- The Netherlands didn't make life easy for the U.S. women's national team, but a more complete, adaptable squad found a way through–with some help from VAR–to put an emphatic finish on a dominant run to a fourth Women's World Cup title.
DÉCINES-CHARPIEU, France — Alex Morgan pulled up the right sleeve of her jersey to reveal a discoloration on her arm. It was physical evidence of the moment in the 59th minute that changed a scoreless and increasingly nervy Women's World Cup final, when Dutch defender Stefanie van der Gragt hit Morgan with a high boot in the box that caused the American center forward to hit the ground yet again in this tournament.
“I have a nice bruise right there,” Morgan said, showing off what you might call her own World Cup “trophy” after the U.S. beat the Netherlands 2-0 on Sunday to win the Americans’ second straight World Cup and fourth in their remarkable history.
“I think the ball popped up from the other center back,” said Morgan, “and at that moment I was looking to kind of take it down either with my chest or my foot. I think she didn’t see me, and she liked to kind of clear it with the high leg. I didn’t see the replay. Obviously, we don’t get to see VAR as everyone at home gets to see it. But the momentum was changing regardless. And we were knocking at the door since the beginning of the game.”
The French referee, Stéphanie Frappart, initially blew no whistle and ruled for a corner kick, but VAR made its mark, with a review causing Frappart to change her mind and give the penalty. Ultimately, it was the correct call. Van der Gragt had made contact with Morgan in what was a reckless play in the box.
“Go VAR!” said U.S. winger Megan Rapinoe afterward, after her third successful penalty in as many attempt during this tournament had given the U.S. a 1-0 lead. “Of course, VAR, she wouldn’t miss the final. She had to show up somewhere. Alex has been doing that for us all tournament, really, just putting her body on the line, putting her body between the ball and these defenders who are just trucking through her.
“VAR has gotten a lot of stick throughout the tournament, and there are some inconsistencies, but this is the first time a lot of these referees had actually used it. So overall I think it’s been pretty good.”
Not only did Rapinoe win her second Women's World Cup, but she also won the tournament’s Golden Ball (as the MVP) and the Golden Boot—for the top scorer, with six goals and three assists to match Morgan, but winning the tiebreaker by playing fewer minutes.
“I would not have predicted that at all,” Rapinoe said. “I actually said to Alex in the beginning of the tournament, 'Let’s just make sure someone from our line—either me, Tobin [Heath] or her—gets the most goals.' Obviously, I was thinking it would be her, as history would suggest. But it’s just incredible.”
The Dutch had pulled a surprise with their tactical approach, moving center forward Vivianne Miedema deeper into the midfield and using Lineth Beerensteyn as a lone striker up top. It was a sit-deep-and-counter plan, perhaps not quite as extreme as the one Sweden used to beat the Americans in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals, but not too dissimilar in the end.
But this U.S. team was different. It had more ways to break down defensive-minded opponents, not least because there were simply more creative players on the field. In 2016, Rapinoe was still dealing with the effects of a knee injury that limited her in the Olympics, but here in France she was reborn, a regular danger to opposing teams. Heath is still a creative force, even if she had some moments late in Sunday’s final when she should have just finished her chances instead of noodling around on the ball.
Yet the creative maestro on this U.S. team was Rose Lavelle. That was the case in the semifinal victory against England, and it was true again on Sunday. Watching the 24-year-old Lavelle, the Women's World Cup’s breakout star, in full flight on the ball is exhilarating, the kind of jolt that people will always pay real money to witness in person.
In the 69th minute, Lavelle found herself on the ball with a half-acre of space in front of her.
“It felt like kind of over the course of the game it was hard to find that kind of space,” she said afterward. “They were sitting in a little bit. So finally when there was kind of an opportunity to take space, I decided to go for it.”
Poor Van der Gragt. She had an awful 10 minutes, first committing the penalty and then showing in the most painful way possible that she wasn’t aware Lavelle is left-footed. The American sliced to the right and then hard to the left, creating space to deliver the knockout blow for a 2-0 lead.
“Overall I thought we had the better of the game,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis said afterward. “The Netherlands made it incredibly hard for us. They got numbers behind the ball and looked to transition. Incredibly disciplined, strong team, good defending the box, so they presented a lot of challenges. I said to the players at halftime: ‘At some point it’s going to break, and it’s going to break our way. Whether that’s through a penalty kick or a set piece or open-play transition. I felt like we would have our opportunity.”
After taking a 0-0 tie into halftime, those opportunities finally came.
“It’s so surreal that I just won a World Cup with people I grew up idolizing,” said Lavelle. “I can’t put it into words. It’s amazing.”
There will be many more words to add in the coming days, especially during the USWNT’s media tour of New York City, which is set to happen on Tuesday after the team arrives back on American soil on Monday. A ticker-tape parade is set for Wednesday morning.
It’s fair to expect a proper welcome home for the four-time Women's World Cup champions.