A few minutes into of the second half of the United States versus Netherlands match, Jackie Groenen was dribbling backwards in her own defensive third with Sam Mewis hounding her. Groenen twisted and turned, looking to create space and drive upward, but 6’ Mewis seemed to envelope her much smaller opponent. Every attempt Groenen made at escape, Mewis blocked. And the more she tried to wiggle her way away, the more tired she got, and the more emboldened Mewis became.
Unable to get away from Mewis, and desperate not to lose the ball, Groenen finally managed to force enough room for a pass. She sent a hopeful ball forward, and it went out for a USA throw. These moments, when a Dutch player would have both the right ideas and the skills to accomplish those ideas only to be thwarted by an athleticism deficit, occurred over and over again.
The gulf in size and strength between the USA and the Netherlands was impossible to ignore throughout the game. It wasn’t just that Groenen and Daniëlle van de Donk were small in midfield. All over the pitch, the American players were faster, stronger, often bigger than their counterparts, and could keep up their intensity for longer.
Obviously, players don’t need to be big, strong, and fast to be great. Football is a sport in which someone like Van de Donk can be one of the best players in the world while being 5’3 — but athleticism really shows itself as a critical factor in tournament competitions.
When teams get to the finals, most players are usually at their limits in terms of their physical fitness. Everyone is tired and banged up. The match itself becomes the climax of a cruel war of attrition; the perfect stage for an avalanche of cliches about finding the extra motivation, surpassing physical limitations through willpower, and not letting any frailty of the body deny you spiritual glory.
But sheer willpower means little when there’s such a gulf in stamina. The ability to keep going, to get to spaces faster, recover from mistakes quicker, and to be able to run hard in the closing minutes, can save a team when any technical advantage disappears.
Stefanie van der Gragt appeared to get hurt during the USA’s first chance on goal. There was a scramble in the box, a save on the goal line, and once the bodies cleared, Van der Gragt was laying on the ground. Sari van Veenendaal went over and yelled something; Van der Gragt got up and hobbled back into position. For the rest of the match, she ran around limping and grimacing.
Van der Gragt’s injury wasn’t obvious for most of the game, because the Netherlands defended wonderfully as a team, but as the match dragged on, exhaustion started to supersede the adrenaline of playing in the final and the structure began to collapse. In the later stages of the match, Van der Gragt often found herself isolated against an American forward. It was a bit sad to see her laboring to keep up with opposing players who were much faster and more fit than her.
This was the story of the match in a nutshell. For a long time, it seemed Dutch tenacity would be able to keep the US at bay, but as the longer the game went on, the more apparent it became that while they could keep up with the US in terms of skill, their opponent’s physical dominance would be too much for them.
As the Dutch started to wear down, the US kept running. When the Americans got the ball, they could move at speeds the Dutch just couldn’t equal. They kept pushing Van de Donk and Groenen off the ball. The US made mistakes and gave the ball away in dangerous positions, but were able to recover calmly because the Netherlands players who pounced on those mistakes just didn’t have the energy or the speed to capitalize. It was the physical gap which won the final for the US rather than a question of tactics or raw technique.
A few years ago the gap in raw quality between the US and even top European teams others that seemed like a chasm. The advantages are still there, of course, but they don’t seem that big anymore. The quality differential between the US and other teams has narrowed significantly, and so will this difference in athleticism. Some of that, certainly, is a natural physical advantage, impossible to teach, but most of it is simply better training and preparation.
The hope is that football federations across the world can look at this Dutch team and realize that what they’ve done is very achievable. And that there’s space for even more to be done. The hope is that those in power can see that as much as the US is absurdly talented, their advantage isn’t inevitable, and their dominance can be challenged.
The Dutch are a likable collection of talented and determined players. They fought their way through games as much as they played beautiful football. And for much of the World Cup Final, they gave everything they had to challenge the best team in the world. Everyone knew the US would win. But the great thing is the Netherlands had the courage to fight them to their absolute limit, and in doing so, showed everyone else the Americans aren’t quite as far ahead of the field as it has sometimes seemed.