Three teams that could win the World Cup -- if the United States doesn't
Even though the U.S. women come in as favorites to win the World Cup every four years -- and even though I have the United States winning this 2015 World Cup -- the possibility still exists that the Americans might not win (Exhibit A: The U.S. team has not won since 1999).
OK, OK, so if not the United States, then who? Which countries are good enough to hoist that World Cup trophy under the confetti on July 6? Here they are in rank and order:
Achtung. Germany is angry. And I don't blame them. The German side is surely mad that it lost in the quarterfinals at home in the 2011 World Cup, when all stars were aligned for the team to win. More fuel to the fire? That early World Cup exit caused Germany to miss the 2012 Olympics; the World Cup counts as its Olympic qualifying tournament, and France and Sweden had better finishes.
Germany came back to win the 2013 Euros, but this is a team that wants the World Cup crown again. Germany and the United States are the only countries to twice win the World Cup, and this might be a race to see which grabs that third title first. Germany won it in 2003 and 2007, but wants another chance to show the world it is better than that quarterfinal exit four years ago -- especially in coach Sylvia Neid's last year.
Even without FIFA's World Player of the Year, Nadine Kessler, and a pregnant Fatmire Alushi, Germany has an excellent mix of younger players -- like Dzsenifer Marozsan and Celia Sasic, who both play for FFC Frankfurt and just won the Champions League -- and veteran players -- such as Nadine Angerer and Anja Mittag -- to still be the best in the world. And we know the team will play so, well, German. Which means organized. Disciplined. And now, seeking revenge.
Les Bleues have never won a Women's World Cup -- but they also have never had a team like this before. This version is deep and skillful on all three lines. They have it all. The France of the old days would have a great finisher (Marinette Pichon, for example) and a few good players around her, but large gaps of talent. Thanks to a decade of support and funding from the French Football Federation for its women's program, this team is now loaded with talent.
France also has the added "benefit" of learning the hardest lesson of all -- losing. And how not to let it happen again. For that is the team's last mental hurdle: when you get to that place where you finally believe you are good enough. The French went out in the semifinals of both the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics, and the quarterfinals of the 2013 Euros. So again, the question remains: Can they pull it together when the pressure is the greatest?
It certainly is a good sign when you can beat Brazil, Germany and the United States all in a few months' span over the past year (and quite handily). Les Bleues' new coach, Philippe Bergeroo, who took over after that surprisingly early exit in the 2013 Euros, is saying all the right things to keep his players focused and confident, but not overly confident. He prophetically stated after beating the best three teams in the world, "We have won nothing until we do it at the World Cup as well." Yes indeed.
One thing to keep in mind: If they both finish first in their respective groups, Germany and France could clash in the quarterfinals. That's a matchup that could easily be the World Cup final.
Sweden is an outlier as a contender but a possibility for sure. Pia Sundhage is finally back home. Can the former Swedish player and now coach work the same magic she did when she turned around a U.S. team in disarray after the 2007 World Cup? Can the guitar-strumming coach save the day for her homeland as well?
Much will depend on Sweden's key players, Lotta Schelin and Caroline Seger. Both play in France and had excellent seasons; for Lyon, Schelin finished as the top scorer in the French league, while Seger's PSG made it to the Champions League final. Schelin is battling some tendinitis in her knee, so it will be interesting to see how Canada's artificial turf affects her minutes and knee. Sweden needs her scoring and dangerous nose for the net in order to have a chance at winning its first World Cup.
Sweden always brings a fighting spirit, and you know that will be more than evident with Sundhage at the helm. But does this team have enough overall talent to win it all? I don't think so. And both Schelin and Seger are in their early 30s, so this might be the last World Cup for both.
But what about ...
Japan does not make the list. A repeat of all that happened in 2011 is asking too much of Japan and surely too much of the soccer gods. Four years ago, Japan beat a German team -- at home in the quarterfinals -- it had never beaten before. In the semifinals, Japan beat a Swedish team it had never beaten before. And then in the final, it beat a U.S. team -- riding a wave of momentum -- it had never beaten in 25 attempts. And all of this while the Japanese players' country fought to recovery from the tragic earthquake and tsunami just four months earlier.
It was an absolutely incredible journey. A story that brings tears to your eyes. But this time Japan is not coming in as the underdog with the emotional surge of a team playing to lift up its country.
And sorry, Brazil does not make the list, either. Marta, the five-time FIFA World Player of the Year, will return to Brazil title-less again. And the apathy toward women's soccer in that country will unfortunately continue.