LYON, France — For the fifth time in eight World Cups, the United States will contest the final. Their opponent on Sunday at Stade de Lyon will be Netherlands, who before 2015 had never even qualified for the main event. Their rise has been dramatic.
Netherlands stormed into the hearts of their country with a tour-de-force triumph in the 2017 European Championship that they hosted, and are now one gigantic upset away from adding the World Cup.
Here are three early things to consider ahead of Sunday’s final:
Netherlands need to weather the early storm
For Netherlands to have a chance in the match, it is vital they survive the opening 15 minutes. The United States have played a half dozen matches at this World Cup and have been in front before the 12th minute every time. Only Spain were able to find an early equalizer and make it stand up, eventually going down on a 75th-minute penalty. England also mustered the equalizer, but it stayed level for only 12 minutes. France never got on even terms again after a fatal mistake in the opening minutes.
In Wednesday’s semifinal, Netherlands began the match on their heels and allowed Sweden to dictate the tempo for the opening half hour or so. They gradually seized control and by extra time were in full command, eventually getting the only goal of the night from Jackie Groenen in the 99th minute. They won’t be able to afford early follies against a U.S. side that will make them pay for any sort of a slow start. And they’re not necessarily built to rally. Furthermore, the U.S. has been suddenly outstanding at playing with the lead and nursing the game into oblivion in the closing minutes.
Netherlands will not only need to weather the early storm; they will need to be steady in other situations such as coming out of halftime or immediately following goals. In other words, it will take a virtually flawless night of soccer, and any mental switching off won’t be overcome. Wednesday’s semifinal against Sweden was noted for its lack of intensity. Sunday will need to be a different story.
Shanice van de Sanden needs to annoy Crystal Dunn
Some of Netherlands’ players acknowledged in Wednesday night’s mixed zone that the team hasn’t necessarily played the best football, but have just found a way to win. That is an admirable trait in a side and one that we have lavished praise on the U.S. for in the last week-plus. It doesn’t mean there are not areas for improvement.
Shanice van de Sanden has not played well at this World Cup and Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman was moved to sit her in the semifinal in favor of Lineth Beerensteyn. The switch had mixed results on the right flank. And then, van de Sanden came off the bench and changed the game with her two-way energy.
If the U.S. have shown any weakness defensively at the World Cup, it has been leaving little nuggets of space behind aggressive left back Crystal Dunn. As yet, no one has been able to make them pay for it, but van de Sanden has the speed and energy to make the right side a win for the Dutch. Even if she does not score any goals, her pestering presence could at least keep occupied whoever starts between Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press on the left wing.
Netherlands are not really built to slug it out physically with the United States so any technical advantage they can muster will be crucial.
The US are better – and both teams know it
The mood in Netherlands’ mixed zone on Wednesday was jovial especially compared to the business-like approach from the U.S. players 24 hours prior. That doesn’t mean Netherlands won’t be ready, but it does seem like both sides know which team has the upper hand.
“It’s a final so anything can happen,” Stefanie van der Gragt said.
Most other players — at least those conducting interviews in English along the rope line — were focused on enjoying the semifinal win and were not keen on offering much about the match-up with the mighty U.S.
A night earlier, U.S. coach Jill Ellis was asked who she would prefer to face and said, predictably: “I don’t care who I play.”
Sometimes it is better to be the unwavering underdog rather than a France or England, who are on the cusp and looking to make that final step to get over the line. It’s odd to say about a team that are champions of Europe and a win away from being world champions, but let’s face facts. Had France or England defeated the U.S., it would have been viewed as a rising power properly knocking off the world champions. A Netherlands win would become one of the top handful of women’s soccer upsets ever.
As well as the U.S. have played, there is an argument to be made they can be better. Alex Morgan is tied with England’s Ellen White for the Golden Boot lead, but five of her six goals came against Thailand and she has been a non-factor through long stretches of play. Tobin Heath has quietly made important plays — a magical effort to win the first penalty against Spain and the through ball to set up Press’s goal against England — but has yet to thoroughly dominate her flank. All-world defender Becky Sauerbrunn just may be having the worst tournament of her life.
In their four previous finals, of which they have won three, the United States have never been this much of a favorite. But they still have to play the match.
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