It wasn’t easy, because it’s not supposed to be.
But the USWNT brought home their second consecutive FIFA Women’s World Cup title, and their fourth overall.
This final match was by far the greatest test of the tournament for these women, against a confident Dutch side that won the last European Championship and hadn’t allowed a goal through the entire knockout stage. That trend wasn’t immediately reversed by the aggressive American attack, and for the first time all tournament, the American women were held without a first half goal. Their opponents aligned in an exceptionally effective 4-2-3-1 in front of their keeper, who was up to the task for the entire first forty-five minutes and then some. The Dutch altered their defensive shape several times in the first half, responding to various attacks by the U.S. and preventing an early advantage. But the Americans controlled the ball, eventually outshooting the Dutch 17-5, and earning an 8 2 advantage on corner kicks. With that kind of disparity in opportunity, eventually the dam is going to break, and in the sixty-first minute, a piece of clumsy defense gave the Americans the only chance they would need. Stefanie van der Gragt elevated her boot to shoulder level and made contact with Alex Morgan in the box. After what should have been an unnecessary video review, van der Gragt was shown yellow, and Megan Rapinoe stepped in over the penalty spot. Serenely she took the penalty to the keeper’s left. Dutch goalie van Veenendaal froze on her spot. Inevitably Rapinoe slotted the ball home. After two consecutive conversions to the opposite side, the chess match was probably over before it started. It would be Rapinoe’s sixth goal of the tournament, tying her for the lead with teammate Alex Morgan.
The American barrage wouldn’t end there, though. Just a few minutes later, midfielder Rose Lavelle took the ball on a counterattack, weaved between defenders to set up a left-footed strike that slid to the bottom right corner of the net, just past a diving van Veenendaal. It was a clever strike and a show of individual brilliance by the young American, who has shown quality throughout the tournament, but had yet to have a signature moment.
The Netherlands had hoped to hang around and catch Alyssa Naeher off guard on a set piece or counter, but down two goals, that strategy needed to be reevaluated. This disciplined side that had frustrated the American attack for over an hour now needed to press their position to get back in range. They substituted defenders for strikers hoping to make it a contest.
It wouldn’t happen.
The Americans kept the pressure on and refused to allow any genuine threats to Alyssa Naeher’s clean sheet on the afternoon. It was a dominant performance by an American side that has proven to be just a step beyond the rest of the world when it comes to quality and depth. After too-few decent second half opportunities for the European champs, the final whistle was blown, and the American women hoisted the trophy yet again.
With everything said and done, Megan Rapinoe was awarded the Golden Boot for the tournament’s top scorer, as well as the Golden Ball for the best player. Teammate Alex Morgan was awarded the Silver Boot for her six goals and three assists in the tournament and Rose Lavelle earned herself the Bronze Boot for her outstanding play in the midfield throughout the tournament. Of the six available Boot and Ball awards, American players took home four. That’s got to be a frightening disparity at the top for
other nations to look at. Particularly with Rose LaVelle in her first World Cup. It should be noted that Megan Rapinoe could well be finishing up on top. This was her third World Cup, and at age thirty-four, she became the oldest woman to start in a World Cup final, as well as the oldest goal scorer in a Final. If this was her final World Cup, she’s chosen a heck of a way to bow out. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see her four years from now, tormenting opposing defenses with elegant crosses from the corner and profoundly calm penalty kicks. It won’t be easy for her to return to the world’s biggest stage on the world’s best team at age thirty-eight. But it isn’t supposed to be, and maybe that’s the point. Once we’re done celebrating this victory for America’s team, we’ll all have to wait and see what comes next. But if you’ve caught soccer fever like so many fans during the World Cup, here’s a thought.
This team is on the front lines of gender equality in America, just like their heroines Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and so many others. They have a massive legal fight in front of them, against both FIFA and the USSF to inch closer to equality in pay with their male counterparts. It’s a tough road, but they get closer with every win and every championship. And both visibility and viewership matter. Almost every woman on the USWNT plays in the NWLS, the American professional league. The season lasts until mid-fall, followed by a tournament in October. Check out your favorite players. Do a little legwork to figure out how to watch. Go to a game in person if you can.
Support the players.
Support the sport.
It doesn’t matter why, just do it.
You’ll be glad you did.
Image Source: AP Images/Francisco Seco