It’s been a piece of cake. Remember the Thailand game?
No, the United States Women’s National Team has marched through the most demanding crucible in Women’s World Cup history to earn its place in the final. It defeated a feisty rising power in Spain (No. 13 in the world), the hosts and co-favorites France (No. 3), and a dynamic England (No. 4). Drawing the Netherlands—who at no point in this tournament has looked as good as England and France—out of the weak side of the bracket now is like if you climbed to the top of the pagoda and found Spud Webb instead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar waiting to fight at the top.
Which is why it’s a trap. Spud Webb can still beat you up. For every reason to be confident the U.S. women will enjoy an easy coda to this World Cup against the Dutch, there’s an equally compelling reason to be concerned. The Netherlands beat (an admittedly much changed) England 3–0 in the semifinals on its way to winning UEFA’s Women’s Euro tournament. To reach the final of this tournament, it has had to navigate an obstacle course where every opponent presents a different challenge. It’s overcome the intricate passing of Japan, the quick transitions of Italy, and the muscular directness of Sweden. It’s already dispatched three of the Americans’ great rivals this tournament: Canada, Japan, and Sweden. Why not finish the job Sunday?
Because its players are exhausted. They’ve slowed down in the second half of every knockout round game and will start the World Cup final just about 90 hours after they finished extra time in the semifinal. (The U.S. played its semifinal a day earlier and took care of England in 90 minutes.) Despite that game going 120 minutes, Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman used just two of her substitutes, and just one of its forwards and midfielders has been rotated out of the starting lineup all tournament. The forecast for Lyon on Sunday calls for it to be 88 degrees at kickoff, despite the possibility of storms. None of that bodes well for the Netherlands.
However, it hasn’t stopped the Dutch yet. The Netherlands has made a habit of winning late, even as its pace of play has dropped at the end of games. It has scored six of its seven winners in this tournament in the 70th minute or later—and three of those in the 90th minute or later, including Jackie Groenen’s goal in extra time against Sweden. That’s bad news for a U.S. team that has spent the last 20 minutes of its two most recent games retreating deeper and deeper into a protective shell, playing to hold on to its lead rather than attempt to extend it. Both England and France dominated the final periods of their games against the Americans—perhaps partially because U.S. head coach Jill Ellis seems reluctant to use her subs before the 80th minute—but were unable to secure the tying goal. If Ellis thinks she can cling to a one-goal lead in the final, the Dutch will be there to stomp on her fingertips.
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Though that scenario would be a lot easier to envision if the Dutch front line looked more capable of scoring those goals. Its forwards were supposed to be the great strength of this Dutch team. The tricky Lieke Martens and irresistible Shanice van de Sanden both started the Champions League final on opposite sides. Vivianne Miedema scored 31 goals in 28 games for Arsenal this season and is already the all-time top Dutch scorer despite being just 22. But while the U.S. has two of the tournament’s top three goal scorers up top, the Dutch front three have failed to bring their contrasting skill sets into harmony. Martens has been dealing with a foot injury since her own teammate stepped on her while celebrating her penalty kick winner against Japan; she could only play for 45 subdued minutes in the semifinal. Miedema has struggled all tournament to bring in her teammates. Van de Sanden seems to operate under the assumption that Miedema is Abdul-Jabbar-sized; her crosses have been permanently calibrated to sail through the airspace a foot and a half above her leaping center forward’s head. She was benched for the Sweden game in favor of Lineth Beerensteyn.
In their place, the Dutch defense has stepped up. The Netherlands has allowed just three goals all tournament—none, a fast-starting U.S. team will note, before the 43rd minute. The backline and midfield are good at staying connected on the field. Even when the first defender gets beaten, there’s always another there to cover for her. The Netherlands has made a habit of shutting down opponents’ stars, getting Italy’s Barbara Bonansea subbed out in the 55th minute of that game and aggressively marking (and often fouling) Sweden’s Kosovare Asllani throughout the game, giving her the same sort of physical treatment the U.S. wingers have faltered under this tournament.
These teams have a lot in common. Both were expected to blast through the tournament fueled by goals, goals, and more goals and to dare the other teams to try to keep up. Both have instead tipped hard in the opposite direction, grinding games out as though they have more faith in their opponents’ ability to score than their own. The Americans have the talent and the legs to overwhelm the Netherlands on Sunday and are rightly heavy favorites, but the Dutch have a chance. Perhaps Sunday, facing its mirror image, one of the two will tilt hard the other way and try to overwhelm the other. Given the conservatism displayed by the two coaches thus far, that seems unlikely. We could be in for another grind.