LYON, France — For the final stop on a four-year World Cup odyssey, the U.S. women’s national soccer team is perched at a former 19th-century convent in the hills high above this enchanting city. The view isn’t bad.
From this vantage point, Stade de Lyon, the suburban venue for Sunday’s final against the Netherlands, is far in the eastern distance.
Below, in a wedge of ancient land carved by the Rhone and Saone, thousands of U.S. fans have flowed into Place Bellecour and the narrow cobblestone streets in hope of celebrating a fourth championship.
The Americans have sat atop the mountaintop for most of three decades, pacesetters and standard-bearers for a sport mistreated by the majority of countries. The rest of the world is ascending the peak, though, and that is why, should the United States win it all again, the degree of satisfaction will swell.
Since a breezy group schedule, Jill Ellis’ squad has not enjoyed a perfect ride. To advance to the final for the fifth time in eight World Cups, the Americans navigated the more difficult half of the knockout bracket, winning three absorbing matches by 2-1 counts.
By prevailing again, they would become the second women’s program to win consecutive world titles. (Germany did it in 2003 and ‘07.) No men’s side has accomplished that since Brazil in 1958 and ‘62.
“We always wanted to go at this and attack it,” Ellis said of the four-year cycle building toward a repeat championship. “Historically, it’s been very hard, but I feel so good about this group. ... We come through a rough road. They are battle-tested, but what I love about this group is they are locked on and are still hungry.”
They are hungry to continue an undefeated surge that began in the winter. Over four weeks in France, they have confronted soaring expectations while brushing aside off-field distractions about, among other things, how exuberantly they celebrate goals.
“So much of what we have to shoulder all of the time is heavy,” said U.S. forward Megan Rapinoe, who has been at the forefront of off-field causes, such as gender equality and the mix of sports and culture. President Donald Trump, whom Rapinoe and other U.S. players have criticized, took notice on social-media channels.
“This is a group that is a leader in the women’s game for a lot of issues,” Rapinoe added. “Our team has been open and willing to get in any equality fight. So when we get the chance to play and showcase our skill set and be free on the field, we work hard and play hard.”
They are heavily favored to subdue the Dutch, who, in their second World Cup, have made remarkable gains as a program but would need to play an almost-perfect game here.
The Dutch understand — and embrace — their long-shot role.
“The U.S. is the favorite and we’re the underdog,” coach Sarina Wiegman said. “And we are fine with that.”
The U.S. players say they will not undervalue their opponent. After scares in the previous three matches, forward Alex Morgan said, “I don’t know how we could be overly confident.”
Although the Americans have seemed unstoppable at times, “I don’t think we feel invincible,” midfielder Rose Lavelle said. “We just feel confident.”
Wiegman appreciates that U.S. confidence, having played at the University of North Carolina with Hall of Famers Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly in 1989-90.
“What I picked up at the time was huge positivity about developing team spirit,” she said. “I really felt that family feeling.”
In describing its drive, the U.S. delegation typically notes such characteristics. It also helps, as Ellis noted, to have good players. “They are the gasoline that makes it work,” she said.
Although the United States remains the world leader, several traditional soccer-playing countries have begun paying greater attention to the women’s game. Netherlands is among them, and the results in this major competition are proof of progress.
Despite losing six straight to the United States by a 22-2 count, the Netherlands has proven itself against formidable competition by winning the 2017 European Championship. In France, six consecutive victories preceded the championship affair, including a semifinal victory over Sweden, a perennial threat.
Sunday, in some sense, is a matchup of the past, present and probably future (United States) against the future (Netherlands).
Typical of Dutch soccer, the women’s team thrives in possession.
“They like the ball. They want to have the ball,” Ellis said. “We have seen other teams want us to have the ball in terms [to create a] transition game.”
In other words, the Dutch, unlike most U.S. foes, are less apt to sit back and try to absorb pressure while waiting to strike on the counterattack. Vivianne Miedema is a top-tier forward and Sherida Spitse serves a terrific free kick. Standout attacker Lieke Martens, however, is questionable with a foot injury.
The Americans are monitoring injuries as well: Rapinoe missed the semifinal and Lavelle exited in the second half for precautionary reasons, both with hamstring concerns. Ellis said Saturday that no one has been ruled out.
Rapinoe said, “I expect to be good to go.”
To have any chance, the Netherlands will have to weather an early storm of pressure: The United States has scored inside 12 minutes in every match.
“We have celebrated the amazing moments, we have dug in with each other in the hard moments and gone through things as a team,” Rapinoe said. “And we get to this final moment. It really is about experiencing the game to its fullest for the last time. ... You see the glitter in everyone’s eye.”