USA v. Netherlands: Four Questions for the Final

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The big one is finally here. The United States enter this match on an 11-game winning streak in the competition, which goes all the way back to the group stage in 2015. One more win here and they will win their fourth World Cup.

According to the bookies, that is overwhelmingly likely, with the US favored at around 80% to take home the title. I’m inclined to agree. But 80% isn’t 100%, so let’s talk through a couple of the key variables worth considering while we wait.

Will Megan Rapinoe and Rose Lavelle start?

Rapinoe was held back from the semifinal with a hamstring strain, while Lavelle had to be removed after an hour with the same injury. Both have been training in the run-up to the final, and are at least theoretically available. But will they be 100%? And if they’re anything less than that, will they start anyway?

In the case of Rapinoe, the US has a more-than-able backup in Christen Press. In fact, as I argued after the England match, Press is almost certainly a better option right now, even setting aside injury concerns. It would be hard to sit Rapinoe—who has been the biggest story of the tournament. But the reality is that, goals notwithstanding, she hasn’t actually played that well. And Press is in the best form of her life.

With Lavelle, there isn’t an obvious replacement, with no other players on the US roster really capable of creating the same way that she can (Crystal Dunn is the exception here, but that ship has long since sailed). However, it’s not clear that the US needs a player in Lavelle’s mold in this game. The more muscular and mobile trio of Ertz, Horan, and Mewis might be best-suited for throttling the Dutch midfield, and ensuring the US keeps a tight hold on the game.

In both cases, the US has a range of options. Even with no injury concerns, you could make a decent case for resting them both. And with the injuries, the argument gets stronger. But, in general, Jill Ellis has a preference for sticking with her best XI, so I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if both Rapinoe and Lavelle start.

Will the US play sloppy, and can the Dutch make them pay?

The US have won every game so far, but have also been pretty sloppy in the process. A mistake from Alyssa Naeher almost gifted Chile a goal. Some extremely questionable defending against Sweden could easily have conceded a goal. Spain, France, and England all had excellent chances to find an equalizer or winner in their knockout matches.

In every case, the US has had enough to hold off the opposition. But these have not been blowouts. They’ve generally been lucky that their defensive breakdowns have been relatively contained. A big part of that has been the oft-maligned Abby Dahlkemper, who is quietly having her best run of games in a national team kit. But the US have been playing with fire. And, at least in theory, this Dutch team has the potential to ruthlessly exploit the kind of gaps that the US has been allowing.

Will the 2017 Netherlands ever show up?   

In 2017, the Dutch were a revelation. They raced to a European title, obliterating every opponent that came their way. They were particularly devastating against teams that expected to control the game. Given space to work, the wide attackers were relentless. Opponents simply couldn’t cope with the quickness of play and repeatedly found themselves overwhelmed.

Over the next two years, though, the Dutch showed relatively little of that prowess. They struggled to qualify, having to go through the playoffs. And even here, with six wins out of six, they have never really turned up. They’ve made the final, which is a huge accomplishment, but compare the route the US have taken (Spain, France, England) to the Netherlands path (Japan, Italy, Sweden). The gap is enormous. And then remember that the Dutch were thoroughly outplayed by Japan and only managed to scrape through on a 2019 Handball Special.

Most of the problem has come from the frontline: Lieke Martens has been bad, and Shanice van de Sanden has been worse. Vivianne Miedema has done just enough to keep them going, but has only really had one excellent game (against Cameroon). The substitutes have played well in limited minutes, but shown little when given more of a chance to make their mark.

The midfield haven’t controlled games to the extent they would like, but have done enough to keep them in every match. The problem there is that Spitse, Van de Donk, and Groenen have played 1651 of a possible 1710 minutes over their first six games. They’ll need to get 100% performances from all three in this match, and it’s hard to see that happening under the hot midday sun, on no rest, at the end of a long tournament.

So on the evidence of the last month, this game should be a fairly easy win for the US. But we know what the Dutch are theoretically capable of producing. If they can put it all back together, this could be a lot tougher for the US than expected. I wouldn’t bet on it, but you certainly can’t rule it out entirely.

How do you mime eating a stroopwafel?

I certainly don’t know, but we’ll probably get to find out!

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