There's always a “Group of Death” in any FIFA competition, or so it seems, and that group at next summer's Women's World Cup in Germany belongs to the U.S.
And to Germany. And to Brazil.
There are three “death” groups in this year's field, product of the rapid growth of women's soccer outside the traditional strongholds of the U.S., Germany, Scandinavia and the Far East.
The Americans, seeded Sunday atop Group C, welcomed North Korea, Colombia and Sweden into their quartet during Monday's WWC draw in Frankfurt. That's three legitimate contenders (for at least semifinal berths) for just two spots in the eight-team knockout bracket. And we'll see about Colombia.
And it gets worse: A quarterfinal awaits with Brazil or Australia or Norway (and we'll see about Equatorial Guinea), and the likeliest semifinal foe are the Germans, prohibitive favorites to win their third successive WWC.
But let's see where we are next summer. The notion of traditional powers is starting to wobble, especially with the success of the African sides and Colombia at the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup earlier this year.
Germany's group (with Canada, Nigeria and France) might be scarier than the U.S.'s, and Group D (with the Brazilians, Aussies, Norwegians and upstart Equatorial Guineans) could be even tighter.
Mexico, which beat the U.S. in CONCACAF's qualifying tournament, landed more easily, joining Japan, New Zealand and England in Group B.
Japan is quick and skillful but, traditionally, not to the level of the other seeds -- nor to the level of North Korea. England certainly is rising, with a number of players who have asserted themselves in Women's Professional Soccer. New Zealand … well, New Zealand, has local hero Ali Riley (Pacific Palisades/Harvard-Westlake School).
The U.S. will play North Korea on June 28 in Dresden, Colombia on July 2 in Sinsheim, and Sweden on July 6 in Wolfsburg. Quarterfinals are July 9 and 10, semifinals July 13, and the July 17 title game will be played in Frankfurt.
A: Germany, Canada, Nigeria, France
B: Japan, New Zealand, Mexico, England
C: United States, North Korea, Colombia, Sweden
D: Brazil, Australia, Norway, Equatorial Guinea
THE FULL SCHEDULE
June 26: Germany vs. Canada at Berlin, Nigeria vs. France at Sinsheim
June 30: Germany vs. Nigeria at Frankfurt, Canada vs. France at Bochum
July 5: France vs. Germany at Moenchengladbach, Canada vs. Nigeria at Dresden
June 27: Japan vs. New Zealand at Bochum, Mexico vs. England at Wolfsburg
July 1: Japan vs. Mexico at Leverkusen, New Zealand vs. England at Dresden
July 5: England vs. Japan at Augsburg, New Zealand vs. Mexico at Sinsheim
June 28: United States vs. North Korea at Dresden, Colombia vs. Sweden at Leverkusen
July 2: United States vs. Colombia at Sinsheim, North Korea vs. Sweden at Augsburg
July 6: Sweden vs. United States at Wolfsburg, North Korea vs. Colombia at Bochum
June 29: Brazil vs. Australia at Moenchengladbach, Norway vs. Equatorial Guinea at Augsburg
July 3: Brazil vs. Norway at Wolfsburg, Australia vs. Equatorial Guinea at Bochum
July 6: Equatorial Guinea vs. Brazil at Frankfurt, Australia vs. Norway at Leverkusen
July 9: A1 vs. B2 at Wolfsburg, B1 vs. A2 at Leverkusen
July 10: C1 vs. D2 at Augsburg, D1 vs. C2 at Dresden
July 13: A1/B2 vs. C1/D2 at Frankfurt, B1/A2 vs. D1/C2 at Moenchengladbach
July 16: Third-place game at Sinsheim
July 17: Championship at Frankfurt
THE U.S. FOES
North Korea: Celebrated for their speedy, skillful play and superb teamwork, the Koreans have won three of five Asian championships in the last decade (they lost on penalties to Australia in this year's final) and reached the WWC quarterfinals in 2007 after disappointing first-round exits in the U.S. in 1999 and 2003. Kim Kyong Hwa, Ri Un Gyong and captain Jo Yun Mi are established stars.
Colombia: Huge strides have been made, but South American soccer remains all about Brazil, which clobbered the Colombians, 5-0, in the decisive CONMEBOL championship match. Watch for 17-year-old midfielder Yoreli Rincon, who scored five goals in qualifying and is headed to Indiana University after the WWC.
Sweden: The Swedes have gone through fallow times since taking Germany to overtime in the 2003 WWC final at Home Depot Center and then reaching the semifinals at the 2004 Olympics and 2005 European Championship. But they were the top team in European qualifying, going 8-0-2 and beating highly regarded Denmark in a playoff, and count heavily on Lotta Schelin -- one of the world's best -- and four players from WPS (defender Sara Larsson, midfielder Caroline Seger, and forwards Kosovare Asllani and Jessica Landstrom.
Five U.S. players to watch:
F Abby Wambach (Washington Freedom): The big forward from Rochester, N.Y. (who calls Hermosa Beach home), has scored 117 international goals, fourth on the all-time list, behind Mia Hamm (158), Kristine Lilly (130) and Germany's Birgit Prinz (128).
M Shannon Boxx (unaffiliated): Everything revolves around the big midfielder from Redondo Beach (South Torrance HS), who presents the first line of defense and provides the attacking foundation.
D Rachel Buehler (unaffiliated): Backline leader from Del Mar is captain Christie Rampone's heir apparent -- and she's already the most important figure in the U.S. defense.
G Hope Solo (Atlanta Beat): The best goalkeeper in the world, no contest, offers plenty of personality and amazing shot-stopping skills. She's rehabbing from shoulder surgery and likely won't be available until spring.
F Amy Rodriguez (Philadelphia Union): The speedy sprite striker from Lake Forest (Santa Margarita Catholic HS/USC) took a huge step forward in 2010, adding a maturing field sense to her prodigious attacking skills.
Subject (and likely), of course, to change:
Group A: 1. Germany, 2. Nigeria
Group B: 1. England, 2. Japan
Group C: 1. United States, 2. Sweden
Group D: 1. Brazil, 2. Australia
Quarterfinals: Germany over Japan, England over Nigeria, U.S. over Australia, Brazil over Sweden
Semifinals: Germany over U.S., Brazil over England
Third place: U.S. over England
Final: Germany over Brazil