Before the World Cup began, nearly everyone predicted a final between the United States and, well, some team from Europe. Perhaps Germany, England or France. When the quarterfinals arrived, that soothsaying was on target: The Yanks and seven European squads remained.
Now all the blanks on the World Cup bracket have been filled in, save one. On Sunday, the mighty United States will battle the bright orange Netherlands as two soccer-crazed nations tune in.
Will the U.S. continue its march of greatness undaunted, or will the Dutch pull off an upset for the ages?
The U.S. squad has been nearly perfect, allowing no goals in the group phase and only one goal each against Spain, France and England.
But there have been some close calls. In Tuesday's semifinal, there were moments when the U.S. team's fate hinged on the smallest of margins. A goal in the 68th minute by England's Ellen White would have been an equalizer, but it was ruled offside after video review. And a late-game penalty kick by England (during which most of America could be seen biting its nails) was saved by U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. But the U.S. won, as it does so often.
So the final in Lyon, France, comes down to the juggernaut and the new kid.
This is just the second time the Dutch have played in the World Cup. The OranjeLeeuwinnen made it to the round of 16 four years ago and have been ascendant ever since. They were the surprise victors of the 2017 European Championships, and they are now beloved by a nation of orange-frocked football fans.
The Dutch are led by two strong attackers: Lieke Martens and Vivianne Miedema. Martens is a gifted winger who was named FIFA's player of the year in 2017, but she is grappling with a toe injury that took her off the field for the team's 1-0 semifinal win over Sweden. Miedema is a standout at Arsenal and, at 22, is already the Netherlands' all-time leading scorer.
But it will take a lot to overcome the strength and skill of the U.S. Women's National Team. As the U.S. has worked and won its way to play for a fourth World Cup title, it has done so with remarkable style and confidence.
Exhibit A: U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle nutmegging the ball through the legs of England's Millie Bright.
Exhibit B: Forward Alex Morgan scoring a soaring header to give the U.S. the lead on her 30th birthday. Then celebrating by delicately sipping an imaginary cup of tea. Then pointing out that male goal scorers celebrate in all kinds of ways, including in crude fashion, and that it elicits barely a comment.
Exhibit C: Megan Rapinoe.
For many U.S. fans, Rapinoe is the heart and soul of the team — artful winger, unflappable professional, moral center. Last week, President Trump tweeted critically about Rapinoe's statement that she wouldn't go to the White House if the team was invited. She stood by those words, then went onto the pitch and scored both of the U.S.'s goals against France.
Some have called her unpatriotic over her decision to not mouth the words to the national anthem before matches. But Rapinoe told reporters on Wednesday that she considers herself "particularly and uniquely and very deeply American."
"I feel very fortunate to be in this country — I'd never be able to do this in a lot of other places but also, that doesn't mean that we can't get better. That doesn't mean that we shouldn't always strive to be better," she said. "I think that this country was founded on a lot of great ideals, but it was also founded on slavery, and I think we just need to be really honest about that and be really open in talking about that so we can reconcile that and hopefully move forward and make this country better for everyone."
Rapinoe didn't play in the semifinal match against England because of a sore hamstring. Christen Press joined the team's front line instead and scored almost immediately, demonstrating the depth and power the U.S. brings. Rapinoe says she will be healthy enough to play in Sunday's final.
Netherlands midfielder Danielle van de Donk said Friday that she thinks the U.S. team has been arrogant.
"They're basically already congratulating us on finishing in second place. I love it, let them say what they want to say," she said. "The final is a game like any other: it will start at 0-0 and there are still at least 90 minutes to play. We'll show them on the pitch how much we want to win that World Cup. Let's talk afterwards!"
If the Dutch win, they will be honored Tuesday with a ceremony and a celebratory cruise through Amsterdam's canals. The squad's supporters have traveled en masse while in France and filled the streets with coordinated dancing, willing their team to greatness.
If the U.S. wins, expect some tweets in all caps from the White House.
As it happens, the World Cup final isn't the only FIFA event happening on Sunday. The governing body managed to schedule two other finals — in the men's Copa América and CONCACAF tournaments — that day.
"It's ridiculous, and disappointing, to be honest," Rapinoe told reporters.
"I don't really understand why there's such a resistance against going all-in on women," Rapinoe said. "I think it's pretty clear women in sport have not been treated with the same care and financing and all of that that men's sports has."
Sunday's match kicks off at 11 a.m. ET and will be broadcast on Fox and Telemundo.
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