Is Bigger Better For Women's World Cup?
When it comes to the Women's World Cup, FIFA is clearly hoping that bigger is better.
The seventh edition of the tournament is set to take place in Canada next summer, and instead of the usual allotment of 16 teams, the tournament has been expanded to 24. The hope, of course, is that a trickle-down effect will take place. With more countries able to celebrate qualification, the goal of raising the level of play across the globe, as well as increasing investment in the women's game, seems more tangible.
"Getting some countries to put money toward women's soccer is a large task, and one that meets a certain amount of resistance in a lot of areas of the world," ESPN analyst Julie Foudy said. "For that reason alone, expanding the field brings more attention, it brings more funding. Countries that traditionally haven't funded or supported the women's game suddenly care a lot more."
The chance to see a greater number of standout players should be a benefit, as well. With Europe now getting eight berths instead of 4.5, more exposure will be available for the likes of Spain playmaker Veronica Boquete and Dutch striker Viviane Miedema, who scored three goals over two legs in the Netherlands' World Cup qualifying playoff victory over Italy. Both countries were among those qualifying for the first time.
The fact remains, however, that worldwide, the women's game lacks depth, especially outside the game's power centers of Europe and North America. There is concern that with eight teams making their first appearance at a Women's World Cup finals, there will be an inordinate number of blowouts, which won't reflect well on the tournament or the women's game as a whole.
Tony DiCicco, who managed the United States to its last World Cup title in 1999, shares those worries, but only to a point. He said he was encouraged by the level of organization and competitiveness he saw during the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament, even from some of the region's lesser lights.
"Originally I thought what we were going to see was a lot of blowouts in the World Cup. I think there still could be some," he said via telephone. "If Thailand ends up in the [United States'] group, they're in trouble. But I think there are going to be some interesting matches, with more upsets than we've ever seen before in a World Cup. Costa Rica will not be an easy win for most teams."
While comparisons to the men's game aren't always instructive, it is worth noting that the men's World Cup went through some growing pains as it expanded over the years. The 1982 World Cup witnessed an expansion from 16 to 24 teams, and the gulf between some traditional powers and those from emerging countries was at times painful to watch. In one match, Hungary obliterated El Salvador 10-1. New Zealand finished its three group stage matches with a goal difference of minus-10. The ensuing tournaments have seen those types of results lessen. That's why the consensus is that no matter how lopsided some games might be this summer, the expansion will help the game in the long run.
"In the last men's World Cup, there's millimeters between winning and losing, but it's been years of evolution to get to that point," said Aaran Lines, who manages the Western New York Flash in the U.S.-based National Women's Soccer League. "It's going to be a process to get to that point in the women's game, and this is the first step in doing that, by going from 16 to 24 teams."
The expansion will undoubtedly impact how some teams, especially the big guns, navigate their way through the tournament. In addition to the top two teams in each of the six groups qualifying for the knockout stages, the four best third-place teams will also advance. That means that an upset in the group stage isn't as devastating as it might have been in the past.
"What it may do is give you the chance to play your way into [form]," Lines said. "If you've got three group stage games, maybe one or two of them are really competitive, and you may have the chance to qualify earlier and rest some legs and get the whole squad involved. No one's going in there with that mindset, because it's a World Cup and anything could happen, but those could be serious possibilities. You could see a better product from those top national teams than what you had in previous World Cups with only 16 teams because then they weren't able to rest players."
The increase has also resulted in one more knockout round being added to the tournament, but the overall schedule isn't as compressed as it was when it had 16 teams. In 2011, the U.S. women played six games in 20 days, two of which went to penalties. This time around, the worst-case scenario is for a team to play seven games in 27 days. That said, the extra game could see suspension and injury play a factor, which could benefit the United States given the ridiculous amount of depth it has.
"The U.S. can put two good lineups on the field at any point in time, and they're capable of beating anybody," said Vlatko Andonovski, who managed FC Kansas City to the NWSL title this past season. "The other good countries may have 11, 12 good players, so playing an extra game, it will impact them in the long run getting to the semifinal or final."
The fact that there are six groups throws up an interesting wrinkle in terms of the draw. With host and No. 8-ranked Canada as one of the seeded teams, fifth-ranked Sweden missed out on being seeded; sixth-ranked Brazil got the nod instead. A group with Sweden or seventh-ranked England might be tougher initially, but it might also make for an easier round-of-16 matchup.
"As a coach, I wouldn't necessarily want to be in a group that had three easy teams," Andonovski said. "I wouldn't want to play Sweden right off the bat, either, but having more above-average teams in the group isn't a bad thing to keep you sharp, keep you on your toes the entire tournament. So once you get into the second and third stage, you're already in the mindset psychologically and technically ready for the next challenge."
Foudy is of the opinion that for the United States, the draw really won't matter.
"What's more important is that you come in with the mindset that the U.S. has always had, which is it doesn't matter who we have, we have to get tough opponents eventually," she said. "Whether you have them in the group stage or later, who cares?"
The underdog teams will likely take a different view. But thanks to expansion, they'll likely be pleased to be there all the same.