Why USWNT insists the toughest test awaits in the World Cup final

LYON, France — Not only is the United States women’s national team not taking the Netherlands lightly ahead of Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final, the Americans know they’ll be facing their toughest opponent this tournament.

Because for all the talk about how the quarterfinal win over France on June 28 was the “final before the final,” and as close as their other two knockout-round wins were, Sunday’s match against the Dutch at Stade de Lyon marks the first time this summer the Americans will come up against a team that knows what it takes to win a major title.

“They’re the European champions,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis reminded those in attendance at the pre-match news conference on Saturday.

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“That’s a very difficult thing to do,” added Megan Rapinoe.

She would know. This is the USWNT co-captain’s third World Cup final. She won one in 2015. She lost one in 2011. She’s been on both sides in the Olympics, too, earning the gold medal at London 2012 and going home from Rio empty-handed four years later. The Dutch are a good team, she said. But their status at best in Europe means they have something else.

“That takes a certain level of discipline and mental strength and all of the intangibles that we like to talk about outside of the playing field,” Rapinoe said. “This team is tested against the best competition in this world in this tournament and obviously in Europe. So they have that idea of what it takes to win a championship more than the other teams that we faced.”

On the soccer side, they pose different threats, too. While the other teams the United States has faced have been content to try and steal a goal on the counterattack, the Dutch like to keep the ball.

For the first time all World Cup, Jill Ellis and the USWNT will face a squad that's won a major title this century. (Getty)
For the first time all World Cup, Jill Ellis and the USWNT will face a squad that's won a major title this century. (Getty)

They’re also adept at set plays. Playmaking midfielder Sherida Spitse is gifted enough to drop a ball onto the head of a teammate from anywhere in the final third of the field, and enters the title match leading the competition with four assists. With the ability to strike in different ways, the U.S. can’t afford any lapses in concentration.

“They have good variety, meaning they’ll look to get in behind immediately and they’ll [also] look to play in front of you and around,” Ellis said. “They’re excellent in their positioning in terms of being in good spaces to receive the ball. And it’s the 4-3-3 of the Dutch. It’s what they live and breathe, and they’ve probably seen it since they were 5 years old, so they’re very well schooled in that system.”

The Netherlands also enters the match with little pressure. Against teams from their own continent, the Oranje are used to having a target on their backs. That won’t be the case against the Americans.

“We are the underdog,” coach Sarina Wiegman acknowledged. “We are fine with that.” Yet as much as that designation might allow them to play free, Wiegman’s team will be hard-pressed to pull off the upset if it has to play without star forward Lieke Martens, who could miss the match with a foot injury. “We’re not sure if she can start,” Wiegman said. “We’ll decide [Sunday] morning.”

History is also against the United States. The Americans might be the only team to have won three Women’s World Cups, but only three champions, men’s or women’s, have ever repeated in the 89-year history of the event.

Ellis isn’t burdened by that, just as Wiegman insisted there’s no extra pressure to deliver the Dutch their first World Cup title after the men dropped back-to-back finals in the 1970s and also lost to Spain in the 2010 decider, cementing the country’s reputation as the best to never to win it all. “Absolutely not,” Wiegman said.

On the plus side, the U.S. enters the match with an extra day of rest for the first time at France 2019. But Ellis knows it will take a dialed-in performance and maybe even a little luck to retain the trophy. Overall, she feels her team is in a good spot.

“I feel so good about this group,” she said. “They have a closeness that you’re optimistic to have as a coach.

“But sometimes,” she added. “It doesn’t always come to fruition.”

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