By ANNE M. PETERSON
The Associated Press
LYON, France — 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 today 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 story 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 eighth-ranked 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 today’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.