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by Bob Fromer

Vancouver, Canada: July 11 -- The United States and Japan have been the two best women's fastpitch teams in the world ever since softball gained and then lost Olympic status. But while Japan has occasionally beaten the US -- most famously and importantly in the final at the Beijing Olympics -- the US has usually been the stronger team.

The most recent demonstration of that truism was in the final at the ISF World Championships in Venezuela last summer, when the US broke open a close game in the middle innings and won going away. US power, and power pitching, usually prevailed over Japanese quickness and athleticism.

But that was then, and this is now.

And what has happened between the 2010 World Championship in Venezuela and this month's Canadian Open Fastpitch Championships in Canada is that the US has lost an entire team and has had to start from scratch.

So when the two teams played a round-robin game in Canada on Saturday night, July 9, and Japan won 1-0, it seemed like more than just a close game that happened to go Japan's way. It felt like the end of an era.

These two teams will play each other several more times this month, in what used to be called the Canada Cup and then at the World Cup of Softball in Oklahoma City (where the GB Women's Team will face both of them). When the dust settles on those encounters, the US and Japan will probably still be the two best teams in the world.

But the order at the top may be reversed.

Momentous decision

For the whole of the Olympic softball era, the US effectively had a team of super-stars. Fate and timing brought together legendary players such as Lisa Fernandez, Jessica Mendoza, Crystl Bustos, Stacey Nuveman, Jennie Finch, Lovie Jung, Cat Osterman, Monica Abbott, Caitlin Lowe, Natasha Watley and others, and they not only had supreme talent but a mystique and aura that made them virtually unchallengeable.

And when they were challenged, as in the Sydney Olympics when they almost failed to make the playoff round, the US came roaring back to win. In Athens, they gained another gold medal by scoring 51 runs and surrendering two. It was a major upset when they lost to Japan in Beijing, and the US put that right, emphatically, in Venezuela.

But then came a huge decision. With softball no longer in the Olympics, with even the US National Team programme struggling for money, and with the "face of the franchise", Jennie Finch, retiring, the remaining US players got together and made a collective decision to leave Team USA and see if they could better promote and build up softball by playing in the small Women's Professional League in the United States.

And suddenly they were gone, all of them, and the US National Team had to start from scratch.

Not that that was difficult.

Softball is very much alive and well in thousands of US colleges, and hundreds of elite players still come off the college production line every year. Creating a strong US team from the best of these players is certainly not a problem.

But the team that represented the US on Saturday night here in Canada didn't feel quite the same.

There was plenty of talent, but the aura and mystique were gone.

Japan on top

So even though the game couldn't have been closer, and it took nine innings before Japan pushed a tiebreak runner home for their 1-0 win, the difference was that Japan felt like the better team throughout, and the likeliest winners.

Team USA felt like a top-class college softball team -- but no more than that. The Japanese were quicker, more athletic and -- the real difference -- more confident. And from here, they could go from strength to strength.

It's dangerous to predict trends on the basis of one game. The US could find its pride, muster its power (they might have won Saturday's game had a long blast over the left field fence in the sixth inning not drifted foul) and regain its supremacy.

But it doesn't feel like that. It feels like the balance of power in world softball has shifted east.