LYON, France -- No one’s griping about the two finalists in the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
Two of the best teams in the world — the defending champion United States and European champ Netherlands — are ready to clash at Stade de Lyon on Sunday.
The final offers some intriguing contrasts of the old world vs. the new world of international women’s soccer.
The Americans are the old guard, having essentially written the history of the women’s international game since the first world championship in 1991. They have secured three Women’s World Cup championships, more than any other country, and will play in a record third consecutive final.
The upstart Dutch only participated in their first World Cup in 2015, but they have been on the ascension while becoming a respected world power. Case in point: they captured the 2017 Women’s Euro title, something more established European powerhouses, such as France and England, haven’t been able to do.
Not surprisingly, the 2019 Women’s World Cup final offers some interesting storylines:
Will Rapinoe’s Hamstring Be Ready?
Megan Rapinoe is only a step away from putting her other foot down and putting her stamp on the tournament for good, not unlike what Carli Lloyd accomplished at the 2015 tournament in Canada, as long as her strained hamstring allows. If Rapinoe is good to go — she said after Tuesday’s 2-1 semifinal win over England that she would be healthy — the Dutch better be wary. The veteran midfielder has proven to be a money player, striking twice in each of the knockout-round games in which she played. That was a pair of 2-1 wins over Spain and France in the Round of 16 and quarterfinals, respectively.
A Team For The Ages, Or A Team For The Aged?
The biggest contrast between the teams is experience and age.
Assuming Rapinoe is healthy after missing the semifinal with a hamstring injury, the Americans will likely deploy a starting XI that averages 29 years of age with six players over 30. Their oldest performers will be defender Becky Sauerbrunn and Rapinoe, who are 34. Their youngest starter is 24-year-old Rose Lavelle.
The Dutch are “babies” compared to Team USA. Their likely starters average 25.5 years old, with no one over 30. The team’s elders include goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal, 29, and midfielder Lieke Martens, 26. The Netherlands has two likely starters who are 22: forwards Lineth Beerensteyn and Vivianne Miedema.
The U.S. Depth Has Been Tested, And Passed
If Rapinoe isn’t ready, well, it won’t be the end of the world or the World Cup for Team USA. As we learned in the 2-1 semifinal triumph over England, reserve Christen Press stepped right up and connected for the first goal. For most of the year, Press had been playing the best soccer of her international career, so the forward scoring wasn’t a surprise to team observers. And if it isn’t Press, there’s always the veteran Lloyd and her built-in radar for goals and scoring opportunities that give many a defender or goalkeeper headaches, despite turning 37 on July 16.
The Dutch Are A Team On The Rise
Not as familiar with the Dutch national side as you might be with Sweden, England or France? Well, there’s good reason. The Netherlands, which only participated in its first World Cup in 2015, has become a power in only the past few years. Its rise has been rapid and impressive, having won the 2017 European championship. So, they’re the real deal. Some of the players to look out for:
- Goalkeeper and captain van Veenendaal made key saves in the 1-0 semifinal win over Sweden. The Dutch has allowed only three goals in six matches.
- Martens, the 2017 FIFA World Player of the Year, has been outstanding on both sides of the ball, especially with her vision in attack. She has two goals.
- Midfielder Jackie Groenen, who connected for the extra time game-winner against Sweden, her first goal of the tournament
- Midfielder Sherida Spitse, who has accrued a tournament-best four assists
- And Miedema, who has scored almost a goal a game for Arsenal (England) and has a team-high three goals in this competition
An Extra Day Of Rest
As one of the last two teams to play its first group stage, the U.S has been on limited rest ever since. In fact, the team had one day less of rest than its foes in the Round of 16, quarterfinals and semifinal. With the Netherlands defeating Sweden 1-0 in 120 minutes on Wednesday, the tables have turned for the defending champions, who have an extra, precious day of rest.
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The Americans have followed a familiar script in each of their six games — striking within the opening 12 minutes. For any team, falling behind that early is not a good sign as they are forced to chase the game. Against Team USA, it could be a death knell. The question is whether the red, white and blue can do it one more time against the Dutch to establish early supremacy.
Interesting factoid: the U.S. has not trailed in any of its matches.
Why Scoring First Is Key
And how important is it to score first in this World Cup? Through the semifinals, teams that scored first have won a staggering 85 percent of the time. In the knockout stages, prior to Saturday’s third-place match between England and Sweden, squads scoring first have an impressive 12-1-1 mark for 88.5 winning percentage.
Can Alyssa Naeher Do It One More Time?
U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher answered her critics and skeptics by making two vital saves in the semifinal win over England. If she is tested again against the Dutch, can Naeher come up huge again to seal her place among the top goalkeepers in American and international soccer history? And even if she isn’t tested, Naeher earned her keep with that penalty-kick save on Steph Houghton in the waning minutes. She has only had to take the ball out of the net three times in six games.
Defense Wins Championships
While considered a weakness entering the tournament last month, the U.S. backline has acquitted itself well. The center back dynamic duo of Abby Dahlkemper and the veteran Sauerbrunn has been solid. The outside backs, Kelley O’Hara on the left flank, and Crystal Dunn on the left, are battlers. Dunn has gone up against some of the best right-wing attackers in the world and hasn’t given up a goal.
Going For A Rare Double
If the U.S. wins, then Jill Ellis enters rarefied company in becoming the first coach to guide a team to back-to-back Women’s World Cup crowns. The U.S. won in Canada in 2015. Ellis also would become only the second person to direct a soccer team to consecutive world championships, joining Vittorio Pozzo, who directed the Italian men’s team to World Cup glory in 1934 and 1938.
The Anson Dorrance Factor
Anson Dorrance coached the U.S. to the first Women’s World Cup crown in 1991. He returned to the University of North Carolina and continued to help produce world-class players who dominated NCAA Division I soccer and impacted the U.S. national team. This year’s team has five former Tar Heels — goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, defender Dunn, midfielder Allie Long and forwards Tobin Heath and Jessica McDonald.
Even the Dutch have been influenced by Dorrance, as coach Sarina Wiegman played at the North Carolina as a member of the 1989 NCAA championship squad. Wiegman, the first woman to coach the Netherlands’ team, was teammates with Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly and Carla Overbeck. That trio played important roles for Team USA in securing the 1991 Women’s World Cup crown.
And In Case You’re Looking Ahead...
Regardless how the Americans fare on Sunday, they still will have to qualify for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The Concacaf Olympic women’s qualifying tournament will be held in January or February, perhaps somewhere in the U.S. It was hosted by Frisco and Houston, Texas in February 2016.
Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.