WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The U.S. women’s national team had been falling, tumbling from the top of the women’s soccer world, when Lindsey Horan darted to the rescue.
She sprinted toward the near post with the USWNT trailing the Netherlands 1-0, and with decades of dominance imperiled. She rose above the Dutch defense, and earned the U.S. a 1-1 draw in Thursday’s World Cup group stage headliner. And she kept the Americans on stable footing here at the Wellington Regional Stadium — for now.
The U.S. had spent a majority of the game trailing. In the 16th minute, Lieke Martens had turned unopposed in midfield and skipped by Andi Sullivan. The Dutch had flowed forward. Jill Roord had powered her right foot through a ball that was waiting to be hit, and lifted the Netherlands into an early lead.
In the grand scheme of this World Cup, a loss would not have been disastrous. But for around 50 minutes, the symbolic significance was clear. The Americans briefly lost touch with the game. For an agonizingly long first-half stretch, the Dutch outclassed them and frustrated them. They seemed to be careening from the soccer mountaintop, toward Earth.
But Horan, the U.S. captain and classiest player, changed the narrative. Minutes earlier, she’d been clattered into by Dutch midfielder Danielle van de Donk, her club teammate at Lyon. Moments after reentering the field, she leapt to meet a Rose Lavelle corner, and nodded it into the back of the net.
The U.S. then pushed for a second. Alex Morgan scored, but was correctly ruled offside. Trinity Rodman fired just wide of the far post. Sophia Smith had a left-footed drive cleared off the line. Pressure mounted.
But the Americans couldn’t find that second. And the game ended without a clear conclusion.
Long before Thursday, there had been a growing sense throughout the sport that the USWNT’s dominance was waning, that its aura was fading, and that foes were no longer afraid. “They still have so much quality on the pitch,” Netherlands midfielder Jackie Groenen said Wednesday. “But I think we’re growing too, and that makes the distance maybe different now than it was before.”
Results told a similar story. Against fellow top-five teams, over the past five years, the USWNT’s goal difference had dipped to almost 0. “In Europe,” Dutch coach Andries Jonker said, “we work very hard to close the gap.”
And then, at his pre-match news conference, he framed Thursday’s game as a referendum on the supposedly shrinking gap.
“I think the whole women’s football world is very interested in getting an answer on the question: Are we getting close?” he said. “And the feeling is yes, because of the improvement all over the world. But tomorrow is the first time we can check.”
He went even further speaking in Dutch to ESPN: “In the past, the American women were a lot fitter than the rest of the world, but I really think those days are over. If you look at the Champions League nowadays, you see the same level of intensity. So the big question is now: What is left of their superiority?”
He added: “If you perform at such a high level for a long time, you are allowed to have a great amount of confidence. But on the other side, pride comes before a fall, so it’s on us to be the first to show that their time to fall has come.”
Twenty-four hours later, his team almost showed that. But the USWNT, thanks to Horan and a second-half flurry, is still standing.