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 for people who want something slightly less wonkish, we’ve got you covered (twice over).
- United States (64.7% chance to win the group; 96.2% chance to advance)
- Sweden (21.2%, 78.8%)
- Australia (9.7%; 57.9%)
- Nigeria (4.4%; 38.3%)
Again, the 538 projections rely on historical results – usually a better measure than our intuition merely because our intuition can be so biased. But when teams start deviating from their historical trends, 538’s model might be slow to react. That’s where some measured intuition might be helpful.
For example, the United States is still one of the favorites to win the World Cup, but as we discussed before, its results are down cycle-over-cycle. It’s also lost its cherished number one FIFA ranking. While a lot of the results in the 538 database might see the U.S. on one level, we have reason to believe it’s on a slightly lower one.
That’s particularly relevant in a group featuring Sweden, who has yet to lose to the U.S. (two meetings) since head coach Pia Sundhage hung up her red, white and blue jumpsuit and returned to her home country. Those games came at the 2013 and 2014 Algarve Cups (1-1 and 1-0 results), but the difference in those meetings and the two that preceded it is eye-opening. The U.S. beat Sweden by an aggregate 7-0 in the teams’ two meetings before Sundhage’s departure.
Think Pia knows a little something about her former team? Perhaps, but those disappointments may be down to the circumstances (read: downturns) of the players involved. On the U.S. team, it can be argued that a series of core players (Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe, Christie Rampone, possibly Hope Solo) have waned from their levels of three years ago. The players who’ve improved or stepped up (Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn (top), perhaps Carli Lloyd, Julie Johnston and Morgan Brian) have not been able to make up the gap. Hence the dip in results.
Sweden, on the other hand, has a number of stars performing at their peaks. Lotta Schelin’s precision leading the attack makes her a prototypical number nine. Kosovare Asallani provides a creative element in midfield, while Caroline Seger provides both resilience and goals. In defense, Nilla Fischer is considered by many to be the world’s best in central defense. Perhaps those names aren’t as renowned among the U.S. soccer fan base as their American peers, but all four would walk into Jill Ellis’s squad.
And that’s part of the problem. For all the elite talent at the U.S.’ disposal, few players are performing at elite levels coming into the tournament. Lloyd is the team’s most consistent player, and probably its best, but players like Wambach, Leroux, and Lauren Holiday haven’t been producing commensurate with their talent. Press has been a valuable contributor, but Ellis seems set to play her out of her natural position, mitigating her goal scoring instincts by deploying her wide. Add in questions about Alex Morgan’s health, the potential for Brian to, like Press, play wide midfield and out of position and the U.S. seems like a collection of underutilized stars.
That could cost the U.S. against Sweden, but unless the team’s struggles reach unpredictable proportions, a talented but young Australia shouldn’t be a problem. With young and emerging stars like wide attacker Samantha Kerr (21, above), valiant and versatile flank players Steph Catley (21) and Caitlin Foord (20), and midfield threat Emily van Egmond (21), Australia has a number of players who NWSL fans know. Add in 22-year-old Katrina Gorry, a midfielder with 10 goals in 29 games to her name, and Australia has the makings of a World Cup contender.
But the team is also unduly reliant on inconsistent striker Lisa De Vanna, who the U.S. and Sweden’s central defenders should be able to control. And for all its promise and the praise cast on it from other coaches, the team is yet to get past a final eight in either a World Cup or an Olympics. Part of that is because most of these talents were in high school during the last major tournament, but for Alen Stajcic’s maturing squad, 2019 might end up being the target.
Considering the strength of Nigeria, it’s not even guaranteed that the Matilidas will get out of their group. Coming off a third place finish in its group four years ago, the Super Falcons bring an even stronger team to this year’s World Cup. Twenty-year-old Asisat Oshoala, the BBC’s women’s footballer of the year, has established herself as a star for Liverpool in England, while 21-year-old Desire Oparanozie is coming off an 11-goal season for Guingamp in France. Washington Spirit attacker Francisca Ordega (only 21) and Oklahoma State handful Courtney Dike, sister of Major League Soccer forward Bright Dike, give the team enviable depth going forward.
It’s part of the reason many describe this as a group of death, though that’s an exaggeration. There is a clear hierarchy, though not one without the potential to be toppled. Sweden could usurp the U.S., and Australia could struggle with Nigeria, but with the Americans and Swedes unlikely to fall far, there’s little chance of an untimely demise in this group.
Games (aka, fanfic)
June 8: Sweden vs. Nigeria (Winnipeg) – Perhaps Sundhage’s U.S. teams weren’t always as convincing in group stages as they could have been, but the Swedes posted a +7 goal difference in its group at Euro 2013. Granted, that was on home soil, and it only came after a 1-1 draw in the opener to Denmark. Maybe there’ll be chances for that stalwart Nigeria attack to do some damage. Sweden 3, Nigeria 1
June 8: United States vs. Australia (Winnipeg) – U.S. fans heard Australia talked up during Tom Sermanni’s brief spell in charge of the national team, but in the three meetings between the Americans and Oz since the 2012 Olympics, the U.S. has outscored the purported upstarts 12-3, winning each time. Based on what people see of Australia’s stars in the NWSL, there’s a danger that matches the players’ recognizability, but a win over the U.S. would be a big upset. United States 2, Australia 1
June 12: Australia vs. Nigeria (Winnipeg) – With Nigeria’s potential going forward, it will be up to Clare Polkinghorne and the Australian defense to make sure the Matildas don’t turn into this year’s Canada – the team with high expectations in 2011 that fell to fourth in its group after being upset by Nigeria. While Australia’s depth of talent gives the impression it’s a favorite, too often we see teams that can score goals make up the difference with teams that seem more well-round. Australia 2, Nigeria 2
June 12: United States vs. Sweden (Winnipeg) – One U.S. vs. Sweden result we didn’t mention? The 2011 World Cup, where a 2-1 win over the States in the teams’ final group game gave Sweden first in Group C, thrusting the U.S. into a that famous quarterfinal with Brazil. One Abby Wambach miracle header later, the U.S. was able to reach and win a shootout, but the team’s struggles against Sweden had begun. Going back to 2009, Sweden is 3-1-3 against the U.S. United States 2, Sweden 2
June 16: Nigeria vs. United States (Vancouver) – If the U.S. and Sweden draw, each will go into the round’s last games knowing goal difference will decide first place. Thankfully for the U.S., it not only gets Nigeria third but can reap the benefits of knowing what Sweden did against the Super Falcons. Expect the U.S. to put up a big number, though its ability to protect its defense may be exposed. Nigeria 2, United States 4
June 16: Australia vs. Sweden (Edmonton) – These two teams haven’t faced each other since the knockout stages of the last World Cup, where goals from Therese Sjogren, Lisa Dahlkvist and Schelin gave the favorites a 3-1 win. Expect the result to be closer this time, so much so that Australia may snatch a point, but with Sweden looking to keep up with the U.S., the underdogs won’t be able to catch Sundhage’s team off guard. As Australia pushes for a point and Sweden tries to improve its difference, expect a lot of goals, a situation that favors the team with Schelin in its lineup. Australia 2, Sweden 3
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