Five Biggest Questions With Women's World Cup 100 Days Away
The Women's World Cup is just around the corner. So with 100 days to go before games kick off June 6 in Canada, ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle and espnW's Julie Foudy and Graham Hays examine the top storylines facing the 24-team field.
1. Can the U.S. women's national team get on track by June?
In one word: Absolutely. In more than one word: It has not been pretty. The U.S. women have won only two of their past six games since qualifying for the Women's World Cup last October, and one of those victories was against a thoroughly unimpressive Argentina team. The other was a 1-0 victory against England that required referee interference (in the form of calling back an England goal that should have been allowed).
But timing is everything with World Cups and so there's no need to panic. (Yet.) The United States has plenty of time to peak come June and July. Here's why:
• This is as deep a team as the United States has ever had. Let's start from the back. Barring injuries and/or Hope Solo drama, the squad has a very solid back line and goalkeeper. Becky Sauerbrunn is one of the best center backs in the game at the moment. And with Meghan Klingenberg's rapid rise and Lori Chalupny's reintroduction, the Americans have more depth at the outside back position as well.
• The United States midfield clearly needs to be shored up, but to be fair, it has been tinkered with time and time again. Lauren Holiday switched from playing higher to now deeper. Carli Lloyd was playing central but is now wide. Megan Rapinoe played high in the No. 10 spot but is now also wide. And the team is still trying to find the right central midfield partner next to Holiday. There hasn't been much consistency in the lineup, and that's reasonable considering coach Jill Ellis only took over the team in April. However, she will have to lock into her best midfield formation soon. (Very soon.) I don't think that means Lloyd playing out wide -- and I think the United States needs a holding central midfielder to sit and destroy while Holiday creates -- but whatever Ellis decides, the tinkering is going to diminish.
• Let's not forget: The United States doesn't just have the best finisher in the world ever to play the game in Abby Wambach, but it also has a handful of world-class finishers in Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux and potentially Amy Rodriguez. Yes, Wambach will be 35 at the start of the World Cup, but there is no other player I would want to call on (even from off the bench) to come in and make a difference. Wambach is the ultimate game-changer and loves the pressure of people questioning if she is past her prime. If the United States needs a goal, Wambach is as dependable as they come.
• Still, the health of Alex Morgan is the biggest X factor for the United States. If she can stay healthy, Morgan changes how the U.S. team plays and, equally important, how opposing teams play the United States. Morgan makes back lines play deeper. She stretches teams with her pace, which opens up space in the midfield, and that gives Holiday and the midfielders more space for playmaking/penetrating. And it always helps that Morgan has a history of finishing big goals in big moments. Even with how poorly the United States played against France in the beginning of February, that game is completely different if the Americans finish one of those early chances. Morgan was just returning from another long hiatus, and given four more months of play, will be more polished in front of the goal.
• And finally, let's not forget the U.S. mentality. As a team, you never want to rely solely on mentality, but it sure as heck helps when the pressure percolates and the world is watching. We've seen how this group responds when down, behind and written off. Write them off at your own peril. -- Julie Foudy
2. What one player from an outside contender will be the surprise of the World Cup?
I can't wait to watch Nigeria play in this World Cup. The team finally seems able to get over the hump, thanks in large part to Asisat Oshoala, its 20-year-old star. Oshoala not only lit up the Under-20 Women's World Cup last summer (Nigeria lost in overtime to Germany in the final) as the top scorer, she was also named the best player of the U20 tournament, Africa's women's player of the year and Africa's youth player of the year. Not to mention, she recently signed with Liverpool Ladies of England's Women's Super League, the first Nigerian to play in England's top women's league. Not a bad year.
In her younger years, Oshoala played both defensive and attacking midfield, but at the U20 Women's World Cup, the world got a glimpse of the damage she can impose as a forward. She has pace, athleticism and a deft touch in front of goal. And she is not alone. Alongside Oshoala is another good finisher, 21-year-old Desire Oparanozie.
Nigeria has done well at the youth level, reaching the semifinals in the last three U20 Women's World Cups, but at the senior level it has advanced out of the group stage only once in six attempts. And even though Nigeria is in what has been dubbed the Group of Death -- alongside the United States, Sweden and Australia -- it has the potential to come out third in this tough quartet. And if that happens, that's when things turn interesting. Nigeria could get a very reasonable matchup against the top finisher in Group A (Canada, China, the Netherlands and New Zealand), then potentially face England in the quarterfinals. Both are desirable matchups considering what others are staring down.
This young Nigerian team could be a contender in this World Cup. And if Oshoala can stay healthy -- and if Nigeria ends up benefiting from the expanded World Cup field that allows four third-place teams from the group stage to advance -- the Nigerian team could surprise the world. -- Julie Foudy
3. Why is France the most intriguing team in the tournament?
Deep in our soccer souls, from Dusseldorf to Denver, Sao Paulo to Sapporo, don't we all kind of wish we were French right now?
All right, maybe not in Dusseldorf. But these are good times to be a women's soccer fan in France. Or just a fan of French women's soccer.
France hasn't won the Women's World Cup. It hasn't won the Olympics or the European Championship. It hasn't reached a final in any of those tournaments, for that matter. It isn't the defending World Cup champion (Japan is). It isn't the oddsmakers' favorite (United States) or even the best bet among countries without a title, according to those oddsmakers (they give Sweden shorter odds). It isn't the sensible, practical pick (Germany).
What France is, when it's right, is glorious to watch. It possesses. It attacks. It combines in tight space and launches from distance. It can be elegant or athletic.
It also boasts enough talent to create lineup drama and stir second-guessing about substitutions. And it is just, well, Gallic enough to get in its own way from time to time. It has everything you could want in a soccer experience, minus the hardware.
All that is good about France -- with the exception of an injury to Louisa Necib that will keep one of the world's best midfielders out of action for the upcoming Algarve Cup and several weeks beyond -- was on display on home soil in a recent 2-0 win against the United States. Sure, the U.S. was without Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Christie Rampone from a potential first-choice team this summer, but that doesn't explain why it was the French who dominated the midfield, exposed the United States down the flank and created the better chances through Elodie Thomis, Eugenie Le Sommer, Gaetane Thiney and the rest.
This isn't a new development. France was arguably the most entertaining team in the World Cup four years ago, when it reached the semifinals and lost to the United States. That, along with a semifinal appearance in the Olympics a year later, was in some ways the global curtain coming up on a national program that had gotten serious about the women's game after years of apathy. And perhaps for that reason, France has to this point been able to impress without regard to result, a luxury not afforded teams like the United States or Germany. It has been able to lose with style and hear cheers, while its would-be rivals can win and still hear grumbles.
But with France ranked third in the world and coming off that win against the Americans, the grace period is waning.
France isn't the team to beat this summer, but it is the team to watch because it is good enough to beat anyone. -- Graham Hays
4. What are the three best group stage games?
In terms of drama, the group stage of the Women's World Cup is looking a little less compelling these days, given that the field has expanded to 24 teams and four third-place teams will qualify for the knockout stages. A loss need not be the death knell for a team's championship ambitions. But more than a few fixtures will ratchet up the intrigue meter. Here are three first-round games that will definitely be worth watching.
United States vs. Sweden: No other first-round matchup features as much cross-pollination as this one. Sweden manager Pia Sundhage led the U.S. women to gold-medal glory at the 2012 Olympics, and current U.S. head coach Jill Ellis worked under Sundhage as did another Swede (and current U.S. assistant) Tony Gustavsson. Swedish players like Caroline Seger and Therese Sjogran have spent part of their pro careers in the United States, while Americans like Christen Press and Hope Solo have spent time in Sweden. Sweden prevailed in the group stage four years ago, 2-1, so there will be no secrets when these two -- both contenders for the title -- face off June 12 in Winnipeg.
Brazil vs. Spain: Anyone looking for goals would be wise to tune in for the June 13 matchup between Brazil and Spain. The Canarinhas have always fielded a highly skilled side, with five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta and lethal sidekick Cristiane driving the attack, but their defense has usually been suspect enough so that no lead is entirely safe. Spain, making its first appearance in the Women's World Cup, has some brilliant attacking players as well, including Veronica "Vero" Boquete. All told, it should be a feast of attacking soccer at Olympic Stadium in Montreal.
Germany vs. Norway: These longtime rivals have been duking it out for European and world supremacy for decades. The Norwegians took out Germany when they prevailed at the 1995 World Cup and 2000 Olympics. Germany returned the favor on its way to winning the 2007 World Cup. And while Norway had fallen on relatively hard times in recent years, the return of manager Even Pellerud has the side back on the upswing. Norway pushed Germany to the limit at the 2013 European Championship final, with Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer saving two penalties in a 1-0 win. The June 11 matchup at Lansdowne Stadium in Ottawa figures to be just as intense. -- Jeff Carlisle
5. Who are the predicted favorites?
So just who are the favorites to win the World Cup? Which teams are people picking to reach the semifinals? Which country is the top dark horse?
In a poll of 19 experts from ESPN, ESPN.com, espnW and ESPN FC, three teams emerged as the favorites. The United States leads this horse race; 47 percent picked the Americans to win. Germany ranked second at 42 percent, and Brazil third at 11 percent. No other country in the 24-team field received a vote.
The predictions for the semifinalists were much more competitive. Seven teams received at least 32 percent of the vote. When asked which teams will reach the semis, the U.S. women led the way at 94 percent, followed by France (74 percent), Germany (58) and Canada (42). Brazil garnered 37 percent of the votes, while Japan and Sweden each received 32.
France was the top vote-getter for dark horse contender at 21 percent. Sixteen percent chose host Canada, with China, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Sweden each receiving 11 percent.
When asked how much turf will be a factor in the quality of play at the World Cup, 53 percent said it would be a small factor. Thirty-two percent said turf will be a major factor, while 15 percent voted that turf will affect only the teams that aren't used to playing on the surface. None of the 19 panelists picked "turf will not be a factor."
France's Eugenie Le Sommer, Brazil's Marta and the United States' Abby Wambach each received 21 percent of the vote when asked which player will win the Golden Boot. Alex Morgan was next at 18 percent, and France's Gaetane Thiney and American Amy Rodriguez each received one vote.