The subtext all week has been history, even before the United States and the Netherlands arrived in Wellington, New Zealand, for their high-stakes matchup at the World Cup on Thursday afternoon (Wednesday at 9 p.m. Eastern).
Every day, there have been endless questions about how the game is a replay of the 2019 World Cup final. Questions about memories and rematches and revenge. And every day, the players and their coaches from both teams have — patiently, politely, persistently — made clear that the past doesn’t particularly matter to them.
“I think that was four years ago,” United States midfielder Rose Lavelle said on Wednesday. “I think both teams are completely different: different players, different coaches. So I think it’s a fun memory, but we have a new mind-set for this game.”
The eagerness to set the history aside is perhaps more understandable in the Netherlands camp. Several of its key players were on the field in Lyon, France, when the Netherlands lost to the United States in the 2019 final, but also when the Americans beat the Dutch in a friendly in November 2020 and in a shootout in the Olympic tournament in Tokyo in 2021. They are all, thank you very much, quite aware of the history that hangs over the rivalry. They are all just as ready to look ahead, instead of back.
“It’s a big game — we’re looking forward to it,” Netherlands midfielder Jill Roord said after beating Portugal on Sunday. “But it’s just a game. And it’s the group stage, so it doesn’t really matter what the big game is. You just want to win.”
Her teammate Jackie Groenen offered a similar shrug on Wednesday. “For me it’s just a match,” she said. “It’s worth three points, and we want to win it.”
That underplays the stakes quite a bit. Ever since the teams were drawn into the same group, they have understood the importance of winning this matchup, and with it probably first place in Group E. Both teams know that the first-place team in the group has a far easier path in the round of 16 (Italy or Argentina possibly) than the runner-up, which is likely to face Sweden, a genuine World Cup title contender, in the knockout round.
Both the United States and the Netherlands also agree that Thursday’s game will be different. The Americans will run out a few new faces in their lineup, an injection of skill and talent that offers promise but precious little big-game experience at the World Cup. Lavelle, though, might be positioned to help: She could rejoin the starting lineup for the first time after several injury-plagued months. (UPDATE: Nope. The U.S. lineup is unchanged from the Vietnam game.)
But the Netherlands offers a new look as well: more seasoned and more organized, more disciplined and, maybe, just a little more skilled in certain places.
Maybe that will be enough. Maybe the lessons of the past, dismissed as talking points all week, have been absorbed. Maybe, just maybe, the Netherlands can produce a different result. The Americans, confident as ever, absolutely believe that’s possible. More important, so do the Dutch.
“We are not afraid of America,” Netherlands Coach Andries Jonker said on Sunday. “We respect them. But we have no fear.”