The 2015 Women’s World Cup had some teams that really didn’t belong. How well we remember results like Germany 10-0 Ivory Coast, or Switzerland 10-1 Ecuador, or Cameroon 6-0 Ecuador. Ecuador was really bad. But it’s 2019, women’s soccer has developed for four years, and Ecuador didn’t qualify. Instead we have Chile, and Jamaica, and Thailand and Cameroon are back!
Fans in France will get to enjoy some hilarious blowouts, making all those Ligue 1 Féminin fans feel at home.
|Group A||Group B|
|Group C||Group D|
|Group E||Group F|
Usefully previewing a whole 24-team women’s soccer tournament is impossible. How’s Thailand’s depth at fullback? Any writer not actually Thai will neither know nor care. In the men’s World Cup even bad teams have a few guys playing in the Eredivisie or something so you’ll know a guy who’s seen him on DAZN or at least have a good, instinctive feel for the level? The Women’s World Cup does not play that way.
Let’s divide the field in four. We’ll start with the last one, the no-hopers: Cameroon, Chile, Thailand, Argentina, Jamaica, South Africa, Nigeria. That’s seven teams, two of which are in the same group, so we can literally guarantee they won’t all finish with zero points. In fact, soccer being a sport, over the course of 20 combined games there’ll be one big upset in there. It’s perfectly possible that one of them will get out of the group stage and get the stuffing beat out of them by Australia or something. There’s too many teams in this category for them all to fail spectacularly in a 24-team tournament. But none of them are going to medal. If any of them reaches a quarter it’ll be the upset of the century. They aren’t worth dwelling on.
For the sake of versimilitude, if your team gets to play one of these trash teams, here are the names to drop at the pub so you look knowledgeable. Chilean goalkeeper Christiane Endler is Honestly Good; she turns out for Paris Saint-Germain and is reigning league Goalkeeper of the Year. Canadians can score points by pointing out Jamaica’s Tiffany Cameron, who’d be playing for us if she was better, and if you’re curious the very white girl starting in goal for them is named Sydney Schneider, she’s from New Jersey, she’s 19, and she’s done quite well at the youth levels. Feel like talking up an African? Pick South Africa’s defender and captain Janine van Wyk, their most-capped player who was semi-regular with the Houston Dash for a couple years.
Then there’s the mushy middle. They won’t disgrace themselves, most to all of them will make the round of 16 because that’s how numbers work, and I’m sure to their players and fans their games are the most important things in the world. But in historic terms they will only count because of how they hurt somebody else. South Korea, Spain, Brazil, Italy, Scotland, New Zealand. Some former middle powers on there, and maybe a couple future ones, but no teams worth setting the 4 AM alarm for. There are still individual players in this group who are well worth seeing. Scotland’s Kim Little may be the best female player in Britain and at 28 years old is reaching the height of her powers; add in Utah’s Rachel Corsie and the Scots are blessed with fun names anyway. Marta, of course, plays for Brazil, and while some people talking about women’s soccer love her because she’s the only player they’ve heard of she is an all-time great and saves her best stuff for big games. Maybe even better, somehow a 41-year-old Formiga is still hanging around the Brazilian squad; her first cap was for the Portuguese Empire, and her last might be on the Day of Judgement. Spain is definitely on the way up, and will not be this much of an also-ran in four years. Actually, they might well break out of it by the Olympics. They haven’t got the horses yet, but their 20-somethings are already making UEFA Champions League finals so watch out. New Zealand was harped upon earlier. Italy and South Korea also exist; the Italians have had very good results recently, and if only they’d played anybody real they might be worth considering as dark horses.
The three top contenders qualify for real analysis. These are the United States, France, and Germany. Cumulatively they probably have even odds of winning the World Cup. 538’s Sudbury-Thunder Bay office makes their combined chances 49%. At press time Bet365 gave 3.5-to-1 odds on France and the USA and 5.5-to-1 on Germany. Germany and the United States have won World Cups and Olympic gold medals before, France has never gotten better than a fourth-place finish but is France.
American lives are made easier by how hilariously trivial their group is. They’re near-certain going to win it; when the US chokes, which ain’t their way, it isn’t by dropping points to Thailand. Hope Solo is gone, giving up the soccer field for the boardroom (and not as a defendant), but Chicago Red Stars standout Alyssa Naeher has spent half a decade as an understudy and is probably better now than a 37-year-old Solo would have been in any event. If you want to find something to complain say that Adrianna Franch, the two-time defending NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, might be better, but you can’t say Naeher isn’t good.
The defense is aging, apart from defender-only-by-default Crystal Dunn and Emily Sonnett, who thanks to semi-regular exposure to Thorns games I have come to like. But while you might exploit Becky Sauerbrunn or Ali Krieger for pace here and there, we’ve had that exact hope of every American defense going back to London 2012 and it hasn’t panned out. We have to admit that, helped by the benefit of the doubt from referees, the Americans play a savvy defensive game that rewards experienced players.
Further up the field brings more age. The Carli Lloyd Story continues long after the writers have stopped caring, Megan Rapinoe is still around, and Alex Morgan puts the ball in the net often enough that like a 2015-era Wambach you can’t write her off no matter how much you want to. Even some of the newer spear-carriers in this phalanx, the Christian Presses and the Allie Longs, are in principle over the hill. But their younger players, like Morgan Brian, Abby Dahlkemper, Rose Lavelle, and Lindsay Horan, have proven themselves in hard schools. I love nothing more than saying that this is the tournament the Americans will finally stop being good, every single tournament. So far my record is 0% and it’s time to stop reinforcing failure. The United States is going to be dramatic, their lineup decisions will be questionable, fans will call for the coach’s head and a goalie change and a different starting striker, and they might well win the World Cup anyway, because beyond all the crap they actually are good at this game.
Germany, like the Americans, are always there or there-abouts. I wonder if the Europeans hate the Germans like the rest of us hate the Americans. Probably not; at least in UEFA you get the occasional 2012 Olympics or something where the Germans can’t even qualify.
They aren’t even old. With the post-Olympic international retirement of Melanie Behringer and Annike Krahn, Lena Goeßling is the only player 31 or over. Sara Däbritz is still just 24, with 60 caps and the official MVP of the gold medal-winning Olympic team. Dzsenifer Maroszan is 27, Alexandra Popp is 28, and they are top players anywhere. If I were to name a weakness, which I wouldn’t like to, it would be a relatively patchwork backline that after all made mistakes against Canada last year. They have conceded three times in four games this year, once to Sweden and twice to Japan. Could be better. Is probably still good enough, especially given that they are still learning the ways of new coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who did a commendable job in Switzerland.
While they’ve been up to the job for decades and aren’t Olympic champions for nothing, Germany doesn’t terrify opponents as much as the Americans, the French, or even the English. They’ll probably beat you, however they have to do it, but (at risk of playing dreadfully to stereotype) they give the impression of being an exquisitely-designed, highly reliable machine that will all the same degrade fast when conditions are outside the spec. If they win the World Cup expect them to do so in a thoroughly unremarkable way. Teams always leave a game against the Germans thinking they did well, all things considered, but usually having lost. Yet in a hard-to-define way there’s the urge to mark them a little lower this year, certainly a step behind the U.S.
Defining France’s negative intangibles, on the other hand, is easy. If you’d forgive a cheap rhetorical trick I’d put them in their own category. They are unquestionably one of the best teams in the tournament and have home-field advantage. Virtually their entire roster plays at home and the exceptions, backup goalkeeper Pauline Peyraud-Magnin and defender Aïssatou Tounkara, aren’t important. Amandine Henry is a long-dominant defensive midfielder in her prime who earns individual honours at a position that’s usually neglected. Their two old attacking stars, Louisa Cadamuro (née Nécib) and Camile Abily have both taken early retirement from the national team, but we still have Gaëtane Thiney, the icon of Paris FC (formerly FCF Juvisy, and long the Other Team in France) and one of the most versatile, accomplished attacking players in the game. Eugenie Le Sommer gives them an excellent veteran striker. Youngster Valérie Gauvin got her first international goal in 2017 and since then has scored on Germany, Japan, and China as well as the crap countries, showing every sign of being good support.
The defense has a solid core but weakens beyond it. Wendie Renard, the tallest woman in the world, a physical, ball-playing defender who starts ahead of Kadeisha Buchanan for Lyon and makes sure nobody complains, is unimpeachable. None of the other players are bad, but they aren’t as terrific as you feel they necessarily should be; Renard’s partner in the middle seems to usually be a flavour-of-the-month (currently her OL partner Griedge Mbock Bathy) and their fullbacks have always attacked more flamboyantly than they defend, which is how Janine Beckie was able to peg the only brilliant cross of her career in to Sophie Schmidt back in 2016. Then there’s goaltender Sarah Bouhaddi, who is both very good and completely insane, capable of both winning and losing matches on her own. France, who is extremely good in international soccer, and Olympique Lyonnais, even better domestically, have both ensconced Bouhaddi as the more-or-less undisputed starter for a decade. She’s worth it. But you’re never quite sure with her.
France has been very good for a long time but they’ve never medalled in international competition. It’s like the opposite of the United States, who even when they’re bad pull it out somehow. Just look at the past decade.
- Euro 2009: not really France yet (Abily was 24, Necib was 22, Le Sommer was 21, Henry was 19, Bouhaddi was a backup), but all the same, getting a tough group, fumbling it even by those standards, then losing on penalties to a heavily pre-apex Netherlands was, in hindsight, absolutely an omen.
- 2011 Women’s World Cup: get drawn into the Group of Death, hammer everybody who isn’t the host Germans, really hammer Canada, proving their ascendancy over those Canucks once and for all. Beat England on penalties in the quarter, which I bet was fun, and then get eleven kinds of Gallic crap beat out of you by the United States, who’d go on to lose to Japan in a really good final, so all’s well that ends well.
- 2012 Olympics: get drawn into the Group of Death, probably earn a point against the United States at Old Trafford but lose and finish second. Survive a quarterfinal scare to handle Sweden easily enough but drop the semi to Japan despite a ferocious fight in the last half-hour. In the bronze medal match play Canada and let’s be honest, no team has ever deserved to win a match they lost more than France deserved to win that one.
- Euro 2013: wreck their group, as France bloody well should at Euro. In the quarter-final, go out to Denmark on penalties, and only get that far because Louisa Necib got a freebie late. This was the tournament where people began to think that France somehow blowing it might be a thing.
- 2015 Women’s World Cup: win the tough games in their group against England and Mexico easily; somehow lose their tap-in putt game to Colombia by two. Beat South Korea in the Round of 16 then lose on penalties to Germany in one of the best games I’ve ever seen when Nadine Angerer stops Claire Lavogez. They’ve called Lavogez up since then, which is kind of them, but she isn’t on the 2019 roster. The least France-y of the things France has done, with only Colombia as a blip; if this had happened to Canada we’d have all been perfectly happy.
- 2016 Olympics: Group of Death with the US, again, beat everybody but the Americans, again, lose to Canada, again, this time in the quarter-final, and this time with Canada finally outplaying them. You tell me if that’s better or worse.
- Euro 2017: As discussed in the last post this was the Euro That Didn’t Really Count, but all the same dropping points to both Switzerland and Austria in the group then going down to England did not give Napoleon anything to get excited about.
The French have lost once in the past year, to Germany, and usually put up big scores. They beat the United States 3-1 in Le Havre. What’s more they’re scoring by committee, which is always the sign of a good French team. They change head coaches every day at 2 PM in France but the current one, Corinne Diacre, is a former first-rate international player turned average Ligue 2 (men’s) coach, turned national team boss who on playing pedigree alone was an upgrade on the hapless (but otherwise equally-qualified) Olivier Echouafni. It all looks good for France, except a strong team at a home World Cup is surely the God-given moment for the greatest French choke of all time.
Those are the really big teams. Then there are the ones who still have enough of a chance that it’s worth hoping but not so much that it’s worth buying tickets to the final: roughly in descending order England, Japan, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden, China, Norway, and Australia. The Dutch have already been discussed, and Canada will get the full treatment later, so, briefly, the rest.
There are those who would put England in the top category, and they’re not wrong. They’re defending champions of the (withering scorn) SheBelieves Cup. At Euro 2017 they embarrassed themselves less than most of the other major contenders. Their attack has no single overwhelming star but is terrific in depth; they have a half-dozen forwards capable of scoring against top opposition. Jill Scott and Karen Carney are still going in midfield, and their defense of Lucy Bronze, Steph Houghton, Abbie McManus, and Alex Greenwood is as good as anybody’s. McManus is the least familiar name, a journeyman who in a short period of time worked her way up from Sheffield City to a core part on newly-free-spending Manchester City, got her first call-up in February 2018 while she was out buying eggs and has become a regular at centreback next to former club teammate Houghton.
So why short sell on England? Carly Telford, the 2014–15 FA WSL 1 goalkeeper of the year, appears to have taken veteran Karen Bardsley’s job as starting goalie, which will be interesting to watch; at 31 to Bardsley’s 34 it’s not like she’s part of a youth movement, and neither was anything like the best English keeper in the club game for the past few seasons. Key midfielder Jordan Nobbs is missing the tournament; another knee injury, and she’s been in the press suggesting women’s menstrual cycles might be linked to their rates of ligament damage. Also out is Izzy Christiansen, with an ankle problem sustained at the SheBelieves. Fara Williams MBE, the grand dame of English soccer, is aging out of the team and wasn’t included by Phil Neville. And they do have a nasty habit of losing to teams like Canada, Sweden, and New Zealand at home. Their SheBelieves triumph was down to the weakest field in the cup’s history and Japan snatching a stoppage-time equalizer against the US rather than much England did in that stupid thing. They have proven they’re good; little more.
Japan, always likable, appears to be on their way down. They had a perfect record at the Asian Games but other recent results have been indifferent. Large, awkward goalkeeper Erina Yamane is out with a (stop me if you’ve heard this one) knee problem, leaving the gloves for young Ayaka Yamashita, who appears to have taken the starting job anyway. Virtually an entire generation hung up the boots in 2015 and 2016, from 83-goal scorer Homare Sawa through superstar attacking midfielder Aya Miyama. If one doesn’t count the Asian Games then several starters will be making their debuts in a major tournament, and Japan is embracing the kids wholeheartedly: they are bringing two teenagers, a 20-year-old, and four 21-year-olds. Veterans Saori Ariyoshi and Nahomi Kawasumi appear to be healthy but were dropped from the squad.
This can be a good thing, and if Japan sticks to the plan and develops talent as they always have they may be back for 2023. But this year they have not been setting the world on fire against non-Asian competition. No doubt they’ll do well enough, though they have always been prone to the odd, short-lived, but devastating total collapse. Some of the mid-20-something players we’re seeing for the first time will doubtless open our eyes. But it’s hard to see them mounting a serious title challenge yet.
Sweden has an important advantage few other teams possess: at the 2019 Algarve Cup they went to penalties against Canada, using the A-B-B-A format, and everybody got good and confused but though Sweden lost they know what the format looks like now and have heard all the jokes. They still have the same old Caroline Seger, the same old Nilla Fischer, Hedvig Lundahl still between the sticks; Pia Sundhage finally hung up her hoodie but otherwise this is good ol’ Swedish woso and you know what that means. Good, and often good enough, they’re one of those teams that will always win on their day. But not seriously in contention unless they go on the run of their lives or Stina Blacksteinus looks like what she looked like she’d be a few years ago.
Four years ago China looked like they might be building to 2019 as their cycle. They had a good 2015, and a decent 2016, and were runners-up at the 2018 Asian Cup, their best result since 2002. Midfielder Wang Shuang has made it to PSG and the rest of the team is domestic, but it seems like a good league. Unfortunately it hasn’t quite come together yet. They reliably beat the teams they should beat and reliably lose to the teams they should lose to. Some little spark of brilliance or something is missing, and now those 26-year-olds of 2015 are 30, this is their window, and it’s not as wide as they hoped it would be. All the coaches they’ve gone through, including former French disappointment Bruno Bini, might not have helped; they seem to expect more from themselves too.
Norway is stuck in turbulence. They’ve got their seatbelts on but the food cart stopped at the row before theirs and they’re getting hungry. Ada Hegerberg, who should be one of the favourites for the Golden Boot, has been boycotting the Norwegian national team since 2017 because she wants better treatment. This leaves a decent team, including 60-goal scorer Isabell Herlovsen, but nobody even in Hegerberg’s league. World Cup qualifying was easy, and they distinguished themselves with a 2-1 home win over the Dutch, but that’s their only really impressive result in a few years. They don’t play the best teams and lose to the second-raters. Also, while I’m including South Korea in the tier below this one, Norway’s margin to avoid another embarrassing elimination in the group stage is awfully thin. They’re in a bad place right now.
As for Australia, I can’t do better than to quote a regular women’s soccer observer I know: “they can outscore their problems for a while.” Their group shouldn’t be overwhelmingly tough. Sam Kerr is a great finisher, probably the best in the NWSL, and that’s doubly-impressive when you consider that she goes home to the Perth Glory most winters. Her international record is actually not that great, but with Lisa De Vanna around the Australians presumably feel they need Kerr to drop back and get more touches while De Vanna can take care of the pure poaching. Beyond that they have a terrific, aggressive young attacking fullback in Ellie Carpenter, who should be the young player of the tournament, adequate veteran depth, and two attacking wild cards in big, tough, awkward handful of trouble Caitlin Foord and little, gritty, foul-happy, bow-wearing cult favourite Hayley Raso. They are going to be a darned fun team to watch as a neutral.
They chose a middling-tough warm-up schedule, against the United States and the Netherlands twice, and lost ’em all. They lost to Chile at home last year and even if they won the rematch 5-0 that is absolutely unacceptable. The Australians look like they should be better than they are. Give them respect, they have the punch to beat anybody on their day, but their day is not that often.