Why the Netherlands shouldn't be overlooked in World Cup final against USWNT
LYON, France -- The goal came from the unlikeliest of places. After nearly 100 minutes of grueling, defensive football, and in the first half of the first overtime in a Women's World Cup semifinal, Dutch midfielder Jackie Groenen scored the only goal in Wednesday's match to send the Oranjeleeuwinnen into the first World Cup final in team history. It was Groenen's first goal and first on-target shot of the tournament in six starts.
"We've been discussing for a couple of weeks now that I need to take shots more often," Groenen said in the postmatch news conference. "The ball came really nicely and I thought let's do it. I'm so happy to be able to make that goal."
Much like Tuesday's semifinal between the U.S. and England, the story at the start of the match was largely about who wasn't going to be on the field. Dutch forward and Olympique Lyonnais star Shanice van de Sanden, who'd started all five games for the Netherlands but had only one goal and one assist to show for it, was listed as a sub.
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"Shanice got the message that she was not in the initial lineup and was disappointed," head coach Sarina Wiegman said after the match. "But our players are really professional about it and that is the force of this team. There is disappointment for a couple of seconds and then they are there for the team."
In the lead-up to Wednesday night, fans and pundits alike had called for Van de Sanden's backup, 22-year-old Lineth Beerensteyn, who had a goal and an assist off the bench this tournament, to start in her place. In prematch interviews, Wiegman, who has started largely the same 11 players for the past two years, called Van de Sanden "a very important player" and said her players "shouldn't read criticism in the press." Few people believed she would bench Van de Sanden, especially in Stade de Lyon. Until she did.
At the beginning of the second half, Wiegman also was forced to pull striker Lieke Martens, who has struggled because of a toe injury since the Netherlands' round of 16 win over Japan. With the score still 0-0, the loss of another member of the team's dynamic trio of forwards looked to disable the Dutch attack even further.
But then, in the 99th minute, Groenen sent a beautiful, low-flying shot across Hedvig Lindahl's goal that tucked in just behind the far post. Her teammates then ground out the next 20 minutes to close out the game.
"We never knew this would be possible," Groenen said. "One more match and we might possibly be the world champions. It will be difficult, but it really would be incredible to win."
Here are five takeaways from the Netherlands' first semifinal win at a Women's World Cup:
Van de Sanden was a sub, but she was also a spark
Early in the first half, Beerensteyn cramped up, and while trainers attended to her, Van de Sanden began to warm up on the sideline. At the sight of the Lyonnais star, the crowd began to cheer with anticipation of her debut. In the 71st minute, the fans got their wish when she replaced Beerensteyn on the right wing. As Van de Sanden ran across the field to take her spot, she raised her hands into the air to pump up the crowd, a move she would repeat several times during the match. Although she didn't score, her fresh legs and confident presence ignited the Dutch attack. Beerensteyn is also a crowd favorite with unquestionable skill, but at times it was clear she hasn't played the minutes of Van de Sanden, and the rhythm with her teammates just wasn't there. It'd be surprising if Van de Sanden doesn't return to the starting 11 against the U.S.
Sunday's final is a giant unknown, but it should also be memorable
The U.S. and the Netherlands have never played each other in any round of a Women's World Cup, and they haven't played each other at all since September 2016, when the U.S. won 3-1. The last time the Dutch beat the U.S. was in 1991. But none of that will matter Sunday. Both teams boast an impressive -- and rotating -- front three and an exciting, fast-paced attack. Unfortunately, both teams have seen injuries to their star forwards, so the next few rest days will be crucial in deciding the outcome of Sunday's final.
The end of Wednesday's match was filled with heartbreak and heartache
Swedish midfielder Kosovare Asllani was a standout for more than 120 minutes, playing aggressive, handsy, heads-up football and dictating play at the center of the field. Nearing the end of overtime, Asllani leaped for a header and the ball struck the side of her head at an awkward angle. When she came down, her knees buckled beneath her and she stayed down for several minutes. The medical staff put a collar around her neck, rolled her onto a spine board and carried her off the field. After the match, head coach Peter Gerhardsson, who showed visible concern when speaking about the midfielder, said he had no information to pass along about her condition. "I haven't heard anything yet," he said. "I know nothing right now."
Sweden has an uphill battle ahead of it
After playing 120 exhausting minutes, and with only three days until their third-place match against England, the Swedish coaching staff has its work cut out for it to come up with a roster that will be ready to go toe-to-toe with a much fresher English squad. But as Gerhardsson said after Wednesday's match, "It's about the medal. Finishing third is a lot better than finishing fourth, so we're going to do everything in our power to do that."
The Stars and Stripes vs. the Dutch Orange Army will be truly a clash of titans
Win or lose, Sunday's final will complete a historic two-year run for the Dutch women, who surprised their continental peers at the 2017 European Championships and then qualified for only their second Women's World Cup. Along the way, they picked up a devoted nation of supporters who've followed them through World Cup qualifying and here to France. The orange parade has been the talk of every French city it has overtaken, second only to the red, white and blue crush that has followed the American team. Which team will win the battle in the stands Sunday?