The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Netherlands hits its first Women’s World Cup final but will have to punch up vs. mighty U.S.

The sun sets over Stade de Leon during the semifinal between the Netherlands and Sweden. (Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press)

by Steven Goff in Decines-Charpieu, France

The second Women’s World Cup semifinal was played Wednesday, but judging from the mostly drab performances and the hushed response from the impartial crowd most of the long night, it looked more like a group match between championship dreamers.

Anything, of course, could happen in a final, but when Sunday comes, the United States will arrive at Stade de Lyon as the heavy favorite to win a second consecutive trophy.

The opponent will be the Netherlands, which, in its second World Cup, advanced with a 1-0 victory over Sweden on Jackie Groenen’s goal nine minutes into extra time.

The former judo champion, who devoted full time to soccer seven years ago, smacked a 20-yard shot into the far lower corner before an announced crowd of 48,452.

The Americans have beaten the Dutch six consecutive times by a 22-2 count, but the sides haven’t clashed since 2016. And in that space, the Dutch won the 2017 European Championship and began placing more players at notable clubs, such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Arsenal.

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“It’s a really strong team, that is clear. It’s the States,” said Groenen, who had scored one previous goal for the national team. “It’s one game. There are possibilities. Who knows what will happen?”

Dutch defender Stefanie van der Gragt called the United States “an amazing team. Now we have a party. And then tomorrow we talk about the U.S.”

Over 120 minutes, the Netherlands did not generate much excitement or opportunity. Besides gaps with the United States in experience, depth and talent, the Dutch will have one less day of rest and preparation after an extended semifinal.

Except for those with Swedish rooting interests, the preferred choice to face the United States was always the Netherlands.

The tournament already had witnessed the Swedes lose to the Americans in the group stage. It was not an engaging affair, though in fairness both sides already had clinched berths in the knockout stage and the Swedes rested many regulars.

The thought of Dutch orange blobs in the stands — not to mention the novelty of relative newcomer playing for the title — was irresistible. Also appealing: the Dutch horn section belting out kitschy numbers and the unbridled joy of the fans.

Twenty-four hours earlier, the venue crackled with energy as the United States and England went after one another and created a memorable night featuring artistic play, a saved penalty kick and video-replay controversy.

Perspective: The U.S. women’s national team is fearless. It showed again against England.

This one, not so much. Billed as a sellout, the stadium was littered with thousands of empty seats. Most spectators were neutrals, waiting for something about which to get excited.

The Netherlands’ progression in recent years suggested a deep run in this tournament. And when the group stage revealed a pathway to the final without the United States, France or England in the way, the outlook brightened further.

Sweden was predictably solid in winning its first two group matches before resting several regulars for the U.S. meeting, a 2-0 defeat that wasn’t much to watch. In the knockout stage, though, the Swedes turned up the volume and defeated Germany for the first time in 24 years.

The Swedes were seeking their first appearance in the final since 2003, when they lost to Germany, 2-1, in extra time. Besides their defeat Wednesday, they watched midfielder Kosovare Asllani removed by stretcher late in the match with an apparent head injury.

“The feelings, what can I say? The feeling of emptiness, whether that’s the match or [the] injury,” Swedish Coach Peter Gerhardsson said. “You’re not angry, not sad, not disappointed. Of course, you’re not happy. Empty, that’s how I feel right now.”

The first half was dull — quiet on the field and quiet in the stands. Many no-shows were perhaps Lyon-based Americans not willing to make the suburban trek for a 9 p.m. kickoff. Also, German fans might have skipped out after their second-ranked team’s premature departure.

Both quality chances before intermission belonged to Sweden, which was more refined in possession and less fragile on defense.

The pace picked up after intermission. Sweden’s Nilla Fischer drove a 15-yard effort off the base of the far post. and Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl made a soaring save in touching Vivianne Miedema’s eight-yard header off the crossbar.

Dutch sub Shanice Van De Sanden, her hair cropped close and tinted pink, injected life into the match. In stoppage time, she forced Lindahl to make a touch save.

It was not enough to avoid 30 minutes of extra time. Bored and perhaps afraid of missing trams back into Lyon, thousands headed for the exits.

They missed Groenen run onto the ball, take one touch, then score with a well-placed shot just beyond Lindahl’s reach.

“I saw a nice angle,” she said. “We have been discussing for a couple of weeks that I should shoot more often. The ball came to me really nicely.”

The Dutch managed the remaining 20-plus minutes with composure and began turning their attention toward an epic upset bid this weekend.

“Hopefully we can hurt them and do something great,” defender Dominique Bloodworth said. “We all know they are very confident, but we are also confident. We know we haven’t been playing our best football but still reached the final. So that’s something incredible for our nation.”

Women’s World Cup bracket

In-game highlights

by Jacob Bogage in Washington

Final: Netherlands 1, Sweden 0

The United States has its World Cup championship challenger. The Netherlands scored in extra time to push past Sweden for a 1-0 victory.

It’s the first trip to the Women’s World Cup final for the Netherlands, and it reached the mark after surviving a grueling knockout stage that also included wins over Japan and Italy.

Earlier in the tournament, the Oranje showed promise as an emerging offensive power with crisp ball movement and precise set pieces. But against Sweden, the Dutch opted for a defensive stance.

In the end, it paid off. Jackie Groenen made a run that split the Swedish back line, then blasted a low ball past diving keeper Hedvig Lindahl.

That lack of offense, and the almost frightened approach, will do little to shake the Americans’ status as the overwhelming championship favorite. Sweden will face England on Saturday in the third-place match.

120th minute + 6: Asllani leaves field on stretcher

Swedish midfielder Kosovare Asllani was evaluated by medical staffers and taken off the pitch on a stretcher after she was injured going up for a header. She was beaten to the pass by a Dutch defender, but the ball took an odd bounce and caught Asllani hard on the side of the face. She went down clearly dazed, and the referee stopped play so she could receive medical attention. Sweden, out of substitutes, played the final moments of the match with 10 players.

116th minute: Yellow card to Netherlands

Danielle Van De Donk was carded for a foul on Kosovare Asllani, but the free kick was handled and cleared by the Dutch defense.

111th minute: Two Swedish substitutions

Sweden made its final substitutions (an extra one is granted when a match goes to extra time), bringing in Mimmi Larsson and Jonna Andersson for Stina Blackstenius and Magdelena Eriksson.

Extra time, period 1: Netherlands 1, Sweden 0

After all that defending the Dutch practiced so well in the first 105 minutes, they’ll have to do 15 minutes more. Jackie Groenen gave them the lead in the 99th minute with a well-struck low ball from 20 yards out. Now, the Oranje must keep a pressing Sweden side off the board to avoid penalty kicks and set up a championship match with the United States.

99th minute: Goal, Netherlands

Finally, a breakthrough. With the Netherlands in the midfield, Jackie Groenen split the Swedish back line with a run and ripped a low shot past Hedvig Lindahl. Sweden has 20 minutes to equalize, or else the Netherlands will face the United States in the championship match on Sunday. Groenen is the eighth Dutch player to score at this World Cup.

94th minute: Yellow card

Sweden’s Julia Zigiotti is carded for a foul on Danielle Van De Donk.

Full time: Sweden 0, Netherlands 0

We need extra time to determine a challenger for the United States in the World Cup final. Sweden and the Netherlands played 90 minutes of extremely cautious soccer, and while both teams did have scoring chances, they were so few and far between that strikers were almost caught unawares with the ball on their feet.

The match will take at least another 30 minutes, and if it’s still not decided, will go to a penalty kick shootout.

85th minute: Yellow card

Netherlands’ Sherida Spitse was carded for a foul on Kosovare Asllani.

79th minute: Two subs for the Swedes

Julia Zigiotti and Madelen Janogy entered for Elin Rubensson and Lina Hurtig.

71st minute: Dutch substitution

Shanice Van De Sanden entered for Lineth Beerensteyn to give the Dutch some fresh legs on the offensive end. Beerensteyn started on the right wing in Van De Sanden’s place after providing a nice spark in the quarterfinal match against Italy. But Beerensteyn had been largely quiet Wednesday, prompting the late change.

64th minute: Netherlands hits the bar

This match seems to crying out for a set piece after the chance Sweden had minutes ago and the one the Netherlands just missed. Sherida Spitse sent in a corner that found Vivianne Miedema at the back post. Her header went to the far side and Swedish keeper Hedvig Lindahl was able to get her fingertips to the ball to flick it off the cross bar.

56th minute: Sweden rings the post

What a weird sequence this was. Assistant referee Princess Brown awarded Sweden a corner on what appeared to be a ball the Swedes played out of bounds. An in-swinging kick landed among a scrum of players and bounced out to Nilla Fischer, whose shot caught Dutch keeper Sari Van Veenendaal leaning the wrong way, but hit the post.

Scoreless at halftime

Let’s be optimistic fan and focus on this World Cup semifinal being a second-half game. The Netherlands and Sweden played to an uneventful scoreless draw in the first 45 minutes.

Each side drew a pair of decent chances. Neither were good enough to beat teams fixated on defending their goal. The caution with which both teams played was admirable — the World Cup final is only one goal away, after all — but the results were less than thrilling.

The sides combined for eight shots, three corners and 43 defensive clearances. The Dutch seemed so concerned about a Swedish counterattack, they barely attacked at all. The Swedes seemed so concerned about Dutch ball movement, they barely sent any attackers ahead.

The cautious play makes it hard to imagine how either would face the United States, the braggadocios, goal-scoring, top-ranked favorite to win it all.

37th minute: A defensive battle

Much of the so far has been a battle of attrition. The sides have combined for five shots, three corners and 32 defensive clearances. Both teams, especially the Netherlands, are playing it safe knowing a trip to the World Cup championship match is perhaps only one goal away.

13th minute: Sweden draws the first chance

And it was a very Swedish opportunity. After a Dutch turnover in the midfield, Sofia Jakobsson was able to turn, push the tempo upfield and thread a ball to Stina Blackstenius. Dutch keeper Sari Van Veenendaal smothered the shot and was able to pounce on the rebound to end the scoring opportunity.

And we’re off!

The Netherlands is playing in its first Women’s World Cup semifinal. For Sweden, this is its fourth appearance in the semifinal round. The winner will face the United States on Sunday at 11 a.m., in Lyon.

Starting lineups

Setting the stage

Behold: A match that seems to be predictably unpredictable. How’s that to decide the final spot in the Women’s World Cup final?

Sweden for five matches has played a prototypically Swedish brand of soccer. It drops 10 players behind the ball and dares opponents to try to score. Passes that could slice up less fastidious defenses become turnovers. Crosses into the box are swept away with ease. Shots on target get pawed down by the tournament’s top keeper, Hedvig Lindahl.

Then, what’s this? Stina Blackstenius or Sofia Jakobsson somehow behind the opposing back four? A good Swedish clearance by any other name is a precise and practical through ball, the kind that undid Germany and Canada, too, and gave the United States plenty of trouble in group-stage play.

The Netherlands will counter with its own free-flowing style: fast-paced, tons of passing, acrobatic play in the air, and watch out for those set pieces. Vivianne Miedema has three goals and may be the best there is attacking with her head. Lieke Martens has enough oomph in her shot to threaten from long range. Sherida Spitse has four assists, the most in the tournament.

They’ll all have room to operate as Sweden allows the Dutch to control possession, but will they have enough meaningful chances to make an impact? That’s hard to predict.

Sweden is in the World Cup semifinals for the fourth time; only the United States and Germany have reached this stage more often. The Netherlands is in the semifinals for the first time. The winner will face the U.S. in Sunday’s final. The loser will face England in Saturday’s third-place match.

Postgame reading

The U.S. is in the World Cup final with a stop of penalty and a spot of tea

An evening that began with intrigue concerning a high-profile absence ended in high drama and full glory for the U.S. national soccer team Tuesday as it defeated England, 2-1, and advanced to the Women’s World Cup final for the third consecutive time. (Read more)

The USWNT is after something far more subversive than just better pay

It’s time to discard, finally, the nagging, jersey-tugging, chronic, small-minded doctrine that we must “contextualize” everything the U.S. women’s national team does as “relative” to the men’s game, and therefore they must be smaller, lesser, writes columnist Sally Jenkins. Sweet kicking Jesus, what titans these players are. Mental giants who show up big under unimaginably hot lights of controversy. (Read more)

World Cup merchandise is hard to find despite sport’s growing popularity

Fans in France have flaunted their passion for women’s soccer and flexed their buying power by traveling to cheer in person. But visitors to host cities such as Paris, Le Havre and Reims have found little in the way of Women’s World Cup souvenirs to take home — that is, if they can find FIFA’s Official Fan Shops at all. (Read more)

Sweden upsets Germany to burst back into Women’s World Cup semifinals

Sweden’s clinical 2-1 unmasking of favorite Germany on Saturday had every Swedish element. The defending was top-notch. The finishes were effective but not flashy. The chemistry and creativity were anything but spontaneous. (Read more)

Netherlands beats Italy to reach Women’s World Cup semifinals for first time

So complete was the Dutch domination — they controlled nearly 60 percent of possession — that a frustrated Italian side picked up four yellow cards trying to win the ball back. The Netherlands broke through on two set pieces. (Read more)

Lyon’s championship soccer club is a model of gender equity and a vision for women’s sports

Lyon forged a women’s superteam and an unprecedented dynasty in Europe. The Lyon men won an unprecedented seven consecutive Ligue 1 championships between 2002 and 2008, but it was the women who took center stage this summer. In May, the Lyon women won their fourth consecutive Champions League title and sixth overall. (Read more)

The U.S. still reigns over women’s soccer, but challengers to the throne are gaining strength

The world is coming for the U.S. women’s soccer team, and many of the new challengers are from Europe. (Read more)