When a novice is faced with a foe as experienced and ruthless as the USWNT at the Women’s World Cup, the outcome is almost inevitable and so it was on a muggy early evening in Lyon when the reigning world champion defended its title with a comfortable 2-0 win over the Netherlands.
Competing in its first World Cup final, few gave the Dutch hope. The reigning European champion it may be, but it had not yet come up against the best team in the world, the dominant force of its generation.
The Netherlands held on for over an hour but two goals within eight minutes sealed the underdog’s fate.
This was the tournament where Megan Rapinoe transcended her sport, and so it was perhaps apt that the 34-year-old opened the scoring, coolly drilling home a penalty before a Rose Lavelle thunderbolt made sure of a second successive title, and a fourth in eight editions.
Much has been written during this tournament about the European teams in rapid pursuit of the USWNT, posing a threat to a soccer dynasty.
That it was both Lavelle and Rapinoe, representing the team’s youth and experience respectively, who scored was a perfect way to illustrates that the US possess the personnel to see off challengers for some time to come.
Leading the chase are those European countries whose men’s national teams have traditionally been superpowers of the beautiful game.
The Dutch, English and French football federations have started to invest heavily in women’s football. But, in France at least, all have been vanquished. Thailand, Chile, Sweden, Spain, France, England and now the Netherlands have been swept aside by a team unbeaten in 17 World Cup matches.
“The level around the world is going exponentially every year,” Jill Ellis, the first coach to win the Women’s World Cup twice, told reporters after the match.
“Four years on, this was incredibly difficult because the opponent is better The teams that we had to come through are some of the best teams in the world. In terms of the path and the level, this was pretty challenging.”
The Netherlands soaked up the US pressure in the first half. There were white shirts coming at them from every direction, aiming crosses from wide, from deep, attempting cute through-balls to catch the first-time finalists off their guard.
Those in orange needed to summon up the concentration levels of a chess grand master, but that’s what it’s like facing a team with an unceasing desire to win. They are always in motion; keeping possession, positioning themselves high up the pitch, never resting. Opponents are left to backpedal, to organize and resist when under intense stress, but the grandest of sporting stages are always as much a mental battle as physical.
And then there was the predominantly American crowd raising the decibels; moving towards the edge of their seats in anticipation of that killer through ball, roaring at every shot that seems to be flying towards goal, making it impossible to forget that this is a match like no other. Grand masters, at least, have the privilege of focusing in silence.
Penalty after VAR review
That the Netherlands withstood the US until the hour mark was admirable. It is the only team in this tournament which the USWNT has been unable to breach within the opening 12 minutes.
Much of the credit will be heaped on the acrobatic Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal. First, she saved a Julie Ertz volley, then the woodwork assisted her gather of the first of two Alex Morgan attempts. It was pure instinct which saw her deny Morgan for the second time before the break.
Had the Netherlands maintained its composure in the final third then history could have come to regard this as the match where the emerging force knocked the USWNT off its perch.
The Netherlands did cause the USWNT a moment of worry. Alyssa Naeher had to sprint off her line at the sight of Lineth Beerensteyn charging towards goal with the score goalless. It was a move which highlighted the US defense’s occasional vulnerability to be cut open with a clever pass.
But after the break the USWNT cut loose. When French referee Stephanie Frappart opted to bring VAR into play, showing Stefanie van der Gragt to have felled Morgan, it felt almost certain that the penalty would be awarded.
Rapinoe stepped up to score her sixth goal of the tournament and celebrated with arms outstretched in a pose which became iconic when she celebrated in the same way in scoring against France just days after irking US President Donald Trump.
Her teammates engulfed her near the corner flag, with even the substitutes sprinting half the length of the pitch to join the celebrations. Given the doggedness of Dutch resistance, the relief of the US team was tangible.
The penalty secured Rapinoe the Golden Boot, beating teammate Morgan – who also ended the tournament with six goals and three assists – courtesy of minutes per goal. Rapinoe, only the second player in history to start in three World Cup finals, was also awarded the Golden Ball, given to the tournament’s best player.
It was only after going 1-0 down that the Netherlands attack, its most potent weapon, seemed to feel at ease in its surroundings, but teams who fall behind to the USWNT rarely recover. And so it proved as Lavelle, who watched the 2015 final in a pizza shop, struck quickly to double the advantage.
Gathering the ball in the center circle, Lavelle surged forward – the 24-year-old’s mastery of the ball at pace making it impossible for her opponents to thwart her. With a swivel of the hips, she evaded two oncoming Dutch defenders before hitting the bottom-right corner.
Were it not for Van Veenendaal – who wears boots a size too small out of superstition – the score could have been higher. The 29-year-old stopped Morgan, Tobin Heath and Crystal Dunn from making it three.
“We’d have loved to have win this final but we didn’t, our opponent was better today,” said Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman.
“We’re second in the world and I’m very proud of that, I’m proud of the team and proud of the staff. And I think we can still improve.”