U.S. women's soccer team leads way in world power rankings
While most of the world is admittedly focused on the World Cup that is just days away in Russia, another tournament is now coming into focus on the horizon. One year from Thursday, the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup gets underway with the opening game in Paris, France.
Along with the host, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Japan, South Korea and Thailand already qualified. The United States, the defending World Cup champion, will attempt to join them in October. But one year out from the start of the tournament, who are the top contenders for the trophy?
1. United States
Hometown bias? Perhaps. But this ranking isn't so much early coronation as acknowledgement that the U.S. women have the most potential at the moment among a group of contenders universally far removed from finished products. Part of that optimism is no team has a front playing better than Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh and Megan Rapinoe. If that group stays healthy -- and Pugh's recent scare is a reminder it has been an issue for all three players over the years -- the United States should produce goals. And there is certainly midfield depth, if the right mix makes itself known.
There is still the not-so-small matter of qualifying. Or not as small a matter as every other cycle. Entering this week's round of qualifiers, Germany leads its group but doesn't control its own fate because of a loss to Iceland last fall -- at home (with the Germans idle this round, Iceland can regain the lead by beating Slovenia). That said, it will remain a shock if the Germans don't turn that around in the rematch in Reykjavik in September. And led by captain Dzsenifer Marozsan, this is still a roster littered with Olympic gold medals and youth World Cup titles.
As its draw at home against park-the-bus Wales in qualifying suggests, England is still adjusting to the role of heavyweight -- with all of its accompanying expectations. But if you believe it's a meaningful sign that Lucy Bronze went to the best team in the world and fit in well enough at Lyon to help her win recognition as the BBC's world player of the year, that Toni Duggan made a successful high-profile move to Barcelona and that Fran Kirby continued to be one of the most entertaining players anywhere, you believe England is ready to compete for a World Cup trophy.
The generation that lifted France to global prominence is moving aside. It failed to turn potential and panache into a podium finish in a major tournament and bottomed out with a disappointing Euro 2017. But its legacy might yet be setting the stage for those now arriving, a group of players in their early 20s under coach Corinne Diacre that grew up with the benefits of the support of the French federation. Mix up-and-comers like Grace Geyoro with Eugenie Le Sommer, Amandine Henry and Wendie Renard, and the host still has everything it needs to get French hopes up.
There is always a "Goldilocks" team in these rankings, the team that feels too high or too low in any given spot but never slots in just right. That might be the Canadians this time around. Should the back-to-back Olympic bronze medalists be higher? They still have Christine Sinclair, who no matter where she is in relation to her absolute prime is still better than most of her peers. They also have an enviable young generation, among them UCLA midfielder Jessie Fleming and Lyon defender Kadeisha Buchanan. But will 2018 be the sweet spot for that mix of young and old?
The only concern for Australia is peaking too soon -- because no team had a more impressive 2017, including the major title winner we'll get to momentarily. Behind Sam Kerr's breakout year, Australia not only beat the United States in Seattle but beat Japan and Brazil three times. This year hasn't been as flawless, notably a loss to Japan in the Asian Cup final. Australia looked for much of that game like the team that so impressed a year ago, but it also came after a puzzling semifinal penalty shootout against Thailand. All of which is to say we've seen since 2015 that Australia competes with anyone. Now qualified for France, doing it consistently is the new test.
Does Brazil have what it needs to make one more run at a title with Marta in something still approximating peak years? The current team breezed through Copa America Femenina this year, as usual, and has a core of impressive 20-something talent, with no small assist from the NWSL as a development tool. But Brazil hasn't won a knockout game in the run of play in the World Cup or Olympics since beating Germany in 2008. It doesn't get the benefit of the doubt for its potential anymore.
This might feel low for the team that won last year's European Championship. Then again, a place at the adult's table might feel high for a team that took part in its first World Cup in 2015. That performance in Canada notwithstanding, last year was when much of the world was fully introduced to Lieke Martens, Danielle van de Donk, Shanice van de Sanden and a bold, aggressive and utterly entertaining Dutch style. Direct qualification is far from assured -- a tricky game at Norway in September looms large.
Japan is Asian Cup champion and safely qualified for France next summer. So far, so good. It also lost 6-2 to the Netherlands this year, which seems more worrisome. Granted, it didn't start its "A1" lineup that game, but it didn't start its U-20 team, either. That sums up Japan since the World Cup final in 2015, not quite the phantom international presence that Brazil can be in slow years but inconsistent as it moves on from the Aye Miyama and Homare Sawa era of a World Cup title and World Cup and Olympic silver medals. That remains a work in progress.
There is a real temptation here to trade the old guard in Sweden for the potential of a Spain finally awakened to women's soccer. Surely time is running out for the likes of Nilla Fisher, Hedvig Lindahl, Lotta Schelin and Caroline Seger, players we've watched for more than a decade (Schelin's future, in particular, remains unclear because of lingering injuries). But can a team that reached the 2016 Olympic final fall off this list entirely? A healthy Sofia Jakobsson, who missed last year's Euros but should be in her prime, could be a difference maker.