Julie Ertz and her U.S. teammates enter the Women’s World Cup as the team to beat. (Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
REIMS, France — With the Women’s World Cup kicking off today (or tonight, depending where you are on this planet), here are the rankings of the top 10 squads in the 24-team competition.
The eighth WWC boasts the most competitive field of all tournaments since it started in 1991.
In fact, you can make a case for several teams to take the victory lap at Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon on July 7.
- United States
The defending champion United States, No. 1 in the FIFA rankings, is the team to beat. Yes, the Americans have several question marks, including an untested goalkeeper in top-flight competitions and a shaky backline. But they have the firepower to do some damage and go deep in the competition and even to become only the second team to win back-to-back championships. That would emulate Germany’s feat in 2003 and 2007.
As hosts, talented France faces much pressure to go deep in the tournament and wants to copy its men, who captured last year’s men’s World Cup in Russia. They have all the pieces in place for an historic run, including captain and defensive midfielder Amandine Henry (no relation to Thierry Henry). If both teams play to form and reach the quarterfinals, the ultimate test for the French (and perhaps the Americans) would be an elite eight meeting in Paris June 28. The French also have another carrot: If they reach the semifinals, they will play in Lyon, the same city where Lyon, the French super club calls home. It won’t be their home stadium, but it should feel like home, sweet, home.
Rio 2016 Olympic gold medalist Germany is always a threat, no matter what players it fields. They Germans might not have the imposing creative flair of exceptional playmaking midfielder Maren Meinert and lethal striker Brigit Prinz of their 2003 championship side, but they have more than capable players in the likes of defender Dzsenifer Marozsan, one of several vital players who have performed for powerhouse Lyon. Her father played for Hungary before the family moved to Germany when she was four.
A solid Matilda side is buoyed by and amazing Sam Kerr, who can change games in an instant. Kerr, a human highlight reel considered by many and this writer to be the best women’s player in the world, has been short-changed in the FIFA in the world player of the year voting the past two years. This is her time to remind FIFA and the rest of the planet how good she really is.
Japan, the 2011 champions, traditionally fields a formidable side. While this time might not seem to be championship caliber at the moment, it could reach the final four. The side is buoyed by Lyon standout Saki Kumagai, one of the world’s top defensive midfielders. American fans might remember who Kumagai is. She fired home the winning penalty kick past goalkeeper Hope Solo to secure the 2011 WWC crown for the Japanese, only months after an earthquake wreaked havoc with a tsunami and a nuclear plant meltdown. The win certainly buoyed spirits of the Japanese people.
The British hope that winning the 2019 SheBelieves Cup in the U.S. is a harbinger of things to come. Lucy Bronze, a vital member of the side that earned a third-place finish at Canada 2015, is considered the best right back in the world. From a local angle, former St. John’s standout striker Rachel Daly is a defender on this side. Daly usually does her damage as an attacker for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League.
The Maple Leafs, who underachieved with a quarterfinal elimination as 2015 WWC hosts, have much to prove. Second banana to the U.S. in Concacaf, the Canadians were bronze medalists at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics. This probably will be the international swan song for revered striker Christine Sinclair, whose 181 goals are only three shy of the U.S.’s Abby Wambach’s all-time record.
Behind the fabulous Marta (WWC-record 15 goals), the Brazilians can’t be counted out because of their imposing individual talent. Historically, however, they usually find a way of falling short. For example, after capturing silver medals at the 2004 and 2008 Summer Games, Brazil lost to Canada in the bronze medal match on home turn at the 2016 Rio Olympics. No doubt the South Americans will have plenty of experience, although there are concerns that they might be a bit too long in the tooth as midfielder Formiga (41) and Cristiane (34) return as they pursue some more international glory. Marta, incidentally, is 33, not considered a spring chicken when it comes to attacking players at the highest levels of the international game.
The Swedes have been a thorn in the Americans’ side, playing them to a scoreless draw at the 2015 WWC and eliminated them in the 2016 Rio quarterfinals. Of course, Sweden had former U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage in charge both teams. Sundhage knew the Americans and their players like the back of their hand and knew how to stymie their vaunted attack. Who knows what could transpire this time? One thing is for sure: the U.S.-Sweden game is expected to settle which team will finish atop Group F.
Much-improved and darkhorse Spain should not be taken lightly, especially after the U.S. managed to get past Spain in an international, 1-0, on a Christen Press goal Jan. 22. The Spaniards boasts 16 players from Barcelona and Atletico Madrid, as the former has rapidly worked its way up the ladder of respected women’s club sides. The player to watch is striker Jennifer Hermoso, who scored or assisted on 16 of Spain’s 25 qualifying goals. Shut her down and you might have a decent chance of besting this side.