Opinion: It’ll be newcomer vs. champion for World Cup title as Netherlands, US meet in final

LYON, France – Congratulations and condolences, Netherlands.

The Dutch reached the final in only their second World Cup appearance, advancing with a 1-0 win against Sweden in extra time Wednesday night. Their prize: Facing the top-ranked U.S. women, who will be playing in their third consecutive final Sunday.

What’s that saying about be careful what you wish for?

“It’s amazing playing the finals,” Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman said. “It’s going to be so difficult but it’s only one match. Anything can happen.”

Theoretically, yes.

But the Netherlands and Sweden did nothing to dispel the notion that the real World Cup final was played Tuesday night, when the Americans beat England. Or maybe Friday, when the U.S. beat host France in front of an electrified crowd at Parc des Princes.

Netherlands midfielder Jackie Groenen, who scored the game-winner against Sweden, calls the USA "a really strong team, obviously." (Photo: Frederic Mons, USA TODAY Sports)

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The Netherlands looked gassed much of the second half and had trouble connecting passes. Not until the 99th minute did Jackie Groenen finally break the scoreless tie with a hard shot from about 23 yards out that Sweden goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl couldn’t get a hand on.

Play that way Sunday against the Americans, who will have an extra day’s rest, and it’s going to be a long night. Even if the Dutch pack it in on defense, the Americans have shown they can break teams down, and their patience and many offensive options will likely be too much for an inexperienced Netherlands to handle.

That’s not arrogance, by the way. That’s plain fact. The U.S. women are in their third consecutive final, a first in the program’s illustrious history, and are trying to join Germany as the only team to win two in a row.

They’ve clearly been the best team in the tournament, scoring 24 goals while conceding only three, and reached the final despite having the hardest road there. The Americans had to beat France, ranked fourth in the world, and England, ranked third, just to get to the final, and consistently played on less rest than any of the other top teams.

The Americans also have a decided edge in head-to-head matchups with the Netherlands, winning six of their seven games. The Netherlands’ only win came in their first meeting, back in 1991.

“It’s a really strong team, obviously,” Groenen said. “That’s clear. It’s the States!”

Still, just making the final is a huge accomplishment for the Dutch. Ten years ago, they had never even played in a major international tournament, qualifying for their first European championship in 2009.

But the federation poured money into facilities and development and, in 2017, the Dutch won the European title. Two years later, they’re in the World Cup final.

“Going into a tournament, you want to win. But you know, given history and the phase we’re in, the chances are pretty low of you winning,” Wiegman said. “Then, all of the sudden, we’re playing the final so that’s fantastic.”

Netherlands fans are fantastic. (Photo: Frederic Mons, USA TODAY Sports)

You know what else is fantastic? The Dutch fans.

The fun-loving, raucous bunch has faithfully followed the team the last four weeks, turning the streets of every city they visit into a sea of orange. On Wednesday night, they brought what sounded like a full band. Not just any band, mind you. It played Yellow Submarine and did a very good rendition of horse racing’s Call to Post.

Long after Sweden had been beaten, keeping them out of the final and sparing everyone from soccer’s version of Groundhog Day, the Dutch fans partied in the stands, singing and swaying in unison.

They will keep the game entertaining, even if their beloved Onzejacht can’t.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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