- The meteoric rise of the Netherlands continues, as the Dutch downed Sweden in extra time to reach their first Women's World Cup final in just their second appearance in the competition.
As recently as five years ago, the Netherlands had never taken part in a Women's World Cup. Now, the Dutch have reached the Women's World Cup final, looking to add another major piece of silverware to their 2017 European championship.
The Netherlands defeated Sweden on Wednesday in extra time, with Jackie Groenen's 99th-minute goal the difference in a 1-0 victory. In a match devoid of a plethora of quality chances and impacted greatly by both goalkeepers, Groenen's breakthrough was all that was needed to set up an intriguing final. The Netherlands has more firepower than it has displayed in France thus far, and the front line showdown between the likes of Lieke Martens and Vivianne Miedema going up against the USA's Alex Morgan and–most likely–Megan Rapinoe is just one of the key subplots that will stew for the next few days before their clash in Lyon on Sunday. Another will be the showdown in the stands, with the USA and Netherlands boasting two of the most responsibly raucous groups of supporters outside of the host nation.
Here are three thoughts on the Netherlands' semifinal win, and, more specifically, what it means for the USWNT:
This semifinal unfolded nicely for the USA
Regardless of who won, the USA was always going to be the favorite. France and England were by far the two toughest contenders in the knockout field and Spain may have played the U.S. better than either of them. It just so happened that all of them wound up on the same side of the bracket as the Americans. So after three straight 2-1 wins, the U.S. turns its attention to the Netherlands.
Sweden and the Netherlands battered each other for 120 minutes and played at a decent pace throughout. They both were already going to have one fewer day of rest for the final–something the U.S. had to combat in its previous knockout matches–but to have exerted all they did as part of a grueling six-game stretch, only to have to extend themselves even more plays right into the USA's favor.
That shouldn't really matter at the start on Sunday, when adrenaline is high and everyone is starting with a full tank. It's just a matter of how quickly those tanks empty. The U.S. is famous for outlasting and grinding out its opponents, striking when they're worn down and vulnerable. The Americans are deeper than any team in the field, too. For the Netherlands to last the distance, it will require not expending a ton of energy at the start, when the U.S. is sure to be looking for yet another early goal, all while smartly managing the game and not falling into the USA's trap of controlled chaos. The Dutch have played in a big final before, winning the Euro 2017 title, but the tackling the World Cup final stage against its most frequent visitor is a different beast altogether.
They've played during the previous World Cup cycle, with the U.S. taking a 3-1 friendly result at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in September, 2016 (one of two matches before which Rapinoe famously kneeled for the national anthem). This came on the heels of the USA's Olympic disappointment and before the Netherlands cemented its rise in Europe. Half of the USA's starting back line that day isn't with the team in France now. The Dutch had a different coach then. They stunned the U.S. at the start with a second-minute goal from Shanice van de Sanden, before Carli Lloyd and Allie Long sandwiched an own goal to secure the win. There isn't much else either side will really take from that match that translates to Sunday's final, but there is, at the very least, a shred of familiarity.
One moment of brilliance
For all of the Netherlands' attacking stars–Martens is a former FIFA Female Player of the Year, Miedema has been a goal machine (61 and counting) despite being just 22–it was Groenen who delivered the decisive strike. It was her first national team goal in over a year (June 2018) and just her second ever. But it couldn't have been hit any better. After taking a first-time pass, Groenen lined up a right-footed shot from 19 yards, striking it cleanly and hooking it inside the far post.
Her reaction after scoring said everything. It was a brilliant moment on a stage clamoring for it, and it sent her nation to the Women's World Cup final.
A tip of the cap to both goalkeepers
This was a match that lacked a bevy of chances, but the ones that landed on frame were turned away in sensational fashion.
Netherlands goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal had some shaky moments coming off her line for aerial balls in the early going, but she was at her best in the 37th minute, making a kick save after some chaos in the box following a corner kick allowed Nilla Fischer to have a clean, albeit hurried look from close range.
Van Veenendaal was at it again in the 56th minute, robbing Fischer for a second time by diving to tip her low, curling shot off the post.
Sweden's Hedvig Lindahl then showed her prowess, acrobatically tipping Miedema's clinical header off a corner kick off the crossbar, keeping out what appeared to be a sure go-ahead goal in the 64th minute.
Lindahl did it again with the match in second-half stoppage time, tipping Shanice van de Sanden's blast from the right out for a corner.
In a finely poised semifinal, these goalkeepers rarely put a wrong foot forward. There was little Lindahl could've done to keep out Groenen's well-struck winner, and it'll be on her counterpart, van Veenendaal to do something that no goalkeeper has been able to do just yet: silence the USA.