USWNT's edge against the Netherlands? Instilling fear

Alex Morgan #13 of USA turns and moves with the ball during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group E match between USA and Vietnam at Eden Park on July 22, 2023 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Lynne Cameron/ISI Phot

By its own admission, the United States made a soft start to its Women's World Cup title defense. Now things get hard, literally, and most especially, physically.

While they have said the right things about giving equal respect to everyone, the Americans have had their next game (coverage begins at 7 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) firmly on the radar from the moment the World Cup draw was made. The Netherlands, which put up a stout challenge to the USA before losing in the 2019 final, is a fiercely difficult opponent to face at this early stage of the competition.

Talented, skillful and determined, the Dutch are also unusually well set up to go toe-to-toe with the world champs, but there is one area the USA feels it has the edge.

Being scary.

[Netherlands' tight win sets up showdown with USWNT]

One of the biggest misnomers about this American team — and perhaps the most insulting — is that they are a pleasant, friendly group of women who walk around with smiles on their faces. That might be the case off the field. Come game time, it could not be further from the truth.

Throughout the history of the national team program, the USA became great and stayed great, by being stronger, more ruthless and more intimidating than whichever team was unfortunate enough to face it. Right now, they understand the importance of that mindset, and the fear-inducing aura it creates, more than ever.

"When you show how physical you are going to be, or are physical dominant, it makes other teams go, ‘Oh crap – we are going to have to bring our A-game, as well," forward Lynn Williams told me, when asked about the most effective ways to set down a marker during a World Cup campaign. "Physicality is hugely important."

Never more so, perhaps, than against the Dutch, a strong and resilient group that was stung by its results in recent tournaments. The Netherlands considered itself unfortunate to lose to Vlatko Andonovski's squad on penalties in the quarterfinal of the Tokyo Olympics, and saw its European Championship bid end against France after an extra-time battle.

The USA should expect a mixture of sturdy athleticism combined with technical smarts. Few players in the world have the skill set of creator Lieke Martens, yet it can also be said that few possess the strength of defender Stefanie Van Der Gragt. Manchester City midfielder Jill Roord, meanwhile, has both trickery and power in her arsenal.

United States defender/midfielder Julie Ertz insisted the success of the Netherlands, and the ongoing dominance of the USA, shows that technical prowess alone is not enough at the highest level.

"I think the physicality is one of the most, if not the most important thing," Ertz told me recently. "It is just the way the tournament is. Everything, every game, every moment, everyone is giving their absolute best. The stakes are just so high.

"I think that just the way the game has gone as well. Here, with the U.S. team, it always has been that way. And the growth of women's soccer, each team knows that's such an important piece now."

[Why USWNT believes Rose Lavelle is primed for World Cup encore]

The number of yellow and red cards a team accumulates is far from being an exact method of determining how aggressive its approach is, but can offer some sort of indicator. In 2019, the Americans accumulated seven cautions during the tournament, while the Netherlands gained six. Compared to Brazil, who had the most with 11, a reasonable interpretation is that the two finalists were entirely unafraid to get stuck in, but were also smart with it.

While it has always seemed likely that these would be the two teams to emerge from Group E — especially now they have both recorded an opening game victory — the importance of the showdown in Wellington, New Zealand, should not be underestimated.

Not only does tournament history shine favorably on teams who win their World Cup group, but the bracket could offer a significant reward for first place compared to second. The runner-up in Group E faces a worst-case path of Sweden in the round of 16, then Spain, one of the tournament favorites, in the quarters. Winning Group E leads to a route that could realistically be Italy, followed by co-host New Zealand.

One outcome would clearly be preferable to the other, though neither would be a challenge the Americans would feel is beyond them. For they're in the business of instilling fear, not feeling it.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

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