LYON, France - The U.S. Women’s National Team will seek the ultimate glory Sunday during the final match of the Women’s World Cup when it squares off against the Netherlands at the Stade de Lyon for its fourth tournament title.
The USWNT — whose jersey became the most-sold soccer jersey (men’s or women’s) in a single season on Nike's online store — fought its way into the finals after defeating England 2-1 Tuesday in a match that remained tied for the first third of the game.
Alex Morgan, celebrating her 30th birthday, scored the game-winning point, boosting her total goal tally for the tournament to six. This pushed her into the lead for the Golden Boot, the award given to the top goalscorer of the tournament.
Leading up to the match, England knew it had its work cut out — the British have never made it into the final round of the Women’s World Cup, and the USWNT is ranked No. 1 in the world.
"America has got that ruthless streak of wanting to win," Neville said. "You saw the last five minutes of the (quarterfinal) game against France. The game management was fantastic. They took the ball into the corner, they knew what it took to win, and they celebrated like winners."
The Americans came under fire for that ruthlessness in dominating opponents as well as the way they celebrated their victories from the outset of the tournament. After their first match against Thailand, which was a 13-0 knockout for the U.S., some media and Twitter users called the team disrespectful and the 13-goal sweep excessive.
Alex Morgan, who scored five of the goals, responded to criticism by arguing that every goal counts in case differentials came into play in the group stage.
A favorable bracket pitted the Americans, ranked first, against 34th-ranked Thailand and 39th-ranked Chile for its first two games. After taking out Thailand, the U.S. beat Chile 3-0 and then went on to shut out ninth-ranked Sweden 2-0. The USWNT scored a total of 18 goals during the preliminary group matches — a Women’s World Cup record for total goals in a group stage.
Spain, ranked No. 13 in the world, gave the USWNT a run for their money in the knockout round. It was a tied 1-1 match for most of the game until Megan Rapinoe, co-caption of the USWNT, scored a penalty goal in the 75th minute that pushed the U.S. ahead to win 2-1.
With a knockout win against Spain, the Americans were set to play host nation, France, in the quarterfinals in what was a hotly anticipated face-off. The French were hoping to become the first nation to simultaneously hold both the men’s and Women’s World Cup titles.
"I hope it's huge and crazy. That's what it should be," U.S. captain Megan Rapinoe said after the match was set. "This is the best game, this is what everybody wanted. I think we wanted it, seems like they're up for it, you guys of course are up for it, and all the fans.“
Tickets for the long-awaited match were going for as much as 10,000 euros ($11,371.65) on StubHub, with an average ticket price for the match landing somewhere between $1,000 and $3,400.
The U.S. grabbed the lead early on with Rapinoe scoring a goal on a free kick within the first five minutes. Rapinoe scored a second goal 65 minutes into the game, and though France earned its first point at 80-minutes in, the team couldn’t overtake the Americans, who ultimately won 2-1.
Amid the tournament’s late stages, Rapinoe was criticized heavily for a video from January that surfaced in which she told a reporter, “I'm not going to the f---ing White House." In the clip posted to Twitter, a reporter from Eight by Eight Magazine asked Rapinoe if she was excited about the prospect of going to the White House.
The clip caught President Donald Trump’s attention, causing him to target Rapinoe in a tweet, saying, "Megan should never disrespect our Country, the White House, or our Flag, especially since so much has been done for her & the team. Be proud of the Flag that you wear. The USA is doing GREAT!"
In a press conference last week, Rapinoe stood by her original comments, but "with the exception of the expletive. My mom would be very upset about that."
She had a chance to defend herself against the criticism in an interview with Pro Soccer USA a few days later. “I think that I’m particularly and uniquely and very deeply American,” Rapinoe said. “If we want to talk about the ideals that we stand for and, ya know, the songs and the anthem and sort of what we were founded on, I think I’m extremely American.”
Teammates Alex Morgan and Alie Krieger backed up Rapinoe following the president’s tweet and made public comments that they, too, would be sitting out a potential White House visit.
The rest of her team, including coach Jill Ellis, said they also have Rapinoe’s back, and Ellis said the drama off the pitch doesn’t affect their game.
"I think this team has a remarkable focus. We all support Megan. She knows that. We know we have each other's backs in there," Ellis said. "I think for our players, there's only one purpose, one mission, why we're here. Comments, media, whatever, it has always been something I think we can block out pretty easily."
In the final match to come, they will need that remarkable focus.The Dutch have made rapid progress since reaching the round of 16 during their World Cup debut four years ago. Only recently have they solidified their place among the world’s best teams — their European Championship win two years ago was their first major trophy.
But the Netherlands didn’t have an easy start to the Women’s World Cup. The Dutch labored past New Zealand courtesy of an injury-time goal, winning 1-0.
The team gained momentum in the next several games, beating out Cameroon, Canada and Japan to make it into the quarter-finals, during which they beat Italy 2-0.
The Netherlands earned its first spot in a Women’s World Cup final after squaring off against Sweden in the other semifinal match Wednesday. The match remained neck and neck with neither team scoring until going into overtime, when the Netherlands’ Jackie Groenen scored a critical goal in the 99th minute of the game.
Almost immediately, she began thinking about the next challenge."It kind of went through my mind as soon as I got off the pitch," she said. "The Americans are massive, they have massive players. They are the biggest team in the world but I can't wait to play."
The USWNT has made it to the semifinals in all eight World Cups, and it has taken home the first place trophy three times — more than any other country. The only World Cup final match that the Americans lost was in 2011 against Japan.
The United States has won 11 straight World Cup matches and is undefeated in its last 16. With the quarterfinal victory in France, the Americans tied Norway's record winning streak set over the 1995 and 1999 tournaments.
Watch the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup on FOX from June 7 through July 7.
This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.