The Netherlands was three minutes away from being one of the World Cup’s biggest disappointments. Down 1-0 to the host nation, having scored only once in nearly three games at Canada 2015, the Dutch were living through a slightly more forgiving version of its disappointing Euro 2013. Back then, a young team was held scoreless through three games, finished at the bottom of its group and left Sweden with lessons in place of results. This year, some had picked Roger Reijners’ young squad to best Canada in Group A. The realities were becoming much different.
With three minutes to go in Montreal, a gifted attacking side featuring Göteborg star Manon Melis and ascending talents Vivianne Miedema, Lieke Martens and Daniëlle van de Donk was three minutes away from being shut out for a second straight game. The result would have left the Lionesses in third place, at best. If New Zealand found a way to get a third goal against China in Winnipeg, the Netherlands would take its three points, fourth place finish and collection of enviable talents home on the first plane to Amsterdam. And there are no direct flights from Winnipeg to Amsterdam.
The hype surrounding this emerging contender? For prognosticators, it’d become the latest cautionary tale. The promise of one of the youngster squads in the tournament? It’d have a reminder going into France 2019 – the same reminder the French have had hammered home over the last four years. Promise is enough to get you into the show, but you need something more to claim center stage.
In that moment, however – that point when Canada, up 1-0, provided a reason for Dutch hope — the cautionary tale became about the team’s veteran holdovers. Now often overshadowed by the futures of 18-year-old Miedema or 22-year-old Martens, players like the 123-time capped Melis (28) are still playing a key part. Sherida Spitse, while only 25, has 104 caps that speak to her contributions as the Netherlands grew from fringe factor to a team that can draw prospectors’ raves. Even captain Mandy van den Berg, while only 24, fades into the chorus as people like myself fawn over the Oranje’s new, emerging stars.
Kirsten van de Van corrected that. Brought off the bench in the 72nd minute, the 30-year-old was getting her first significant playing time of the World Cup (she’d appeared briefly in stoppage time in the team’s opener against New Zealand). Once a core part of the team, the Rosengård winger has been pushed to a supporting role, her relatively few 16 goals in 83 career appearances speaking to how difficult things once where. Already four other players in the team had more career goals, each of them younger than her.
In Monday’s 87th minute, though, that new landscape didn’t matter. After Canada center back Carmelina Moscato slammed an attempted clearance off a Dutch attacker, the Netherlands sprung on a quick counter, with passes from just inside its half toward the Canada’s penalty area setting up van de Ven to cut in from the right flank, onto a shot near 18 yards out. With goalkeeper Erin McLeod closing, the veteran fired her first World Cup goal into the left of Canada’s net, giving the Dutch the lifeline it needed and a 1-1 result.
“When it’s not going well, you want to help the team, and I got the chance,” van de Ven explained after the match. “I’m very happy the coach put me in and I could score that goal. It was a wonderful pass from Manon Melis, and I took it.”
Melis, one of five players on the team over 28 years old, had played her own part in the veterans’ moment, ensuring a result she felt her team had earned.
“We played a very good game and rightly made it 1-1 in the last minute,” Melis said, having moments earlier been named woman of the match. She went on to explain the Netherlands’ “positioning” had been better than Canada’s, something that enabled the final goal.
With China and New Zealand destined to draw, the goal did nothing for Group A’s dynamics. Canada would still finish first, just with five points instead of seven. China’s four points would give it second, thanks to its tiebreak edge over the Dutch (which it had beaten on Thursday), while the Netherlands settled into third. It still doesn’t know for sure if it will make the knockout round.
“With a defeat, it would have been doubtful as to whether we’d advance,” van de Ven said after the match. “Now, the opportunity (to advance) is much greater.”
“I hope we can continue,” van de Ven had said earlier, “otherwise, the goal means nothing.”
In a tournament where four of the six third-place teams make it out of group stage, the Netherlands’ Round of 16 place is almost assured. That’s not to say something unexpected won’t happen. Cameroon (Group C) could draw Switzerland today and finish on four points, though with a better goal difference (the Netherlands is at 0; Cameroon would be at +5). England could draw Colombia on Wednesday, end up with more goals, and beat the Netherlands on a goals-scored tiebreaker, should France beat Mexico and take first in Group F. Likewise, Sweden (Group D) could draw Australia and finish with a better goals-for column than the Dutch. And a Costa Rica upset over Brazil could give the South Korea-Spain winner a chance to vault the Lionesses. Those stars are unlikely to align, but it’s possible.
Far more likely, though: The veteran has saved the kids’ tournament. For a team that started a lineup with an average age of 23.9 years old, it was one of the Dutch’s three 30 year olds that salvaged their tournament.
There was another group in action on Monday, one that went into its final round with a sense of inevitability. Germany and Norway were tied atop the Group B, but the Germans had the luxury of a huge goal difference edge. A 10-0 win to start their tournament meant they were destined to finish first and leave the Norwegians in second, if Monday played out like it was supposed to.
And, unfortunately, it did. Though a well organized Thailand defense leveraged nine first half saves from Waraporn Boonsign to stay close (1-0 at intermission), the first two goals of 21-year-old Lena Petermann’s international career helped the favorites to a 4-0 win in Winnipeg. With three points and a terrible goal difference (-7), Thailand’s left hoping for a slew of draws in other groups. It’s probably out.
In Moncton, Cote d’Ivoire kept it slightly closer, though a 3-1 win for Norway was ultimately overshadowed by what’s now the best goal of the tournament.
Ange N’guessan’s second of the competition will be the highlight of the Ivorians’ tournament, though most will probably remember their 10-goal shellacking from game one. But the resiliency Cote d’Ivoire showed after that, nearly defeating Thailand in its second game, helped hush the rash assessments that the team didn’t belong in the competition … not that there is a set definition of which teams “belong.”
Still, with neither Cote d’Ivoire nor Thailand able to flip the scripts, the day’s drama was Group A, where van de Van wasn’t the only person to snare the spotlight. In China’s meeting with New Zealand, however, it was the head referee, Katalin Kulcsár, who ended up making the most important contribution:
Betsy Hassett didn’t commit a foul. There is no way Kulcsár could have seen a hand or an arm hit that ball. Yet China was still given a gift, one Wang Lisi made sure to capitalize on:
The conversion made it 1-1, but New Zealand still had 54 minutes to recover. That it failed to do so, eventually drawing 2-2, was less the fault of Kulcsár than a disappointing first two games that left the Ferns needing a win last night in Manitoba.
That doesn’t mean the call was acceptable. It wasn’t. It was wrong, and in an ideal world, calls like that wouldn’t happen. Or, they’d be reversed. But every team knows what challenges it might face on the field, and often times, that means having to overcome obstacles that seem unjust.
New Zealand had 270 minutes to make its case as one of Group A’s three best teams. It came up just short. Part of that result is not being able to overcome Kulcsár’s hurdle.
Four games, two groups, tons of scenarios:
Ecuador vs. Japan, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, Winnipeg, FOX Sports 1
Switzerland vs. Cameroon, 5:00 p.m. Eastern, Edmonton, FOX Sports 2
Japan has already clinched first place in this group thanks to wins over Switzerland and Cameroon, who have in turn each beaten Ecuador, badly. That leaves the day’s game in Edmonton to decide second place, though given the way Ecuador has swayed this groups’ goal differences (losing by six and nine goals), the result should have a big impact on which third place teams get through. Group C will likely send three teams into the next round.
Nigeria vs. United States, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Vancouver, FOX Sports
Australia vs. Sweden, 8:00 p.m. Eastern, Edmonton, FOX Sports 1
Any team could still win Group D, though the U.S. is in the driver’s seat. Beat underdog Nigeria, and the 2011 finalists claim first place. Even with a tie, the U.S. stays first with a Sweden win or a draw in Edmonton.
If Nigeria wins, things get chaotic. That’d leave both the Super Falcons and the U.S. on four points. The winner of Australia-Sweden would claim first, Nigeria would get second, while the U.S. would slump to third. A draw in Edmonton, however, would leave Australia, Nigeria and the U.S. in a three-way tie at the top of the group. Goal difference would be the likely tiebreaker, though if Nigeria beats the U.S. by two, its goals-scored column could still give Africa its first group stage winner.
Where we stand
- Day 1: Christine Sinclair, white walker
- Day 2: No sure for blowouts
- Day 3: Not the U.S. you want, but the U.S. you got
- Day 4: The woman who upstaged Marta
- Day 5: When turf really makes its mark
- Day 6: New realities for the favorites and hosts
- Day 7: Reassessing the fearsome U.S. attack
- Day 8: Understanding the biggest upset in tournament history