Netherlands will face USWNT in World Cup final after Jackie Groenen rescues lackluster semi

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Netherlands' Jackie Groenen, center, celebrates after scoring during the Women's World Cup semifinal soccer match between the Netherlands and Sweden, at the Stade de Lyon outside Lyon, France, Wednesday, July 3, 2019. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
The Netherlands' Jackie Groenen (C) celebrates after scoring the game-winning goal in extra time of the World Cup semifinal vs. Sweden. (Associated Press)

If you wanted to know who the United States would be facing in Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final – if you really wanted to know – the price to find out was steep, more than two and a half hours of Sweden and the Netherlands playing an aggressively uninteresting semifinal on Wednesday, before the Dutch prevailed 1-0 in extra time.

Jackie Groenen finally delivered a goal with a low shot from outside the box in the 99th minute to send the European champions to the final in just their second World Cup appearance.

As expected, the Dutch were eager to trade on their technique and wide play. But the veteran Swedes were predictably physical and organized, largely negating all the things that make the Dutch good while taking a cautious approach of their own.

It made for, well … actually … the most generous characterization is that they played a game of soccer, contrasting sharply with the barnburner that had sent the Americans to the final a day earlier.

It was a slow and largely uneventful game, marked mostly by the things that didn’t happen. That’s largely because both goalkeepers had strong games.

Here’s the Netherlands’ Sari van Veenendaal making a few of several strong saves:

And here’s Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl making one of her own:

It took almost 100 minutes for one of the goals to finally be breached. Groenen ran through an alley in the Swedish defense and ripped her shot past Lindahl at last.

In truth, the victory, however narrow, flattered the Dutch a little. Because they got very little going on the night and the Swedes were the stronger team in the second half. But just like the quarterfinal against Japan, the Netherlands survived what looked an awful lot like a defensive collapse late in the game, and then somehow scoring against the run of play.

And so the improbable Dutch run goes on.

Even as the defending European champions, the Dutch are surely the Cinderella story of this World Cup. A decade ago, the Oranje Leeuwinnen – the Dutch Lionesses – were making their debut at a major tournament at Euro 2009, and surprisingly reached the semifinal. It’s taken time for the women to break through though.

Before the tournament, Groenen described her team as “outsiders.”

“But it’s hard to predict, because there’s a lot of countries we’ve never played,” she added in an interview with De Volkskrant. “Everything has to work out and fall into place. The hardest question we get asked is: How will you do? And the answer is: No idea.”

There’s a certain humility to this Dutch team, borne of the recency of the rise of the women’s game in the Netherlands. Groenen’s father still puts her through kicking drills whenever she’s home. Sherida Spitse has a personal tactical analyst on retainer. Barcelona star Lieke Martens endlessly kicked balls against walls growing up, but her hero wasn’t a woman. It was Ronaldinho. She had no female role models.

At the start of Euro 2017, on home soil, few in the Netherlands paid much attention. By the end of it, as they’d shocked the continent by winning the thing, so many new fans showed up to their victory party that people had to be turned away from a large public park. Most Dutch home games sell out now. The players have become staples on Dutch television, in commercials and on the most popular talk shows. And the fans have become an orange, traveling circus, much like for the men’s team.

Things have changed.

Now, Martens’ autobiography was an instant bestseller in the Netherlands.

And the team’s hashtag for the World Cup was #OnzeJacht. Translated: “Our hunt.” Our pursuit, more like.

More than a fifth of the Dutch population watched the quarterfinal against Japan. The value of advertising airtime during halftime of the Dutch women’s games has outpaced that of the men’s recent big games. They have signed up a raft of new, big-time sponsors. And before this World Cup started, the Dutch federation had already committed to paying the women the same as the men by the end of the next four-year cycle.

The Dutch women have announced their arrival on the world stage, setting up a final with the defending champions from the United States. They did so on a night when even the sky seemed to turn orange.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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