There’s a tier below the highest level of Women’s World Cup contenders, and that second tier is the most interesting in the tournament. The top teams are known quantities. It’s pretty easy to figure out how and how well the United States, France, Germany, maybe even England will play. Once you get below that, there’s a subset of teams that have some fatal weaknesses—Australia’s mania, Canada’s reliance on Christine Sinclair, Japan’s unknown youngsters. Among those, the Netherlands might be the most suited to overcoming their flaws in order to make a deep run into the tournament. They’ve been gifted a good draw, they have the confidence of recent success, and they have Lieke Martens.
Martens is the best and most important player for the Orange Lionesses, a left winger with an eye for goal and a killer last ball for assists. The now-26-year-old led the Netherlands to the 2017 Euro championship on home soil, winning the player of the tournament award in the process. That brought on a move to Barcelona following the tourney, and she’s helped bring the Blaugrana from relative mediocrity to the Champions League final this past season. (When they got there, Barça were steamrolled by Lyon, but everyone gets steamrolled by Lyon.)
Martens isn’t the only Dutch attacker worth noting, either. On the opposite flank is Shanice van de Sanden, who coincidentally plays for Lyon. She’s a speed demon capable of racing up the right wing and into the box at will. In the middle is another legitimate star: last season, Vivianne Miedema scored 31 goals in 27 appearances for her club team, Arsenal, including a league-leading 22 goals in FA WSL play. Her form has translated over to the national team, where she has scored 58 goals in 75 appearances as the spearhead of the Oranje attack. The front three are as good an attack as any other at the World Cup this summer, but unlike other attack-heavy sides below the top tier, the Netherlands also have one of the better supporting casts in midfield.
Daniëlle van de Donk is the star in the center of the park. Not only is she a gifted playmaker in her own right, but she’s also developed into an all-around midfielder over the last few seasons. Though she won’t be charged with retrieving possession as often as her counterparts, she has that in her toolkit now, alongside a wicked shot. (She scored 13 times for Arsenal last year, and tallied four goals in the Dutch 7-0 demolition of Chile in one of the final tune-up friendlies before the World Cup.) Next to her will likely be Sherida Spitse and Jackie Groenen, who will play further back to break up attacks and move the ball up to the dangerous front four.
That midfield help is crucial because Holland’s defense is nowhere near the caliber of the other parts of the field. The Netherlands do have one very good, and very physical, defender in Stefanie van der Gragt, but she’s injury-prone and likely can’t be counted on to make it through seven grueling games in peak condition. The rest of the defense has the same problem as the team as a whole: they’re young and inexperienced at the top level. That problem is more pressing in defense, because there’s not a vast wealth of talent like there is in front of them. Luckily for the backline, though, the Netherlands control possession and force teams to play on the back foot for most of the game. They shouldn’t be called into action too often, but how the defenders perform when thrust into the spotlight could be the difference between another early exit and glory.
The Netherlands are the most storied soccer nation without a World Cup title (in either men’s or women’s soccer; this is just the women’s second ever World Cup, after 2015's round of 16 exit), and there’s weight behind that hope for a title. This Dutch side is battle-tested, not only from the Euros two years ago, but also from World Cup qualifiers, where they had to get through Denmark and Switzerland in a play-off to head to to earn their spot in France.
The Netherlands have one of the best attackers in the tournament in Martens, and another incredible forward in the center in Miedema. If they can iron out their defense and overcome their inexperience on the biggest stage, there’s no reason the Orange Lionesses can’t make a run to the final.
Goalkeepers: Sari van Veenendaal (Arsenal), Loes Geurts (Göteborg), Lize Kop (Ajax)
Defenders: Desiree van Lunteren (Freiburg), Stefanie van der Gragt (Barcelona), Kika van Es (Ajax), Anouk Dekker (Montpellier), Merel van Dongen (Real Betis), Danique Kerkdijk (Bristol City), Dominique Bloodworth (VfL Wolfsburg), Liza van der Most (Ajax)
Midfielders: Victoria Pelova (Ajax), Sherida Spitse (Vålerenga), Daniëlle van de Donk (Arsenal), Jill Roord (Arsenal), Jackie Groenen (Manchester United), Inessa Kaagman (Everton)
Forwards: Shanice van de Sanden (Lyon), Vivianne Miedema (Arsenal), Lieke Martens (Barcelona), Renate Jansen (Twente), Ellen Jansen (Ajax), Lineth Beerensteyn (Bayern Munich)
The Orange Lionesses
It’s the Netherlands, so by national decree they will play a 4-3-3. Coach Sarina Wiegman has been around since 2016, and oversaw the undefeated run through the 2017 Euros, so she’s familiar both with her talent pool and how to get the most out of them. Up top will be Martens, Miedema, and van den Sanden. Wiegman has made the wise decision to hand those three lots of freedom so they can wreak havoc at all times, though they could benefit from some more committed defensive work from the wingers. The manager might also experiment with 22-year-old Lineth Beerensteyn as a super sub or someone to give Miedema a rest; Beerensteyn scored a hat trick in the qualifier play-off match against Denmark.
The midfield three will work much harder than their attacking counterparts, something bolstered by van de Donk’s development into a more all-around center midfielder. Though the women do not press quite as hard as the storied men’s teams of days past, they do harass opponents into mistakes that they can flip into quick counters from their talented attackers. It will be interesting to see if that pressing forces Wiegman to rotate more than she would like, though if so, she does have talented and fresh legs on the bench. Particularly intriguing will be 20-year-old Ajax mid Victoria Pelova, who has only received three caps for the Dutch but is traveling to France anyway.
The defense will be tasked with playing a bit further back and containing opposing attacks. (I’m already salivating at the prospect of Sam Kerr running against the Dutch defense in the potential quarterfinals matchup.) If van der Gragt can stay healthy, that will be a huge boon for the Netherlands, but if not, Wiegman will likely rotate a few center back pairings to find one that works before the matches get tough. Fortunately for the Dutch, their hardest group stage match, against Canada, is the last one of the first round.
June 11, 9 a.m.: New Zealand vs. Netherlands at Stade Océane
June 15, 9 a.m.: Netherlands vs. Cameroon at Stade du Hainaut
June 20, 12 p.m.: Netherlands vs. Canada at Stade Auguste-Delaune
All times Eastern