, the top scorer and MVP at the last World Cup, came on as a first-half substitute in the last game of her record sixth and final World Cup campaign.
"We conceded three goals at a point in the game that we shouldn't have and that hurt us," said the 36-year-old attacking midfielder.
"But I think all of the players gave it everything they had."
Japan remain Asian champions and will not have to wait four years for a chance of avenging the loss with the Rio de Janeiro Olympics coming up next year.
Football at the Olympics is much more important in the women's game than the men's and Japan were silver medallists at the 2012 Games in London, losing the final 2-1 to the United States.
"We tried to play our game and never gave up until the end but we could not come back after continuing to concede goals at the start," said striker Yuki Ogimi.
"We just weren't good enough."
Writing by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by John O'Brien/Patrick Johnston