LYON, France — When Jackie Groenen received the ball, even though she was outside the penalty area, the Dutch midfielder knew she had to seize her opening.
It was 99 minutes into a grueling Women’s World Cup semifinal, and neither the Netherlands nor Sweden was finding a clear path to the goal Wednesday night.
“I saw a nice angle,” Groenen said. “We’ve been discussing this for a couple of weeks now that I need to take shots more often. The ball just came really nicely, and I thought, ‘Let’s do this.'”
A slick passing sequence ended with Groenen driving a shot past goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. A first shot on target in France produced her first goal of the tournament.
“I’m not much of a scorer,” she said. “But I’m very happy today I got to score.”
It sent the Netherlands into its first Women’s World Cup final, where the Dutch will face the United States on Sunday, back in the Stade de Lyon.
Merel van Dongen, a member of the Alabama soccer team, will play against the U.S. as a member of the Dutch squad.
“I was 19 when I left the Netherlands,” she said in a story by ESPN. “I was working 7 hours a day in a lunch restaurant and training 2 hours a day, being exhausted at the end. Then I went to Alabama, where they had a budget for women’s football that was insane. The only thing I had to do was train and play and they did everything for me — OK, I had to make good grades in school. But it was so professional. … I thought I knew what training hard was until I left for Alabama. … I’m so thankful for them. One of the reasons I’m here is what I learned in the United States.”
Two years after the Dutch won their first major trophy — the European Championship — Groenen is already dreaming of a first world title in only their second attempt.
“It kind of went through my mind as soon as I got off the pitch,” she said. “The Americans are massive, they have massive players. They are the biggest team in the world, but I can’t wait to play.”
Progress for the Dutch has been rapid after reaching the round of 16 during their World Cup debut four years ago.
“The potential for the Netherlands has been there for a long time,” Netherlands coach Sarina Wiegman said. “Since 2007, when the Eredivisie started and players got better facilities and could train more, the players developed so much that they improved. And then when you’re at big tournaments, like European Championships and World Cups, they develop even more. They made transfers to big clubs in Europe.”
Players like Groenen, who became the first overseas signing for Manchester United after the recently formed women’s team was promoted to England’s Super League in May.
Before she pulls on a red jersey, Groenen could become a world champion in orange by beating the defending champions.
“We are very down to earth, but they have their own qualities and we have ours,” she said.
The finalists have something in common: female coaches. With Jill Ellis coaching the U.S. and Wiegman in charge of the Netherlands, the run of three finals featuring a male coach comes to an end.
“It’s important that women have the opportunity to develop as players, as coaches and in society,” Wiegman said.
After a draining game in sweltering central France, the Dutch have one less day than the Americans to prepare for the title game and they will have to be more potent up front to overcome the athletic three-time champions.
The second semifinal was no match for the drama, tension and high energy of the previous night when the U.S. beat England 2-1.
The game featured few scoring chances and was only lit up by the goalkeeping in regulation time — particularly in the second half.
A shot from Nilla Fischer was creeping into the net in the 56th minute until Netherlands goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal tipped it onto the post.
It was the crossbar that denied the Dutch in the 64th minute when a header from Vivianne Miedema was pushed onto the frame by Lindahl’s fingertips.
“I felt like we had a golden opportunity to take this team to the final, and we didn’t take it,” Lindahl said. “Very disappointed.”
The goalkeepers wouldn’t be relied on for a penalty shootout thanks to Groenen’s moment of brilliance, leaving the Swedes having to settle for bronze if they can beat England on Saturday in Nice.
“It was a really tight game tonight. It was really tough,” Netherlands forward Lieke Martens said. “I thought we had really good character. We really played until the last minute. We worked 200%. The effort was so big today. I’m really proud of the girls.”
The priority for Martens now is recovering from an ongoing foot injury that forced her off at halftime.
“If I’m not 100% fit, then I want another girl to come in and give 100%,” she said. “That’s the most important thing. It’s easy. As a player, you always want to play the biggest game of your career, and this is one of the biggest ones I hopefully am going to play. I’m going to do the recovery. I really believe in the medical staff.”