When we last convened for a Women’s World Cup, Germany was the prohibitive favorite, the United States was considered its main competition, and the 2011 World Cup was expected to be the tournament’s most successful ever. Only one of those assumptions bore out. Germany would be upset in the quarterfinals, the U.S. navigated a group stage loss and a quarterfinal miracle to make the final two, and Japan shocked the world by becoming the fourth nation to claim a World Cup.
Going into Canada 2015, there are some notable similarities. Germany is considered by some a favorite, though perhaps not as prohibitively as four years ago. The U.S. remains the team most likely to foil those predictions. And a tournament expanded to 24 teams may set another standard for FIFA’s premier women’s competition.
But it’s the differences that make this year’s competition truly compelling. Instead of a top-heavy tournament focused on two favorites, a third team has emerged as a legitimate title contender. Three other sides find themselves in better places than Japan did at the beginning of 2011’s competition, while a handful of other teams, some first-time participants, have the talent to mimic what Norio Sasaki’s team accomplished three years ago.
How the field stacks up
Level one – the contenders
Unlike four years ago, when hosts Germany were considered the favorites, there is no clear alpha going into this summer. Germany, as the number one team in the world and the reigning European champion, has a case to be considered most likely, but injuries, most importantly to FIFA Player of the Year Nadine Keßler, are a concern, as is fall’s loss home soil to another favorite.
That other favorite is France, a team full of dynamic, technical talents that hasn’t won a major competition since establishing itself as a threat at the 2011 World Cup. At that tournament, as well as the next year’s Olympics, France came up short, each time losing to this year’s last favorite, the United States. Though the U.S. has lost its cherished number one ranking, its pedigree and talent makes it the team nobody wants to face in a one-and-done battle.
Level two – the dark horses
There are three, possibly five teams that can knock off any of the contenders. Perhaps winning the tournament is too big an ask, as it would require pulling off two or three shockers in a row, but over 90 minutes, Japan, Sweden, and Brazil can knock off anybody.
Japan is coming off a poor Algarve Cup – the late winter tournament in Portugal that draws many of the world’s best teams – but it is the defending champion, and a midfield that features top talents like Aya Miyama, Nahomi Kawasumi, and the returning Homare Sawa can match up with any.
Sweden lacks the squad depth of the favorites but has the top-shelf talent to match anbody. Striker Lotta Schelin is one of the world’s best players. Midfielders Caroline Seger and Kosovare Asllani would start in any team in the world. Nilla Fischer is one of two or three defenders with a claim to be the world’s best at her position.
And then there’s Brazil – a team of rarely together, erratically supported, dispersed across the globe talents. The one thing it has in its favor: the world’s most dangerous player. As Marta proved in a single-handed dismantling of the U.S. this winter, she has no problem carrying her team through 90 minutes to a win. The problem: Doing that two or three times in the same tournament.
Level three – the scares
Two teams straddle the line between the second and third levels. Canada, the host nation, has a lot of host nation positivity behind it, but the country has never threatened to win a major tournament. England features a squad full of names familiar to U.S. fans (thanks to the English language media, as well as many having played in the States), but like Canada has never threatened to win a major tournament. Hopes for both to make anything more than a lucky semifinal run are wishful thinking.
Perhaps the most dangerous at this level is Norway – former champions with a pedigree that has been rebuilt around pragmatism and the hope for goals from 19-year-old Ada Hegerberg. Likewise, Australia, the Netherlands, and Spain each feature squads and styles that can threaten, though it would still be a major upset to see any of these teams knock off one of the three true favorites.
Players to know – U.S. version
With apologies to Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe and Sydney Leroux:
- Alex Morgan – With the possible expection of Abby Wambach, Morgan has become the most recognizable women’s soccer player in the U.S., a product of prodigious production upon breaking into the national team and a marketability that now sees her endorse a wide variety of products. Going into this summer, however, Morgan’s still battling injuries, a state that’s plagued her over the last two years. At last word, the ranging striker was back in training before Monday’s opener.
- Hope Solo – There was a time when Solo could claim to be the U.S.’s most recognizable star, and thanks to a series of off-field incidents, that claim may still hold. But Solo has been trouble-free for five months, positioning her to let her goalkeeping do the talking. Often, that talk leaves her as the best goalkeeper in the world.
Carli Lloyd (right) – As far as the team’s best player, though? Increasingly, the consensus focuses on Lloyd, a veteran midfielder who has spent most of her career in the shadow of more famous teammates. But as injuries, form, and age have derailed others, Lloyd’s rise has endured, with her reputation morphing from a mere opportunist to that of the team’s most dependable talent. She’s getting her due.
- Becky Sauerbrunn (above) – Easily the most under-appreciated star in the national team, Sauerbrunn is the two-time defender of the year in the U.S. domestic league, something that’s led opposing players and coaches to lump her in with the best defenders in the world. Even if defenders rarely get the publicity they deserve, it’s a well-earned title, one that will have to be justified if the U.S. is going to claim July’s title.
- Abby Wambach – Ah, yes. Abby. The world’s all-time leading scorer. The player who stopped playing club soccer to concentrate on this tournament. The surprise move spoke to the state of the 35-year-old’s career. After 242 international games and 182 goals, the icon is on her last legs. The only thing she’s never done: Win a World Cup.
Players to know – international version
- Marta – She hasn’t won FIFA’s Player of the Year since 2010, but in a single game, she’s still the player you least want to see in the other colors. She proved that in the 2014 UEFA Champions League final, when she nearly carried Tyresö to a win over defending champion Wolfsburg. She proved it again this winter, when three goals in Braslia against the U.S. highlighted the then world number one’s weaknesses. At 29, she doesn’t have the gas to sprint for a whole tournament, but if her teammates can carry Brazil through the easy games, Marta can be her dominant self for the games that count – a scary notion for whatever favorite gets Brazil in the quarterfinals.
- Verónica Boquete – Marta’s closest peer in the group stage, considered by many to be the best playmaker in the world. That title’s not undisputed (it’s not even a real title), and her position means she’s a different player than Marta, but in the same way the famous Brazilian can take over a game, the now Bayern Munich No. 10 can dictate what happens on the field. Her ability to do so in group could be the difference between Spain snaring a one seed and potentially falling to third.
Célia Šašić – Off all the talents Germany as to offer (and there are too many notable ones to list here), Šašić may be the scariest. With 42 goals over her last two Frauen Bundesliga campaigns, Šašić has been the most productive striker in one of the world’s best leagues, a level of performance that helped FFC Frankfurt claim this year’s UEFA Champions League. Still only 26, Šašić already has 57 international goals, making her the most lethal striker at Sylvia Neid’s disposal. If she carries over her Champions League form into the World Cup, she may be a shoo-in to repeat her 2012 German Player of the Year honor.
- Lotta Schelin – You will hear more about the U.S.’s famous forwards: Morgan, Wambach, and Leroux. You’ll see packages on Marta, Sinclair, and perhaps Šašić, but right now, the prototype forward in the women’s game is Sweden’s Lotta Schelin. The level of precision often seen in her runs and finishing partly explains why she’s scored 89 goals in her last 75 league games in France for Lyon.
- Louisa Nécib – France has had so many “the next Zidanes,” the label has become meaningless, but it’s interesting that there’s only been one real “female Zidane” – the Marseille-born Nécib, also of Algerian descent. While Boquete may be considered the best playmaker in the world, few argue somebody other than Nécib is its most skilled. In that way, she’s much like Germany/Arsenal’s Mesut Özil, with flash that often but doesn’t always match her production. Of course, Özil now has a world title.