2015 Women’s World Cup, Group A preview: Canada, the Netherlands favorites in tournament’s most balanced group

Throughout these group previews, we will be using FiveThirtyEight.com’s Women’s World Cup projections as a reference point. We explain why here. And textually, we’ll also be highlighting the key teams (bold) and players (bold-italic); at least, the ones that are actually playing in this group.

We’ll try not to be too boring, but let’s face it: at a certain level of depth, a topic becomes boring to anyone beyond genre’s hardcores. Consider that our cop-out, but also know we’ve got you covered (twice over) if you want something slightly less wonkish.

Group A

538’s Projection:

  1. Canada (59.2% chance of winning the group, 93.2% chance of advancing)
  2. Netherlands (18.1%, 65.0%)
  3. China (14.5%, 63.7%)
  4. New Zealand (8.2, 47.3)

Read through 538’s preview and you’ll find a confession: The team’s method can’t mimic its men’s measure, exactly. That measure heavily weighs play performance in the club world, and that level of data isn’t available on the women’s side. Instead, the team had to come up with a ranking built on past outcomes, with over 7,000 outcomes contributing to its results.

That method is objective, but it’s not perfect (what methods are?). For example, take the case of the Netherlands, so much of whose potential is wrapped up in recent results. For too long, countries like Spain, France, and the Netherlands had strong men’s teams but little footprint on Europe’s women’s landscape, which has traditionally been dominated by Germany, Norway and, to a lesser extent, Sweden. Now, thanks to stars like Verónica Boquete (Spain’s point guard in cleats), Louisa Nécib (France’s answer to Mesut Özil), and 18-year-old Bayern Munich striker Vivianne Miedema (Netherlands), the traditional powers on the men’s side have begun to make an impact in the women’s game. The result: Spain and the Netherlands qualifying for their first World Cups.

With the possible exception of Germany, who is already at the women’s soccer summit, the Netherlands may present the most intriguing combination of veteran and emerging talents. Manon Melis, until recently arguably the team’s best player, is a 28-year-old forward whose 123 caps span the team’s less competitive and, now, more relevant times. Miedema, on the other hand, already has 19 international goals to her name, which is part of the reason she is one of this tournament’s young players to watch.

Midfielder Daniëlle van de Donk, 23, is another who’ll likely be around for two more cycles, as will 25-year-old midfielder Sherida Spitse, though she already has 104 caps (van de Donk has 35). The Netherlands still relies on a base of triple-capped stars, but has seen its core augmented by Miedema, 22-year-old midfielder Lieke Martens, and 22-year-old defender Stefanie van der Gragt. Come 2019, as the team continues to master the skill, fluid style its soccer culture is known for, this team could be a threat to make a semifinal.

HAMILTON, CANADA - MAY 29: Head coach John Herdman of Canada looks on from the sideline against England during their Women's International Friendly match on May 29, 2015 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)Getty Images

HAMILTON, CANADA - MAY 29: Head coach John Herdman of Canada looks on from the sideline against England during their Women's International Friendly match on May 29, 2015 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

As far as 2015 is concerned, that’s bad news for the host nation. Canada is considered by some to be a dark horse to win on home turf, but the team’s results paint a less potent picture. Partly because head coach John Herdman arguably the best young coach in the women’s game (39) – is intent on developing the nation’s young talent, the Canadians have won only 48 percent of their games since the 2013 Olympics. Against the world’s top seven teams (Germany, the U.S., France, Japan, Sweden, England and Brazil), Canada’s won twice in 17 games, losing 11 times.

None of those top seven teams are in this group, though, making Canada’s 16-2-2 record against the rest of the world under Herdman all the more relevant. It also makes the presence of Christine Sinclair – Canadian icon and serious threat to eventually swipe Abby Wambach’s all-time international goals mark – all the more influential. Her ability to function as an along-the-line threat, work in a partnership, or serve as the connecting factor between midfield and attack makes her performance crucial to Canada’s success. And in a relatively balanced group, factors like home field advantage and “who can take this game over” can matter, a lot.

Combine that with a defense that hasn’t allowed two goals in a game since October (11 games), one that features eventual star Kadeisha Buchanan, 19, protected by human landmine Desiree Scott in midfield, and Canada is the clear favorite, even if a young and naïve Netherlands might be able to pull off a mild upset.

And what of China? This is where 538’s projection may value the past too much. China made every World Cup from 1991 to 2007, getting out of the group stage each time. But the team faded badly in the next cycle and didn’t qualify for Germany 2011. NYTimes.com’s Jeré Longman has a great piece on why:

China has startlingly few female soccer players, given its population of 1.4 billion, which in part reflects a historic emphasis on elite sports for medals instead of grass-roots sports for everyone …

Many parents are reluctant to put their children into sports in a nation with an intensely competitive education system and a one-child policy, even though that policy has been relaxed…

After finishing third in the 2014 Asian Cup, the team is back, but it’s also winless in its last 10 games, a stretch that includes matches against Argentina, Mexico, South Korea, Canada (at home) and Portugal. Led by 22-year-old captain/defender Wu Haiyan, China can give teams trouble, but it’s unclear it can actually give them losses.

So what of New Zealand, a team that’s won only one of its last 11 (though it was likely favored in zero of its last 11)? What of Ali Riley – a Los Angeles-born fullback that would still look great charging up the U.S.’s left side? What of captain Abby Erceg and fellow defender Rachel Percival, who’ve combined for 226 caps before either has reached their 26th birthday? And what of Amber Hearn, Sarah Gregorius and Kirsty Yallop, players whose club pedigrees feature time in Germany, Japan, and Sweden?

In some most other groups, this team would be a strong bet to snare third place, and in spite of 538’s projections, I see results against Brazil (twice), Norway, Denmark (twice) and Spain (twice) in the last 18 months as a sign it can get past China. But in the tournament’s most balanced group, one of Canada 2015’s two deepest, many are picking New Zealand to settle into fourth. We just aren’t one of them.

HAMILTON, CANADA - MAY 29: Desiree Scott #11 of Canada advances the ball against England during their Women's International Friendly match on May 29, 2015 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)Getty Images

HAMILTON, CANADA - MAY 29: Desiree Scott #11 of Canada advances the ball against England during their Women's International Friendly match on May 29, 2015 at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

Games (aka, fanfic)

June 6: Canada vs. China (Edmonton) – Host nations have won five of six opening games. The only exception came back in 1995, when Brazil beat Sweden, 1-0. China is no Brazil. Canada 2, China 0

June 6: New Zealand vs. Netherlands (Edmonton) – In games against Japan and England at the last World Cup, New Zealand fought to disappointing 2-1 losses. This team won’t be a pushover, and if some youthful naiveté keeps the Netherlands from rising to the occasion in its debut, the Ferns could snare a point. New Zealand 1, Netherlands 1

June 11: China vs. Netherlands (Edmonton) – If game one is a wake up call for the neophyte Dutch, game two could be a reckoning for China. Hao Wei’s team doesn’t have the players to match up, and while a meeting with the Dutch in game one might have allowed them to steal points from an inexperienced side, there’ll be some urgency to its opponents in game two. China 1, Netherlands 2

June 11: Canada vs. New Zealand (Edmonton) – Against a Canada team that hasn’t put up big goal numbers against anybody, it’s easy to see New Zealand’s veteran core forcing a stalemate, knowing a point combined with win against China will put it into the knockout round. But foreseeing that scenario and predicting it are two different things. Most paths seem to point to a close Canada win. Canada 1, New Zealand 0

June 15: Netherlands vs. Canada (Montreal) – A game where both sides could use a draw. Canada would be guaranteed first place and a more favorable spot in the Round of 16 (whoever wins this group could avoid one of the three tournament favorites all the way to the finals). And with a draw, the Netherlands would move to five points, which could clinch second in the group. Not that the two teams will play for it, but if it’s even deep in the second half, neither will fight to shake things up. Netherlands 1, Canada 1

June 15: China vs. New Zealand (Winnipeg) – The beautiful thing about a tournament where 16 of 24 teams make the knockout round is every game, even group stage games between a packet’s third and fourth best teams, matters. In this one, a win by either team could see it into the next round. A draw, however, would probably eliminate both. If New Zealand can adapt to playing “on the front foot” and taking its game to its opponent, it should be fine, though its level of execution will have to be better than its Oceania walkovers. China 2, New Zealand 3

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Intro | Group A | Group B | Group C | Group D | Group E | Group F | Knockout rounds
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