For nine months, players and coaches from the United States and the Netherlands have deflected questions about the impending rematch of the 2019 World Cup final. For nine months, they stressed that each team had a group stage match to play before they met, and that they would approach the tournament one game at a time.
Now, the moment has arrived, and there is no getting around it: Thursday’s match in Wellington is likely to decide the group winner and, with it, the pathway if the teams are to return to the final. This is the game the teams – and fans around the world – have been anticipating since the World Cup draw in October.
“I’m sure it’s going to be a challenge,” the USA head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, said on Wednesday. “They are a great team, very organized, a very disciplined team. We saw in the first game that they played [a 1-0 victory over Portugal] that they are going to have a threat on every line. But at the same time, I want to say that we’re ready for it. We’ve trained a lot, prepared a lot for this moment and especially this game and we’re excited and looking forward to it.”
Neither team look the same as they did in 2019, when the US won the final 2-0, a point both sides were eager to make this week. Neither team cared to entertain the idea that Thursday’s match will be as decisive as the rest of the world thinks.
“We approach every game like it’s the biggest game, and this game is no different,” USA forward Alex Morgan said this week.
Fourteen USA players are competing in their first World Cup, and neither manager was in charge four years ago. Many USA players – even the veterans – spoke about how they had dealt with nerves during the 3-0 victory over Vietnam on Saturday. USA’s performance was thorough but left lingering questions. Julie Ertz started at center-back, a position she has not played regularly in six years. Will she remain there all tournament? Andonovski would not say definitively.
Rose Lavelle came off the bench for the final 27 minutes against Vietnam, her first competitive match in three months. Her team may need her: Lavelle was the USA’s breakout player of the 2019 World Cup. Her shining moment came in the final against the Netherlands when, 69 minutes in, she picked up the ball inside the center circle, glided into the box and slammed a left-footed shot past the keeper. Lavelle was later awarded the Bronze Ball as one of the tournament’s top players.
Thursday’s big question for the United States centers around Lavelle again. Is she fit enough to start?
“I feel pretty good,” Lavelle said on Wednesday. Her answer was short and unchanged from when she spoke after the Vietnam game. Andonovski vaguely echoed Lavelle’s optimism but did not offer any specifics on who will start against the Dutch.
Lavelle was an emerging talent four years ago; now she is the focal point of the team when fully fit. With her, the United States look more creative and dynamic. Without her, they can struggle to play the final ball.
The Netherlands are not the same team they were in 2019, either. They have twice changed coaches since the World Cup final, and failed to make the podium at either the Tokyo Olympics in 2021 or the European Championship last summer. Their quarter-final exit from the Olympics came in a penalty shootout at the hands of the US. Vivianne Miedema scored both goals for the Dutch in that match, but she is watching this World Cup from home due to a knee injury.
Since taking the job at the end of last summer, the Netherlands coach, Andries Jonker, who was once an assistant to Luis van Gaal at Bayern Munich, has mostly implemented a 3-5-2 formation, turning away from the 4-3-3 that the Dutch used as they reached the final of the European Championship in 2017 and the World Cup in 2019.
Jonker’s team used a 3-5-2 in their 1-0 victory over Portugal on Sunday. It would seem a daring move to stick with that against a USA front three who have superior pace in one-on-one battles. Jonker said there would not be any drastic changes, however.
“The system is pretty straightforward and we’re not going to adapt it,” he said.
Jonker will almost certainly be without forward Lineth Beerensteyn after she was injured in the victory over Portugal. The Dutch coach said on Wednesday that it would be “a miracle” if Beerensteyn plays against the United States.
The Netherlands emerged as serious contenders in women’s football by winning the European Championship on home soil in 2017 and making the World Cup final two years later. Since then, they’ve struggled.
The US have gone through their own identity crises at times, including an underwhelming showing at the Olympics in 2021 that eventually yielded a bronze medal. There are legitimate questions around whether this group of US players possess the ruthlessness of past generations. As with just about every topic, however, the Dutch players would not be drawn on any questions that could create bulletin-board material for their opponents.
Asked on Wednesday about the USA’s mentality, midfielder Jackie Groenen demurred. She noted that the gap between the US and the rest of the world is “now maybe different than it was.” Groenen, however, was not interested in theorizing on the “aura” around the US.
“They obviously have so much quality on the pitch,” Groenen said “I can’t say anything about auras; I think that’s up to you guys. We just want to win the game.”
Groenen and Jonker spoke on multiple occasions on Wednesday about that theoretical gap between USA and the world, perhaps to set a narrative of their own. The US are favorites to win the group, but they are not the dominant team that they were four years ago. As with many teams at this World Cup, the Dutch are eager to have their shot at proving as much.
“I think the whole women’s football world is interested in getting the answer,” Jonker said. “Are we getting closer?… [Thursday] is the first time we can check. Are we getting closer or not? We’ll see.”