LYON, France — The United States arrived at the World Cup brimming with confidence and embracing a championship-or-bust mentality.
They left, after a thoroughly dominating tournament, with not just their fourth World Cup overall, and second consecutive, but the mantle as the greatest women’s soccer team of all time.
The Americans outlasted the Netherlands 2-0 in Sunday’s World Cup final. They broke the game open on a Megan Rapinoe penalty kick in the 61st minute before Rose Lavelle added a brilliant goal in the 69th. It was a final that was tough, hard-fought, even bloody at times. But while the score was close for much of the game, the U.S. controlled most of the action and most of the quality scoring opportunities.
It was indicative of a World Cup where the Americans were almost never threatened.
They never trailed. They outscored their seven opponents 26-3. They never needed a second of extra time. They led an astounding 442 out of 630 minutes (70.2 percent of the time, a number that may defy belief from future soccer historians).
Essentially, they did everything they promised they would and believed they could when they arrived here and declared that due to their depth of talent they had the first and second best teams in the world.
The Dutch were a game opponent, physical and determined, the reigning European champions. Yet the talent difference on the field was marked. They became just another team for the U.S. to steamroll in a tournament that saw the Americans defeat the teams ranked third, fourth, eighth, ninth and 13th in the world.
The Americans have fielded some all-time great squads, but none can match this level, let alone the sheer depth of ability. In a sport that grows by leaps and bounds every World Cup cycle, they completely overwhelmed this tournament, only mildly pressed by France late in a quarterfinal and England in the semis. Even then, they were at risk of an even scoreboard, not in need of a comeback.
This was a complete show of strength by the United States, a sign of how the country has so many superior athletes playing youth soccer that coach Jill Ellis has an embarrassment of riches to pick from.
Carli Lloyd, 36, was the hero from 2015. She was a late game sub on this team, scoring three times anyway. Mallory Pugh, 21, may prove to be Alex Morgan’s successor as the team’s goal-scoring threat up front. She couldn’t get on the field during the knockout stages.
They lost arguably their best player, forward Megan Rapinoe, for the semifinals due to a strained hamstring, and her replacement, Christen Press, who would start on any other team in the world, needed just 10 minutes to score.
Their veterans such as Rapinoe and Morgan each delivered six goals and Julie Ertz was everywhere. Their newcomers such as Sam Mewis, 26, and Lavelle, 24, showed why the team’s future is bright.
Headed into the tournament there was but one question – goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who is excellent but inexperienced at that level. She brushed that away with a brilliant penalty kick save against England and kept a clean sheet in the final.
About the only concern that ever emerged during play was outside noise wondering if the Americans were too confident. They always prepared for, spoke highly of and respected their opponents, but it was clear that the U.S. believed if they played their game they would win.
They were right.
“It’s important that our team has confidence,” Ellis said early in the tournament. “I don’t think in any way this is an arrogant team. I think this team knows they have to earn everything, that we’ve got tough opponents like we played the other night still ahead of us and we have to earn every right to advance in this tournament.”
It wasn’t long before the criticism turned to silly things such as celebrating too many goals with too much flair. When that’s what you are getting hit with as a tournament carries on, you’ve got a juggernaut on your hands.
As long as their focus never wavered, neither would the results.
Declaring this the greatest team in history isn’t an affront to the World Cup champions of 1991 and 1999. It is, instead, their legacy. They spawned not just a generation of girls who flocked to the sport, but the infrastructure of youth leagues and U.S. Soccer development that could handle them, nurture them and turn them into a ferocious group.
The 2015 World Cup champions were very good, but they weren’t this good, they didn’t control the tournament this easily.
As much as there is endless discussion of the soccer world, which is just now caring about the women’s game, catching up to the Americans, it never really panned out. These other countries, especially the seven European teams that joined the U.S. in the quarterfinals, are all better than ever.
Yet the Americans are too – the gap actually widening for the time being.
It wasn’t arrogance that powered their belief in themselves. It wasn’t overconfidence.
It was domination, complete and utter American domination.
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