The Women’s World Cup happens every four years, and soccer teams change a lot in that time. Comparing one World Cup team to the previous World Cup team is just the sort of lazy, valueless sportswriting that is typical of women’s soccer but informs nobody about anything.
So comparing Canada’s group in 2015 to that in 2019 is obviously insane, but in fairness, the soccer gods really really want me to.
In 2015 Canada, who were not really one of the best six teams in world women’s soccer, were seeded A1 for the World Cup draw because we were the host country. As a result we got a softball group of us, New Zealand, the Netherlands, and China; no minnows but three teams we should beat most of the time. We won one, drew two, didn’t concede, won the thing; not fun, but effective. In the round of 16 we beat Switzerland in a really good game, then lost in the quarter-final when our depleted defensive depth finally caught up to us and the odd break didn’t go our way.
In 2019 Canada might be one of the best six teams in world women’s soccer and the FIFA gods smiled upon us, placing us in Pot 1 for the draw on merit1. As a result Canada was placed in a group with New Zealand, the Netherlands, and, um, Cameroon.
We couldn’t have gotten China again, for tedious reasons I’ll relegate to a footnote2. Cameroon 2019 is a big downgrade on China 2015. They lost a friendly to the Chinese in April, 1-0, and by all accounts looked worse than the score. 2016 Olympic qualifying was an ignominious failure. The last time they beat anyone real was actually 2015, when they somehow got past Switzerland 2-1. They nearly brought former Canadian youth international Easther Mayi Kith to this, and Easther Mayi Kith is not very good. Their pre-World Cup prep was pummeling lesser Spanish league teams and getting shredded, 4-0, by Spain itself, who you might remember Canada drawing boringly at 75% speed a couple weeks back. Canada saw Spain bad because half the heart of their team was with Barcelona for the UEFA Women’s Champions League final, but so did Cameroon: the Barça players were still absent and of the Spaniards’ four goalscorers in that game, three got their first international goal3. It’s off-putting to think how you could manage to lose 4-0 to that Spanish B team and still make a World Cup.
It’s soccer, anything can happen. But it really shouldn’t. Let’s call Cameroon three points and move on.
How about New Zealand? Four years ago they were up-and-comers, with 21-year-old Rosie White showing promise, 21-year-old Katie Bowen having a couple interesting cameos off the bench, and 21-year-old former Australian youth international Rebekah Stott walking right into the Kiwis’ starting eleven. They had a 23-year-old starting goalkeeper, Erin Nayler, a teenager getting meaningful minutes off the bench in forward Jasmine Pereira, and two more who were rostered but did not play: defender Meikayla Moore and midfielder Daisy Cleverley. Their captain, Abby Erceg, was only 25 and surely had many years left. Only two New Zealand players were older than 30 and they were the two backup goalies. And they played well: fourth place in the group, but the best fourth-place team in the tournament without a doubt who would have gotten to the round of 16 with a little luck.
And now? New Zealand is fine. Most of those young players have turned out pretty good. Pereira has walked away from the game but White is a competent NWSL player, Moore hangs around the German first division, Cleverley’s college career was derailed by a knee injury as a freshman but seems back on track. Nayler is a starting goalie in France, and Stott lives out of a suitcase but whereever she signs, if she’s healthy she plays. Erceg retired from international soccer like three times or something, I frankly stopped paying attention; she’s back now and does work on a very good NWSL back line in North Carolina but somehow has lost the captaincy to Ali Riley. Riley deserves mention, the best of a bunch of 30+ veterans that is otherwise at a pretty low standard. Amber Hearn, the former Ottawa Fury standout, would have been another quality veteran if a knee injury hadn’t ruled her out of the tournament.
None of them really panned into stars, though. Rosie White, for example, would make Canada, but wouldn’t start. There are a lot of decent pros with good European careers, but almost all on the second-tier teams, and in the European leagues once you’re out of the big two or three you’re nowhere. There are Canadian players in Scandinavia or the French first division who you have fully never heard of and won’t make the WNT until Ebola hits. Some of the New Zealanders play domestic amateur, and Unattached FC makes a strong showing. It looks a lot like the Canadian team used to look, minus the Sinclairs and Schmidts who made it all come right on the day.
The sight of three strikers with 25 international goals or more, against two for Canada, might strike fear into your heart. But New Zealanders put up pinball numbers in Oceanic World Cup qualifying against the likes of Tonga and Fiji, scoring more easy goals than even CONCACAF teams. Hannah Wilkinson is coming off a serious ACL injury in October, her second in four years. Sarah Gregorius is often the focus of their offense, which given that Gregorious is 31 years old, has no particular club record, and produces only occasionally at the top international level, is a bad sign. 17 of her 35 career international goals have come in various Oceanic qualifiers against super-minnows, compared to (for example) Christine Sinclair’s 42 out of 181 at various CONCACAF tournaments.
|Pick On Somebody Your Own Size|
|New Zealander||Goals||Conf. Goals||%||Canadian||Goals||Conf. Goals||%|
|Gregorious, Sarah||35||17||48.6%||Sinclair, Christine||181||42||23.2%|
|White, Rosie||25||17||68.0%||Beckie, Janine||25||4||16.0%|
|Wilkinson, Hannah||25||11||44.0%||Schmidt, Sophie||19||1||5.3%|
|Longo, Annalie||15||10||66.7%||Leon, Adriana||15||6||40.0%|
|Percival, Ria||14||10||71.4%||Prince, Nichelle||10||6||60.0%|
|Hassett, Betsy||13||8||61.5%||Rose, Deanne||8||4||50.0%|
|Green, Anna||7||4||57.1%||Fleming, Jessie||8||2||25.0%|
Oh, and New Zealand is not quite a year removed from accusations of bullying and mistreatment which spurred at least one of Erceg’s international retirements and cost head coach Andreas Heraf his job. They replaced him with veteran Tom Sermanni, a name North Americans know and respect but not exactly an overachiever.
In a pre-tournament tune-up, New Zealand beat England, who are at least as much in contention as Canada, 1-0 on a Gregorious goal. The English tabloids melted down like Heraf at a press conference and a good time was had by all. Then, a couple days later, New Zealand lost 1-0 to Wales, who didn’t even come close to qualifying for the World Cup, and we all went “what the hell?” They’ve recently beaten Norway, who are decent, and lost to South Korea, who are about in the same class. A 2-1 win over Mexico in the United States, effectively an away game, was good; a 5-0 thumping by the Americans the previous week was not.
New Zealand could easily sneak a result against the favoured Canadians or Dutch; they could get two. Nobody would really be surprised to see them advance from the World Cup group stage for the first time in their history; on their best day they have the quality and have shown it, recently and repeatedly. But short of handling Cameroon (which they absolutely should) you can’t really expect anything from the Ferns. Fans should actually be happy: like Canada in 2012 this is a team with everything to win and nothing to lose. Such teams can be a lot of fun. Canada in 2012 was coming off coaching drama and a player revolt and our success that year meant we forgot the whole thing. The same may happen again, though hopefully not at Canada’s expense.
As to the Netherlands, in 2015 they were just some ladies who drew Canada and looked pretty good. In 2019 they are the reigning European champions. We aren’t the only team that’s grown up.
The Dutch win at Euro 2017 was a bit of an accident. Hosting the tournament for the first time, they exploited the unimaginable Norwegian collapse in the group stage, which was like Canada at the 2011 Women’s World Cup but worse, to run up a perfect record, and in the knockout stage whipped Sweden and England before, in the final, getting… Denmark, their group-stage opponents and an even more improbable finalist than the Dutch themselves. The Netherlands fell behind 1-0 and 2-1 but won 4-2 in the end, rather effortlessly given the drama. It was a tournament of massive upsets: Austria, woso nobodies, somehow won a group with France and Switzerland in it, then beat Spain on penalties. Denmark beat Germany. France went out to England back there somewhere, the whole Norwegian thing happened and sent Ada Hegerberg into self-imposed exile, I seem to remember Scotland lost to England 6-0 then beat Spain… a bizarre tournament. One could not say, based on that performance, that the Dutch had arrived. One really couldn’t say anything.
In the two years since the Dutch have been mostly good, just not quite in the first rank. At the 2018 Algarve Cup, where Canada was poor, the Dutch shared the title with Sweden when the final was canceled due to heavy rain4. Qualifying for the 2019 World Cup went the hard way, including a draw at home to the lowly Irish Republic and a loss away to Norway, but smashed Denmark and Switzerland in the last-chance playoff. They do seem to be indifferent travelers: lowlights on the road include losses to Spain (not great) and Poland (unacceptable) at the Algarve, a mere 2-1 win over the lousy South Africans in Cape Town, and a 1-1 draw in Switzerland during European qualifying (admittedly, with a 3-0 first-leg home win in their pockets). Highlights include running the table in three home World Cup prep friendlies, converting a touchdown against Chile and shutting out both Spain and Australia. If the Dutch travel badly but are first-class at home, and the World Cup is abroad but within driving distance of their houses, is that good or bad?
The name on your lips should be Vivianne Miedema. It once looked like whichever of Christine Sinclair and Abby Wambach held the all-time international goalscoring record when Sinclair retired would have it indefinitely, for the age of the super-productive single striker had passed from women’s soccer. Maybe not. At 22 years old Miedema has 57 goals for her country; at the same age Sinclair had 53 and Wambach had two. Last season she led the English top division in goals and was second in assists, being named Player’s Player of the Year despite missing three games. She is probably the best female striker alive and certainly the best female striker active in international soccer. Canada has faced Miedema at the senior level twice before, in 2015 and 2016, and held her in check both times, but she was not yet at the height of her powers. Her 13 international goals in calendar 2017 are as good as anybody, given a lack of minnows to beat up on, and though she got only four in 2018 her action was limited. She scored in every one of her international starts save a January friendly against Spain. So far in 2019 she has five goals in seven appearances. Sinclair, Canada’s top scorer so far, has four in eight.
It would be nice to say that the Dutch, like Canada in Sinclair’s hey-day, are basically a one-woman team, but they are not. Lieke Martens is a thoroughly brilliant attacking midfielder, Golden Ball winner of Euro 2017, FIFA women’s player of the year the same year, and shortlisted for the Ballon d’Or in 2018. She is not at Miedema’s level but she is awfully good, probably the best attacking midfielder in the group unless Jessie Fleming picks a very good time to make the leap. Forward Shanice van de Sanden plays club soccer at Lyon and is at least good enough to give Miedema support. The Dutch are relatively weak on defense and in goal, regular midfielder and Adriana Leon teammate Tessel Middag is down with a knee injury, and while a lot of their midfield depth is good it’s seldom exceptional. They haven’t played a really good team in a while; Japan, who they beat 6-2 at the 2018 Algarve, arguably no longer counts. On the other hand they did just shut out Mexico and Australia, and have conceded more than one goal only twice in the past year.
Canada and the Netherlands will be very close-matched teams. We’ve shown some signs of adjusting to Dutch-style attacking creativity; look at the difference between our win against France in 2012 and that in 2016. When Germany beat us in Hamilton last year it was not because of their superior technique and passing us into the ground, but because they were quicker players and a better team that just ground us down until we broke. Miedema, with her succession of little niggling hurts, and the Dutch are not meant to play that way. Moreover, our own defensive record lately has been pretty decent. So the Canadians should get at least a point, and yet a team with that level of attacking quality is a team that will beat absolutely everybody if it’s their day no matter how you try to stop them. Christine Sinclair’s opponents will be familiar with the phenomenon.
- And it was legit. We were fifth in the world at the time. The host was A1 again, but France was ranked #3 anyway so it made no odds. And the world women’s rankings use the Elo system which, while not perfect because no ranking system ever can be, manages to avoid the hysterically awful bullshit of the men’s ranking.
- In 2015 the pots, apart from the seeded teams, were geographic. Pot 1 was the seeds, pot 2 was North America, Oceania, and Africa, pot 3 was Asia and South America, and pot 4 was Europe. The good Lord so distributed women’s soccer talent that groups 2 and 3 were pretty shallow, so this was not a big a disaster as it might have been, though Group D of the United States, Australia, Sweden, and Nigeria would definitely put hair on your chest. In 2019 the pots are based straight off FIFA rankings. As a result, though they were pretty close competitively, in 2015 China and New Zealand were in different pots, and in 2019 they were in the same one.
- The other, Alba Redondo, got her second.
- (waves FIFA flag) MY MY MY ONLY IN WOSO