Preview: USWNT faces Netherlands in World Cup final

Photo by Naomi Baker - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
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The U.S. women’s national team’s quest to defend its crown as world champions has but one final hurdle to clear: a World Cup final clash with the Netherlands in Lyon, France, on Sunday (11 a.m. ET).

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For one side — the defending champion Americans — an appearance in the final was assumed a foregone conclusion before the tournament kicked off. Beginning with the 13 goals they scored against Thailand in their opening game of the group stage, that expectation never once changed, not even the tiniest little bit. The rest of the group stage was a straightforward endeavor; followed a tougher-than-expected challenge from Spain in the round of 16; then, the big one, taking on host nation and second-favorites France in the quarterfinals; and England didn’t go down without a fight in the semifinals, but the Yanks wouldn’t be denied a crack at the program’s fourth World Cup trophy and star above the crest.

The Dutch, on the other hand, entered this summer’s tournament with little fanfare — in comparison to the USWNT — but were widely tipped an under-the-radar favorite to make some noise. A run to the final would have been unexpected, but far from outlandish. The Oranje women, in just their second all-time appearance at the World Cup, no longer reside on the fringes of the world’s best. New Zealand, Cameroon and Canada proved no test for the Netherlands in the group stage, as they finished with nine out of nine points; Japan’s quest for a third straight final was snuffed out in the round of 16; they simply outlasted a game Italian side in the quarters; and they needed 120 minutes to dispatch Sweden in the semis.

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After playing six games in 21 days, the USWNT isn’t without a handful of nagging injuries. The likes of Megan Rapinoe (hamstring), Rose Lavelle (hamstring) and Alex Morgan (undisclosed) have all missed time due to what they each referred to as minor injuries, though they expect to be available on Sunday. Rapinoe didn’t play in — or warm up for — the England game, but has since said she’s recovering well from her “minor strain.” With five goals in four appearances, Rapinoe trails Morgan by a single goal in the race for the Golden Boot.

If there’s one team at this tournament that could keep stride with the Americans’ abundance of attacking talent — at least, among the two sides’ starting groups — it’s the Dutch. Vivianne Miedema (three goals) and Lieke Martens (two goals) have won plenty of accolades thus far as standout performers, while six other players have also scored a goal. Only the Americans (nine) can boast of more goal-scorers than the Netherlands’ eight. Martens picked up an injury of her own during Wednesday’s semifinal and her status for Sunday is up in the air.

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While much of the talk prior to and during the World Cup has been about the closing of the once-vast gap between the USWNT and the rest of the world, should the Americans reign supreme at the conclusion of back-to-back tournaments, they will have won their second straight in the most difficult of fashions possible: running the toughest possible gauntlet in the knockout rounds, culminating in a final triumph over the reigning European champions.

So much more than that is on the line for the USWNT. Individually, Morgan can stake her claim to a place in the “best to ever do it” conversation; Carli Lloyd will almost certainly be taking the field for a competitive fixture for the final time; the same goes for Becky Sauerbrunn and (probably also) Rapinoe; and Jill Ellis can silence her critics once and for all if she becomes the only women’s coach ever to successfully defend a World Cup title.