LYON – When a Women’s World Cup novice is faced with a foe as experienced and ruthless as the USWNT, the outcome is almost inevitable and so it was on a muggy afternoon 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. In a tournament where she has transcended her sport, Megan Rapinoe coolly drilled home a penalty before a Rose Lavelle thunderbolt made sure of a second successive title for the US.
All dynasties eventually fall apart, but the US’ reign has yet no true challenger.
This is the World Cup where it became apparent that the USWNT is being rapidly pursued by those European countries whose men’s national teams have long since been a force.
Leading the chase is the Netherlands, European champion and a finalist in just its second World Cup, which is part of a pack, but all challengers have been vanquished.
Thailand, Chile, Sweden, Spain, France, England and now the Netherlands have all been swept aside by a team which is now unbeaten in 17 World Cup matches.
The Netherlands soaked up the pressure in the first half. There were white shirts coming at them from every direction, directing crosses from wide, from deep, attempting cute through-balls to catch the World Cup novices off their guard.
Those in orange needed to summon up the concentration levels of a chess grandmaster, but that’s what it’s like facing a team with a relentless 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.
And then there is the 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 a goal, making it impossible to forget that this is a match like no other. Grandmasters, at least, have the privilege of focusing in silence.
In such circumstances the pulse quickens, the mind whirrs. The grandest of sporting stages are always as much a mental battle as physical.
That the Netherlands held firm, until the hour mark at least, 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 to gather 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 been able to maintain its composure in the final third then history may have been pointing to this match as the one where the emerging forces unseated the traditional powerhouse.
Had Alyssa Naeher not sprinted off her line at the sight of Lineth Beerensteyn charging towards goal the Netherlands could have gone ahead. It was a moment which highlighted the US defense’s occasional vulnerability to be cut open with a clever pass.
When French referee Stephanie Frappart opted to bring VAR into play, showing Stefanie van der Gragt to have felled Morgan, it was almost certain that the penalty would be awarded.
Rapinoe stepped up to score her sixth goal of the tournament and celebrated with her arms outstretched in a pose which has become iconic during a tournament where the forward has gone on to transcend her sport.
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.
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, a midfielder whose ability to attack at pace from midfield has been a highlight of these last four weeks, lasered a shot into the bottom corner.
Were it not for Van Veenendaal the score could have been higher. The 29-year-old stopped Morgan, Tobin Heath and Crystal Dunn from making it three.