US looks to com­plete its French sum­mer with a fi­nal vic­tory

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY ANNE M. PETER­SON

The United States is about to con­clude its sum­mer in France with an opportunit­y to fur­ther ce­ment its place as the best team on the in­ter­na­tional stage.

The U.S. faces the Nether­lands on Sun­day for the Women’s World Cup cham­pi­onship. A vic­tory would give the Amer­i­cans a second straight ti­tle and their fourth over­all, more than any other na­tion

“I’m like a kid in the candy store right now,” U.S. star Megan Rapi­noe said. “This is the ab­so­lute best stage. I al­ready feel more anx­ious and more ner­vous than in any of the other games.”

The United States has won a record 11 straight World Cup matches dat­ing back to 2015 in Canada, sur­pass­ing Nor­way’s record from 1995-99. The team has also been un­de­feated in a record 16 World Cup matches, sur­pass­ing Ger­many’s run be­tween 2003 and 2007.

“We’ve cel­e­brated the amaz­ing mo­ments. We’ve dug in, looked each other in the eye in the hard mo­ments and gone through things as a team,” Rapi­noe said. “And we get to this fi­nal mo­ment and it’s one more game and it’s re­ally just about ex­pe­ri­enc­ing that game in its

fullest for the last time.”

The Amer­i­cans face a Dutch team on the rise. Af­ter reach­ing the knock­out round in only its first World Cup four years ago in Canada, the team won the Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship for the Nether­lands’ first ma­jor tro­phy. Dat­ing back to the Eu­ros, the Dutch have won 12 straight games in ma­jor tour­na­ments.

They have star power in Lieke Martens, who was the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year in 2017. She scored twice in the team’s 2-1 up­set vic­tory over Ja­pan to open the knock­out stage but she injured a toe in the cel­e­bra­tion and it’s both­ered her ever since.

In the Nether­lands’ 1-0 ex­tra-time vic­tory over Swe­den on Wed­nes­day in the semi­fi­nals, Martens said it was painful. The United States de­feated Eng­land on Tues­day night in its semi, giv­ing the Amer­i­cans an ex­tra day to re­cu­per­ate.

“As a player, you al­ways want to play the big­gest game of your ca­reer and this one of the big­gest ones I hope­fully am go­ing to play,” Martens said.

Jackie Groe­nen, who be­came the first over­seas sign­ing for Manch­ester United af­ter the re­cently formed women’s team was pro­moted to Eng­land’s Su­per League in May, scored the lone goal for the Dutch against the Swedes.

“It is amaz­ing to be able to play the fi­nal. I am so proud. It is amaz­ing to be play­ing in a team that gives you self-con­fi­dence. We give that to each other,” Groe­nen said. “We never knew this would be pos­si­ble. It is one more match and we could be world cham­pi­ons. It will be dif­fi­cult but it will be in­cred­i­ble to win.”

The top-ranked Amer­i­cans pose a con­sid­er­able challenge for the eighthrank­ed Dutch.

The United States had a par­tic­u­larly challengin­g run to its third straight World Cup fi­nal, with a quar­ter­fi­nal meet­ing against No. 4 France be­fore the semi against No. 3 Eng­land. The Amer­i­cans won both games 2-1.

They’d been strong from the start, an­nounc­ing their ar­rival in France with a 13-0 trounc­ing of Thai­land in the opener. Along the way the Amer­i­cans also van­quished neme­sis Swe­den, the team that knocked them out of the 2016 Olympics in the quar­ter­fi­nals.

“I think we’ve come from a tough road in terms of the teams we’ve played to get to this point, so for sure they’re bat­tle tested. But what I love about this group is that they’re locked in and they’re still hun­gry,” U.S. coach Jill El­lis said.

Alex Mor­gan leads the team, and the Golden Boot race, with six goals. Rapi­noe has five, in­clud­ing four in the knock­out round, but she did not play against Eng­land be­cause of a mi­nor ham­string is­sue. She said she ex­pects to be ready for Sun­day’s match. El­lis said no one has been ruled out.

“I feel so good about this group,” El­lis said. “They have a close­ness that you’re op­ti­mistic to have as a coach but it doesn’t al­ways come to fruition. This is a very, very close group, and I think that’s been a big part of what’s em­pow­ered them to this point. And ob­vi­ously I think we’ve got talented play­ers as well, you can’t do with­out that.”

The teams share a com­mon­al­ity in that both have fe­male coaches, with El­lis guid­ing the United States and Sa­rina Wieg­man in charge of the Nether­lands. It’s the first time since 2003 that two women have matched wits as coaches in the World Cup fi­nal.

The most re­cent meet­ing be­tween the two teams was in Septem­ber 2016. The United States won 3-1 in At­lanta.

LAU­RENT CIPRI­ANI AP

The United States’ Alex Mor­gan, right, in the Women’s World Cup semi­fi­nal Tues­day. The Amer­i­cans play the Nether­lands for the cham­pi­onship Sun­day.

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