Prior to his team’s World Cup semifinal against the United States, England coach Phil Neville was asked about his opponent’s propensity to start games quickly.
At that point, the USWNT had scored within the first 12 minutes of all five of their World Cup games, which, unsurprisingly, had all ended in victory.
“I think the first 15 minutes you’ve got to be ready,” Neville said. “They do come out of the traps really quickly. I think the first 15 minutes will determine the way the game is going to shape [up].”
Within two minutes of Tuesday night’s game, though, England was already on the back foot. Goalkeeper Carly Telford was forced into a save four minutes in and after just 10 minutes, the U.S. had a 1-0 lead through Christen Press.
Neville learned the same lesson that five coaches already had: Stopping the U.S. from taking an early lead in this World Cup is much easier said than done.
On Sunday, the Dutch will look to solve a riddle that has now stumped six teams in a row.
In order, the USWNT’s first goal in its six World Cup matches has come in the 12th minute (Thailand), the 11th (Chile), third (Sweden), seventh (Spain), fifth (France) and finally the 10th against England.
“Our intent is to attack for 90 minutes,” U.S. head coach Jill Ellis said. “The reality is [with] legs and just fatigue, you can’t.”
And so the U.S. has prioritized coming out of the gate as strong as possible.
“The players come out and want to be as fresh as they can, press, keep a team in their end, create chances, create set pieces and really try and get the upper hand early,” Ellis said before acknowledging that there are two sides to this particular coin.
“But the reality of these games at this level of the tournament is you know the opponent also wants the same thing.”
Naturally, starting well is a desire of both teams in any given match. So how has the U.S. gotten the early upper hand in six games running?
Ask the U.S. players about how they’ve managed to start so strong, and you’ll likely get a response that cites something intangible.
“It’s the mentality of the team, always coming out and wanting a goal early on,” said Lindsey Horan, who scored in the third minute against Sweden in the group stage.
Horan’s fellow midfielder Rose Lavelle agreed.
“The mentality of this team is incredible and we’re always fighting the whole game from start to finish,” Lavelle said.
“We know we have to come out 100 percent and we can’t sit back because we know that every team we’ve played has been capable of doing the same thing. We’ve just started on the front foot and obviously it’s worked out.”
Early goals have a dual effect on the game, giving a lift to the team that scores while also presenting early obstacles, both mental and scoreline-related, for the team that concedes.
“It does help settle us into the game and it has helped us in these last few games,” Horan said.
“Some opponents have done well, England got a goal right after us but I think it does disrupt them. I’m happy we’ve done that and hopefully we can do that in the final.”
Should the Netherlands make it 15 or 20 minutes without conceding on Sunday it will give them an early boost. But if the USWNT continues the trend they’ve been on this tournament, they could have one hand on the trophy before the Dutch really know what’s hit them.