How will we remember the 2019 World Cup? Scores of VAR madness, perhaps; the next step in the development of European women’s soccer, with seven quarterfinals coming from the continent; Megan Rapinoe’s emphatic celebration after scoring her first goal against host country France in the quarterfinals.
One game has yet to make a lasting memory. Sunday’s final in Lyon will crown the newest World Cup champion; it will be either the United States, which is vying for a record fourth title and its first repeat, or the Netherlands, which are seeking their first title in only their second tournament appearance. On first glance, the match looks lopsided for a final; FiveThirtyEight’s projections give the U.S. a 66 percent chance of winning.
But the Dutch won the 2017 European title and, like the U.S., have yet to lose or trail at this World Cup. They have a realistic chance to make history of their own. Let’s break down the final matchup from both sides. I’ll take the U.S.; Shaker Samman will grab the Netherlands. –Zach Kram
How They Got Here
The USWNT got here because they’re the best team in the world and have mostly played like it. Here are some of the U.S.’s per-game statistical ranks at this World Cup:
- First in goals
- First in expected goals
- First in shots
- First in shots on target
- Second (tied) in goals allowed
- First in expected goals allowed
- Third in shots allowed
- Second in shots on target allowed
And that’s not all from their 13-0 win against Thailand. Over its last four games, the U.S. has defeated Sweden (the 10th-best team in the world, per the Soccer Power Index ratings), Spain (11th), France (second), and England (fourth), scoring multiple goals in every game and never trailing.
Led by Alex Morgan (six goals, three assists) and Megan Rapinoe (five goals, two assists), the USWNT have scored in open play, on set pieces, and penalty kicks; with their feet and heads; in blowouts and close second halves. They entered the tournament as the favorite, after winning the 2015 edition, and haven’t displayed any reason they shouldn’t continue to hold that designation.
Why They’ll Win
See above. The USWNT score early, and they score often: They’ve scored six goals in the first dozen minutes of games (one in each game) thus far; every other World Cup team combined has just seven such goals.
The U.S. has so many talented players that coach Jill Ellis’s largest problem has been finding a place for all of them in her lineup. Midfielder Lindsey Horan didn’t start in the round of 16 or quarterfinal, and then chipped in the game-winning assist in the semis against England; forwards Christen Press, Carli Lloyd, and Mallory Pugh could all start for basically any other country but aren’t even Ellis’s first-choice options.
The Netherlands, as Shaker will explain below, are the only national team in the world that might be able to match the U.S.’s attacking prowess, thanks to an equally skilled front three. But the U.S. should separate itself in defense: The Netherlands have allowed 0.9 expected goals per game, compared to the U.S.’s 0.5, as well as 48 percent more shots. And the U.S. defense should be better tested, too, after facing France and England, which both boast more frightening attacking forces than any of the Dutch’s opponents thus far.
Why They’ll Lose
One worry apiece arises with both the offense and defense. With the former, an untimely pair of hamstring injuries could deprive the U.S. of much of its attacking verve: Rapinoe missed the semifinal win with a strain, and Rose Lavelle left that game an hour in after tweaking her own. In more than half an hour of play against England without either creative force, the U.S. didn’t manage a single shot. Both players say they’ll be ready to play Sunday, but if Ellis doesn’t agree, or if they play but aren’t 100 percent, the U.S. could struggle to maximize its attacking space.
On defense, the center back pairing of Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn—plus midfielder Julie Ertz, who has often dropped back as a de facto extra defender—looked more vulnerable against England than it had at any prior point in the tournament. English forward Ellen White scored one goal, had a second taken away for a fractional, VAR-aided offside call, and drew a penalty; all-time leading Dutch scorer Vivianne Miedema will take notes about how White so often slipped in behind her markers. The Dutch have won all three knockout games with a late goal, and pitched a shutout in their last two: One moment of magic from Miedema could be all it takes to win another game the same way.
The American keeper enjoyed the easiest job in the world in the group stage, elevated every pre-tournament doubt about her form in the round of 16, and then proved herself anew against England with a late-game penalty save. USWNT fans should hope her rollercoaster ride stops there and that she doesn’t swing back to dropping crosses and making uncertain passes out of the back.
In each of the last two games, the U.S. converted to a more conservative defensive style after taking the lead. It’s a questionable tactic for a roster with as much attacking talent as the USWNT’s, but it’s hard to argue with the results. In the center of the pitch, Ertz is the player who makes the strategy work, capable as she is of rendering entire swaths of the field untenable for opposing forwards.
England's first-half touches, or...guess where Julie Ertz plays... pic.twitter.com/Ia04RU8w8H— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) July 2, 2019
If you’d known before the tournament that Tobin Heath would have zero goals, one assist, and one shot on target in more than 400 minutes played, you’d assume that something had gone drastically wrong with the U.S.’s offense. But besides drawing a foul against Spain that led to Rapinoe’s first converted penalty kick, she’s been quiet on the right side while the rest of her teammates have produced chances on net. She’s due for a moment of her typical on-ball wizardry.
It’s easy to project overconfidence in the USWNT after they already defeated two superior opponents in the last two rounds. Still, the Dutch can definitely win this game—it’s just that everything would have to go right for them to spring the upset, whereas the U.S. can afford one key player to falter or, heck, miss the game entirely, as proved with Rapinoe’s absence in the semifinal. The USWNT will poach another goal early and add a second one late to secure yet another piece of hardware. U.S. 2, Netherlands 0.
How They Got Here
Since a semifinal appearance in their first major competition at Euro 2009, the Oranje have been on a tear. In 2015, the Netherlands reached the round of 16 at their debut World Cup, and two years later, they won the European Championship, going undefeated with wins over England, Sweden, and Denmark. This summer has been more of the same. The Netherlands ran through Group E, besting Canada, Cameroon, and New Zealand before dispatching Japan in the round of 16, 2-1, and Italy in the quarterfinal, 2-0. They played on the front foot for the entirety of their semifinal match against Sweden but weren’t able to convert on a number of chances in regulation against a tightly-packed defense. Midfielder Jackie Groenen likely wasn’t whom fans expected to secure the Oranje’s first trip to the World Cup final, but her extra-time goal was enough to send them through.
Why They’ll Win
As my colleague Michael Baumman pointed out earlier this week, consistency is the name of the game for the Netherlands. Nine of the 11 players who started the 2017 Euro Cup final also started in Holland’s quarterfinal win over Italy, and eight started in the semifinal against Sweden. That familiarity is rare at the international level, and its advantages are apparent by the exciting buildup play that has typified the Dutch attack thus far.
Midfielders like Daniëlle van de Donk and Sherida Spitse feed the ball to the Oranje attacking hydra of Vivianne Miedema, Lieke Martens, and Shanice van de Sanden, and when things are clicking, there might not be a group of players alive who can match their goal-scoring prowess. If the Netherlands can both prevent the USWNT from scoring an early goal and complete as many passes in the attacking third as they did against Sweden (96 successful on 151 attempts!), they could become the first team to put the U.S. in a losing position.
Why They’ll Lose
As exciting as the Netherlands’ attacking triumvirate is, the style of play necessary to get them chances is the same that will leave them vulnerable to the U.S. The Dutch were lucky not to have conceded against a Swedish team content on playing behind the ball on Wednesday. This was most notable when Dominique Bloodworth made an error in regulation but was redeemed shortly thereafter when she deftly shut down a Swedish goalscoring opportunity. Her partner in defense, Stefanie van der Gragt, was nowhere to be found.
Sweden took 11 shots on Wednesday. Italy and Japan combined for 20 in the two games prior. And New Zealand, Cameroon, and Canada combined for 28 in the group stage. The Netherlands have yet to see an attacking force quite like the USWNT. And though the Americans have played conservatively in the knockout rounds, opting to pack it in after early strikes, they remain a formidable threat for any defense. If an open, fast-paced game is what the Netherlands need to score goals, it’s also the style that could lead to a blowout defeat. It’s a Catch-22 that could lead to the Oranje’s downfall.
Vivianne Miedema, 22, made her national team debut at 15 and has since scored more goals for her country than any other Dutch player, male or female. With 60 tallies in 79 career games for the Netherlands, her 0.76 goals per game tops Lionel Messi’s mark for Argentina, Cristiano Ronaldo’s rate for Portugal, Abby Wambach’s for the United States, and Christine Sinclair’s for Canada.
Martens is the second most-capped outfielder on the Dutch roster, and most likely goalscorer after Miedema. She’s tallied twice so far this summer, and could give the USWNT fits up the wing.
Shanice van de Sanden
Van de Sanden—the lone Lyon player remaining in the World Cup—is a key member of Holland’s fearsome attacking core. She’s been less than stellar so far, and Wednesday’s semifinal was the first game all tournament she didn’t start. Still, she would be the third consecutive top-tier player to challenge Crystal Dunn down the touchline.
A victory on Sunday would bring the Netherlands their first World Cup title—men’s or women’s—and would help reinforce the idea that the rest of the world is catching up to the United States. Unfortunately, I don’t see that happening. The USWNT dispatched two superior teams in France and England to reach this stage, and the Netherlands’ open style of play will leave them vulnerable. U.S. 3, Netherlands 1.