Was this the best team ever?
The U.S. women’s national team made that argument Sunday in Lyon, France, when it beat the Netherlands 2-0 to win a historic fourth World Cup title. The Americans, who also won it all four years ago, are the first team to win consecutive titles since Germany in 2003 and 2007. If we’re talking history, the Americans scored a Women's World Cup-record 26 goals, with Megan Rapinoe winning the Golden Boot on a tiebreaker after her game-winning penalty Sunday gave her six in the competition.
There’s much to unpack about how dominant and ruthless this U.S. team was throughout the last month. The way it opened the tournament by throttling Thailand 13-0, to crushing the dreams of host nation France, to sipping tea, to beating the reigning European champion Netherlands.
These women will also be remembered for what they did off the field. The Americans handled mounds of pressure, criticism, sexism and presidential tweets while remaining a symbol for equality and growth in the women’s game. These are things their male counterparts would never dream of dealing with while playing in a World Cup. And perhaps best of all, they stuck together and had each other’s backs through it all.
“We’re crazy, that’s what makes us special,” Rapinoe said on the FOX broadcast after the game. “We have no quit in us. We’ll do anything to win.”
Here are three thoughts on the USA's latest Women's World Cup triumph:
USWNT earns a fourth star
The U.S. earned this one.
After breezing through the group stage, the Americans went through a European gauntlet by facing Spain, France, England and then the Netherlands. Though they’re ranked No. 8 in the world per FIFA rankings, the Dutch were the reigning European champions and always positioned to be a dark horse in this Women's World Cup. The players may have taken on an underdog mentality heading into the final, but their talent certainly did not lend itself to that role.
Entering Sunday’s match, the Dutch had never trailed in the tournament, and goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal had only conceded three goals. The U.S. was excited to test that as it prided itself on scoring within the first 12 minutes of every match. The Netherlands figured out how to neutralize the U.S. attack early and cut off passing channels to make it difficult to get any movement in that final third, though. The Americans had experience facing stalwart defenses like Sweden and Spain over the past few weeks, but no unit had been this organized or committed to defending as the Netherlands. Even when it had chances—Alex Morgan, Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz had some good ones in the first half—van Veenendaal turned into a brick wall.
At halftime, the Dutch were right where they wanted to be, tied for a seventh straight time in France at the break. It was 0-0, the U.S. was playing too high and not getting on the end of anything, and the Netherlands was fine with that because all it would've taken was a precise counterattack, penalty or set-piece opportunity to spring the upset.
That all changed in the 61st minute, when Morgan drew a foul in the box after a high boot from Stefanie van der Gragt–not initially given, but eventually confirmed after a VAR review–and Rapinoe converted a penalty, which opened the game. Eight minutes later, Rose Lavelle scored to make it 2-0.
After that, the U.S. managed the lead, maintained momentum and the Dutch ran out of juice.
Rapinoe, Lavelle recover to come up huge
There was a bit of uncertainty about Rapinoe and Lavelle’s health heading into this game. Rapinoe didn’t play at all against England in the semifinal last Tuesday with a minor hamstring injury and Lavelle, who has had a history of injuries, was forced out of the match with one of her own. Nevertheless, both wound up starting–and coming up huge.
The U.S. needed both of their goals to seal the victory. Rapinoe, ever so cool with the pressure and stakes rising to their highest, slotted her shot into the bottom right corner in the 61st minute to give the U.S. its first goal. Rapinoe, who wound up winning the Golden Boot and Golden Ball, became the first player to convert a penalty prior to a post-draw shootout in a Women’s World Cup final.
Eight minutes later, Lavelle, known for being so dangerous on the dribble, nailed a low shot from the top of the box with her left foot that flew past a diving van Veenendaal. After the game, she was awarded the Bronze Ball Award, which is given to the best young player of the tournament.
“She’s a superstar,” Rapinoe said.
Rapinoe, 34, could be exiting the international stage at some point sooner than later. In Lavelle, 24, the U.S. has another star in the pipeline.
This was a war of attrition
Three yellow cards (one in the first 10 minutes), head-to-head collisions, bleeding faces, a near boot to the face–this final was fierce. The Netherlands forced the U.S. into a physical game, maybe more than was initially expected, and there were some casualties in the process.
Late in the first half, Kelley O’Hara and Lieke Martens both went up for a header and collided. The players fell to the ground where they stayed for a few minutes before their respective team trainers came out to make sure they were O.K. After a quick check, O’Hara and Martens continued playing out the final second of the half. O’Hara was eventually replaced by Ali Krieger in the second half, but Martens stayed on the field.
There was more. Early in the second half, Becky Sauerbrunn went up for an aerial challenge and came down with blood dripping down her face. She stayed on her knees as play continued and held up her hand to try and get the referee’s attention—which took longer than it should have. After coming off the field briefly to get patched up, she returned with a large black protective headband. She seemed fine, but again, some kind of concussion protocol would have seemed advisable. In soccer, especially, there still seems to be a lack of total care when it comes to assessing head injuries in the moment. There was even more physical play later on, as Morgan, who took a shot to the midsection in the opening minutes and went down in a heap before playing on, drew the all-important penalty in the box, taking a high boot in the process.
The U.S. was made to earn its latest title–and some will have more distinct battle scars than others, happily paying the price for the chance to lift the World Cup trophy yet again.