Lyon: The United States head into the women’s World Cup final against the Netherlands on Sunday seemingly in such rude health that the biggest controversy surrounding the holders in recent days has been Alex Morgan’s tea-sipping goal celebration against England.
Morgan, one of the faces of the USA side that has made history by reaching a third consecutive final, has been at the centre of a veritable storm in a tea cup since using the celebration to mark her winner in Tuesday’s semi-final.
Whether it was an attempt to wind-up the English for their love of the drink, or something more innocent, the 30-year-old has been struck by the level of media attention.
“You see men celebrating all around the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is, when I look at sipping a cup of tea, I’m a little taken aback and kind of you have to laugh about it to see all the criticism,” Morgan said on Friday.
The striker scored five goals in the record 13-0 win over Thailand with which the USA began their defence of the trophy, but it is Megan Rapinoe who has been the big star of the tournament.
The pink-haired midfielder scored all of her team’s goals in the wins over Spain and France before missing the England showdown due to a hamstring problem.
Rapinoe has said that she should be fit in time to make coach Jill Ellis’ starting line-up for the game in Lyon, as the USA aim to win a fourth World Cup in eight editions.
That would cement their status as the dominant force in the international women’s game. It would also immediately bring back questions as to whether the team might accept the offer of a trip to visit Donald Trump at the White House, but first they have to beat the European champions.
“To be in the last three World Cup finals, it’s pretty unbelievable,” said veteran Carli Lloyd, scorer of a hat-trick in the 2015 final win over Japan.
“Not everybody can say that, although we know the job has not been done yet.
“It’s incredible, it’s a testament to this team, the programme. Hopefully we can put on a show.”
The 2015 tournament won by the USA was the Netherlands’ first ever World Cup, yet the “Oranje” have enjoyed remarkable success since under the tutelage of Sarina Wiegman.
She has overseen 12 wins in 12 games at major tournaments, a run that led them to glory on home soil at Euro 2017 and has seen them beat 2011 winners Japan, Italy and then Sweden in the knockout rounds here.
“I think every player is dreaming of playing in the World Cup final and playing against the previous champions, and everybody dreams of getting as many trophies as they can so hopefully we can add one more,” said the defender Dominique Bloodworth.
They are the outsiders, and will surely need Barcelona winger Lieke Martens to shake off the foot injury that forced her off at half-time in the 1-0 extra-time victory over the Swedes on Wednesday.
If they can pull off a sensational upset, it would confirm the emerging strength in depth in European women’s football that will continue to threaten the USA’s hegemony moving forward.
The Americans have been pushed very hard by Spain, France and England in the knockout rounds, although the Dutch will need to improve significantly on their semi-final performance.
“They are a very, very fit team but also we can see there are some players right now who are getting injured and you can tell that the game is growing because the games are very tough,” observed the 24-year-old former Arsenal defender Bloodworth.
Will she and her fellow defenders manage to stop Morgan from scoring and perhaps showing off another goal celebration on Sunday?
“I think it’s going to be a quality match because you could tell that they want to play,” said Morgan.