Authors note: Any MLS fanboys who follow along over at Dirty South Soccer know I do previews a little differently. Basically, I approach match previews from the perspective that I really have no idea what will actually happen in a game. Red cards, VAR, roster decisions, keeper howlers, 50 yard wonder-strikes, a magical ball that refuses to go into the net, injuries, tactical decisions that come from nowhere... the teams will line up, try and find little advantages and nullify the ones their opponents want to exploit. So what should you watch for? It’s hard to say and that’s why we watch anyway.
The best worst team to make it to the World Cup Final (by that I mean, this is the best team in the world and are favorites for the reason)
The path to the Women’s World Cup final has been an exciting one for the US Women’s National Team. It started with a dominant 13-0 goal party complete with dancing and celebrating against Thailand. That was followed by a 3-0 win against Chile and the best goalkeeper in the world - the US scored three goals on the best keeper in the tournament, it was a good win. Then the group concluded with the US easily dispatching a heavily rotated Sweden side 2-0.
Winning the group meant that the team was on the harder side of the bracket. They’d take on Spain and pull away with a 2-1 win, a scoreline that would repeat against France and England. Along the way it seemed like something was... off?
There are a couple of ways to look at the three elimination games: the US came in with a game plan to be super aggressive at the beginning of the game, scored early, and then let their opponents tire themselves out, picked times to strategically play a possession based approach and build up to create chances - or hit on the transition - and got some wins.
The other way to look at it is that the USWNT was exactly who their opponents thought they were and they let them off the hook. Spain scored on a bad pass from Alyssa Naeher, France scored on a header where the player known for scoring on headers walked past the entire defense on a set piece to get the goal, and England scored on a play where their best midfielder had so much room for activities that she measured a perfect pass to set up a score - and they scored on an inch close offside play and earned a penalty - and a handball didn’t get called for a penalty... At least against France and England, the opposition had good chances to draw and possibly win the games. That brings up another point - give the opposition some credit, they’re trying to win too and to the extent that things happen in a game, there are 22 players and two coaches trying to nullify each other for 90+ minutes.
All that matters now is that they didn’t, but these sorts of things complicate the idea that Jill Ellis is getting her tactics right and isn’t getting bailed out by a combination of individual talent, ref decisions, and mistakes by the opposition - to the extent that her decisions are causing those mistakes further complicates this. Sports!
Orange, fun and flawed - another pack of lions lurks
The Oranje Leeuwinnen come into the match somewhat of a surprise which is saying something for the European champions. Holland has something of a reputation for being a very attacking team that is somewhat lacking defensively, that hasn’t been an issue this World Cup. The team is undefeated, winning all six of their matches and only allowing three goals in the tournament.
They cruised through the group opening with a 1-0 win against New Zealand in a memorable game that they dominated in but the will of the ball to stay out of the net wasn’t broken until the second minute of injury time. Next was a solid 3-1 win against Cameroon and a 2-1 victory over Canada that signaled that our northern neighbors probably weren’t going to overcome their weaknesses to make a big run in the tournament.
In the elimination games, the Netherlands and Japan played a pretty evenly matched game and it took a late penalty for the Dutch to come away with a 2-1 win. Their win against Italy though was a signal that they were for real - the team in blue had turned some heads beating Australia to open the group and their fun, attacking style looked like it might give Holland some trouble. That wasn’t the case as the Orange Lionesses earned a dominant 2-0 win paving the way for a meeting with Sweden.
The semi-final was a tactical battle as they say. Sweden stayed compact and made it hard for Holland to find a breakthrough - very hard. The Dutch controlled possession, but the Swedes only allowed them to control 73% of their passes and registered 24 fouls in the game. It wasn’t until the 99th minute that Holland scored. So they will reach the final on shorter rest than the US and having played an extra 30 minutes.
Not only that, but the Dutch are going to be huge underdogs in this game. The US is fit, whatever shortcomings Jill Ellis has, the players are the best in the world and the bench is deep and scary. Honestly, the best bet for Holland might be one of those weird breaks I mention in the intro or some weird situation where the US beats itself. It will be interesting to see how the Dutch approach the game though. Teams have a few options against the US - bunker, kick Alex Morgan, and pray or try and open it up and see if its possible to exploit a mistake or two that the US makes in the back. Sweden tried the kick Alex Morgan approach, Spain tried a combination of both, France and England tried the open it up style and all of them are out of the tournament.
That said, there are two players who can most definitely cause some problems for the US. Shanice van de Sanden and Danielle van de Donk. Van de Sanden has had a quiet tournament and the winger was benched for the game against Sweden. It seems like the message was received though as she entered the fray in the 71st minute the Dutch came to life as the game wound down. If she starts, she’ll be opposite Crystal Dunn, and while the no. 10/left back has grown into the position over the tournament, teams have focused on trying to breakdown her side of the field to create chances.
Then there’s the Dutch no. 10, van de Donk is a talented passer with great vision and creativity. If she gets the same space that Keira Walsh did for England, it’ll be a good night for forwards Lieke Martens and Vivianne Miedema. Finally, there’s a wildcard - the Dutch fans. Amid those screaming U-S-A and clad in red, white and blue will be an orange army dancing and partying to get behind their team in the game. They are loud and so far the Dutch have lived up to their fans’ support rather than crumpling under whatever pressure might be felt by greater focus on them throughout the tournament.
A 4th star at stake
All right, this is it - the product of four long years or changes, triumphs and defeats, it all comes down to this. We know the stories on and off the field. We know how the results have led them here. The team is in the best possible position to win its fourth World Cup and is in excellent form. At this point it’s pretty clear how Jill Ellis wants her team playing. The Thirteen Stripes will come out firing and try to get an early goal - throwing numbers forward to set the tone in the game. Should that goal come in the first 15 minutes, again expect the US to let the Dutch have possession while exploiting strategic chances to make effective use of the time they do have with the ball.
Ellis is going to ride or die with this, it might not be the most effective use of the talent on the team, but it’s working... or at least getting results. The big questions coming into the game seem to be: Christen Press or Megan Rapinoe and what combination of midfield players will we see between Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis? Both Rapinoe and Lavelle seem to be healthy - so these will be big decisions for Ellis.
Press offers more speed and defensive cover than Rapinoe while the Seattle Reign attacker is a stone cold goal scorer who can create space to send runners in on goal with through balls or hit an cross into the box. She’s also probably the best set piece taker on the team and that’s been a crucial element of America’s success so far. If one starts the other will probably come into the game at some point - so when does Ellis want the speed and fitness of Press and when does she want the set piece taking, crossing, and visionary passing (and potential penalty taking) of Rapinoe? It’s a tough call.
Meanwhile, it seems safe to say that Ertz is starting in midfield. As for the others, Lavelle offers a level of creativity and technical ability that others don’t, her close dribbling is a joy to behold, and her connection with Tobin Heath creates so many problems for opposing defenders. Then there’s Horan who sees the game extremely well from the center of the pitch and is as good providing cover as she is attacking and she’s an amazing attacker. Meanwhile, Mewis offers height and long-range shooting prowess in addition to being a fantastic overall central midfielder, though she might be more defensively minded. It is a tough decision for Ellis - but having four world class midfielders is a great problem to have.
Still, soccer is hard. The USA will have 90 (and possibly more) minutes to show that the hype and confidence they play with can be backed up by determination and a complete performance to carry the day. If they live up to their billing as favorites, then the story of the fourth star will become another glorious legend in the triumphant history of America’s most storied soccer team.