University at Buffalo women's soccer coach Shawn Burke will be providing analysis of the Women's World Cup for The Buffalo News during the tournament. Burke is entering his sixth season at UB and has led the program to five consecutive Mid-American Conference tournament appearances and was named MAC Coach of the Year in 2014.
The FIFA Women’s World Cup finals stage is set. The three-time World Cup champions United States will be competing in its fifth World Cup final against the reigning European champions Netherlands, appearing in its first World Cup final. The match is at 11 a.m. Sunday and will be broadcast on Fox.
Here’s my breakdown.
How they got here
The United States rolled through group play, scoring at ease and not conceding any goals. Nine players accounted for 24 goals, showing Team USA’s depth and attacking power. The knockout stage proved a much more difficult task with 2-1 victories against Spain, France and England. Megan Rapinoe was the hero vs. Spain and host nation France, scoring all four goals.
If ever America’s depth showed, it was against England in the semifinal. Christen Press was given the start over Rapinoe, who had a hamstring injury. Her impact was almost immediate with a fantastic header goal 10 minutes in. Rose LaVelle, Lindsey Horan and Tobin Heath were relentless and a handful for England. Alex Morgan added to her Golden Boot total by scoring the game-winner and is tied with Ellen White from England heading into the weekend games. All 20 of the USA’s field players have seen playing time.
The Dutch faced a much more challenging road, needing late winners in four of their six matches to reach the final. Three of the four late finishes came during or after the 90th minute (90’+2’ vs New Zealand, 90’ PK vs Japan and 99’ vs. Sweden in the semifinal).
The Netherlands has scored 11 goals by eight players, led by Vivianne Miedema with three. Weary legs might become an issue as Dutch manager Sarina Wiegman has played a short bench the entire tournament, plus the additional 30 minutes of extra time to get past Sweden.
How they match up
Goalkeepers: Sari Van Veenendaal (NED) and Alyssa Naeher (USA) have made some big time saves for their sides, while just importantly, avoiding any major gaffes throughout the tournament. Each also has played every minute for their respective teams. Edge: Even.
Backline: While both groups have only conceded three goals apiece, the slight advantage goes to the United States. The overall athleticism across the backline, especially at outside back, provides the ability to neutralize any opponent’s pace. Both groups have shown vulnerability at times, primarily through the middle, but the work rate and effort of Team USA’s Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara is tough to beat. Edge: USA.
Midfield: Team USA manager Jill Ellis has the luxury of dependability in the middle of the pitch. I love the attacking flair of Lavelle partnered with the soccer IQ of Horan. Regardless who is in front, Julie Ertz will anchor the defensive responsibilities. Sherida Spitse will have her hands full for the Netherlands but will have to be a physical presence if the Dutch hope to stand a chance. Edge: USA.
Frontline: The United States has proved that it does not matter who its three up top are because they are going to score goals. Morgan, Rapinoe and Heath are the most dangerous. Carli Lloyd brings experience, while Press validated her selection in the semifinal with the opening goal. Those five players represent 15 of the USA’s 24 goals. While the Dutch have a very balanced attack, Miedema and Lieke Martens will need to come up with something special on the world’s biggest stage. Edge: USA.
The Netherlands is facing a very tall task. The approach in Wednesday’s 1-0 victory against Sweden in the semifinal was quite conservative. For long stretches of the game, the Dutch found themselves on the back foot. Martens was virtually nonexistent and pulled at halftime.
I am not sure they have the firepower or pace to sit in and try to counter against USA, but ti also do not believe they are athletic enough to run up and down with the Americans. Generally a good possession team, the Dutch showed signs of fatigue against Sweden. If that continues, we are looking at a lopsided final.
Wiegman is going to have to get her tactics right. They cannot afford to leave their outside backs isolated and will have to be clinical in possession. The United States has been notorious for scoring early, but if the Netherlands can keep the game scoreless into the second half, it just might have a chance to do the impossible.
The Americans have been on a mission from day one of this tournament. It shows in their results, their confidence and, most importantly, in their play. They will be the most athletic team on the field Sunday and have more talent in each phase of the game.
Come Sunday, we will be looking at back-to-back World Cup champions as the United States raises its fourth World Cup trophy. Team USA posts the shutout, 4-0.