5 takeaways from the US repeating as World Cup champions
The Americans not only survived the pressure, but thrived on it to once again claim the title.
For the fourth time in the history of the World Cup, the United States women’s national team was crowned champion. And while past versions have shined on the big stage, arguably none had to endure the combined level of competition and pressure that the 2019 US team was forced to grapple with.
Knockout round games against Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands each posed major hurdles that the Americans found a way to clear. Using a balanced roster and a deep bench — and highlighted by a few star players — Jill Ellis’s squad added to the rich tradition of the US team, setting a women’s record by scoring 26 goals in a single World Cup.
The 2-0 win over the Netherlands in the final on Sunday capped a month-long tournament run in which the US never trailed. In the end, it was once again Megan Rapinoe whose goal that gave her country the lead. Rose Lavelle followed with timely strike to give the Americans a deserved World Cup victory.
Here are some takeaways following the World Cup final:
Megan Rapinoe cemented her legacy among the greats.
When VAR ruled that Stefanie van der Gragt’s 61st minute kick on Alex Morgan was a penalty in the box, there was no doubt which US player would step up to take the kick: Megan Rapinoe. The 34-year-old became the first women’s player to start in three World Cup finals, and possessed the requisite confidence to handle the pressure.
Her finish was calmly taken, even if it didn’t hit the corner. She caught Dutch goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal going the wrong way, and celebrated her sixth goal of the tournament. In the end, this made her joint top scorer in the 2019 World Cup with Morgan and English forward Ellen White.
NERVES OF STEEL ???
Megan Rapinoe scores her 50th international goal from the penalty spot and gives USA the lead in the #FIFAWWC final! pic.twitter.com/gjPpYOrcyl
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 7, 2019
Rapinoe won the Golden Boot as tournament top scorer on a second tiebreaker with Morgan (having totaled fewer minutes played), and added the Golden Ball as the World Cup’s best player. It’s undoubtedly a high point for Rapinoe on the field.
Off the field, she’s been unafraid to speak up on a number of social issues and against the policies of current U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration. This only increased the pressure on her performances for the American team, but Rapinoe has only added a series of clutch goals in knockout-round games.
After having to sit out the semifinal against England due to injury, her return to the lineup (and goal) showed why she was the 2019 team’s most valuable player. It also ensures that she will forever be known among the greats of the US women’s team.
Sari van Veenendaal’s saves kept it from being a US rout.
For all of the deserved focus on the US team’ triumph, the Dutch performed well in the final by holding the Americans scoreless longer than any previous opponent in the tournament. Though the Netherlands attack never got going, goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal kept her team in it during the first half.
Saves in the opening 45 minutes from Julie Ertz’s volley off a corner kick, Samantha Mewis’s header from a Rapinoe cross, and a tremendous kick save on Alex Morgan’s quick follow up were impressive. She then parried Morgan’s blistering shot in the 40th minute with a full extension save.
Van Veenendaal is putting on a show! ??
The Netherlands goalkeeper makes another fine save on Morgan, and this #FIFAWWC final is goalless going into halftime. pic.twitter.com/5DDVyVjZQH
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 7, 2019
Ultimately, van Veenendaal was unable to maintain a clean sheet, but her performance in the final (as well as the tournament as a whole) was enough to earn the Golden Glove, awarded to the World Cup’s best goalkeeper. Had she not made the series of saves early on, the game might have turned into an American rout.
Rose Lavelle gets her deserved moment in the spotlight.
Former Boston Breaker Rose Lavelle did it all in what was the most electric moment of the final. Taking a pass from Mewis in midfield, Lavelle sprinted away from her marker into space in front of the Dutch defense.
From there, she cut left and fired a shot that arrowed into the corner of the net to double the US lead.
ROSE. LAVELLE. ???
A beautiful solo effort doubles the @USWNT‘s lead in the #FIFAWWC final! pic.twitter.com/ToznvQiuxb
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 7, 2019
Lavelle, who exited the semifinal with a hamstring injury, was not a guarantee to start the final. Yet as she’s demonstrated throughout the tournament, her ability to run at defenders has been one of the highlights of the American attack.
“That was what she’s been missing, just that little bit, all tournament on the dribble,” Rapinoe told Fox Sports afterwards of Lavelle’s goal. “She’s been so dangerous for us, she’s opened up everything for us. For her to get that reward tonight for us on the biggest stage that you possibly can, I’m so proud of her. She’s a superstar, not even in the making, she’s a straight up superstar at this point.”
The US thrived amid the critics and the pressure.
The US became the first team since Germany in 2007 to repeat as World Cup champions. They started as the pre-tournament favorite, and had to battle through what was undoubtedly the tougher side of the knockout-round bracket.
Games against host nation France in the quarterfinal and England in the semifinal tested every inch of American resolve. Yet in both circumstances, the US showed itself to be the steelier side, surviving and advancing by a 2-1 score in each game. Even in the round of 16 matchup with Spain, an unexpectedly difficult encounter, the US found a way to win.
The goal celebrations against Thailand and England drew critics, and others accused the team of arrogance, but the US team proved immune to it. As the spotlight grew bigger in the successive knockout round games, American performances seemed to improve.
Is it the end of an era?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the US dominance over the last decade, several of the team’s players are approaching the end of their time with the national team. The average age of the squad is 29, and changes will be coming before the Americans go for a three-peat in 2023.
Carli Lloyd, who came off the bench in the second half (having scored a hat-trick in the 2015 final against Japan), is 36. This will likely be her final World Cup, as she referenced her “last ever World Cup training session” in an Instagram post before the Netherlands game.
Rapinoe is 34, Morgan is 30, and Tobin Heath is 31. All three were starting forwards in the final, but are no guarantee to appear again in four years time. Central defender Becky Sauerbrunn, 34, is another who will be unlikely to feature again at a World Cup.
In terms of the future, Lavelle is just 24, and will be part of a group of central midfielders (with Mewis and Lindsey Horan) that will likely be the spine of the next US team. Forward Mallory Pugh, just 21, is another talent who will likely gain a starting spot sooner rather than later.
Yet the 2019 tournament offered an example of how veteran leadership can be crucial. In tightly contested games — especially against France and England — it was the Americans’ experience that made an enormous difference, especially as they navigated nervy moments late in each game.
In the short term, the current group can savor their success. The legacy of this generation of players as back-to-back champions puts them in rarefied air, even among the impressive accomplishments of their predecessors.