When Sweden was drawn into Group D with the United States on Saturday, I had a sneaking suspicion my lack of proficiency with Swedish profanity would come back to bite me. After many failed Google Translation searches, I finally figured out just what Swedish coach Pia Sundhage said to U.S. coach Jill Ellis (in Swedish) after the Women's World Cup draw in Ottawa. And as I suspected, it was not printable. Thankfully, Ellis gave me the Disney translation: WHAT. THE. HECK.
Yep, I think that sums it up pretty well. Group D is tough. It is the best teams from each pot. It is the Worst-Case Draw scenario scribbled on your napkin over dinner. It's Team USA with:
• Sweden: The strongest team not seeded (that is a whole other article) in the draw. Sundhage became Sweden's coach after leading the U.S. women's soccer team to Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. Jill Ellis served as Sundhage's assistant for the U.S. team before being appointed head coach. And as if the teams need any more familiarity, this is the fourth straight Women's World Cup in which these two teams have been grouped together.
• Australia: After Japan, this is the best team in the Asian confederation. Ranked 10th in the world, the Australians are a feisty, never-die type of team. They are not only physical but also young and tireless.
• Nigeria: The seven-time African champion was also the U20 Women's World Cup runner-up this summer. In the past three U20 Women's World Cups, Nigeria has twice reached the final and went as far as the semifinals in its other appearance. Plus, the Nigerians have two young stars in Desire Oparanozie and Asisat Oshoala, the Golden Boot and Golden ball winners at this summer's U20 Women's World Cup.
Here is the good news for U.S. fans worrying about that Group of Death title. The reality is the U.S. team has never lost to Australia or Nigeria (yep -- never). That doesn't mean they won't be difficult, but it is at least indicative of the United States' dominance over the years. Sweden, on the other hand, has posed more of a problem for the U.S. women. They lost to Sweden in the group stage at the 2011 World Cup (Sweden won the group) and then again this past March at the Algarve Cup. Sundhage knows the U.S. team so well, a "Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie" serenade from the sideline is not out of the question.
So, yes, this is a tough group. But this is a doable group. The issue for the Americans will be not getting out of their group but where they get out. With the 2015 World Cup expanding from 16 to 24 teams, the United States could finish third in the group and still advance. But if the U.S. women don't win their group, the "road to" becomes measurably more challenging -- as in, Brazil, Canada or Germany in the Round of 16 challenging.
Let's play the what-if game, shall we?
• If the United States wins its group: The Americans would play the third place team from Group B, E or F. That could be teams such as Costa Rica, South Korea or Colombia (nice). Then for the quarterfinal, they would play the winner of two second-place teams (nice again). They would not play a group winner until the semifinals (super nice).
• If the United States finishes second in its group: The Americans would play the first place finisher from Group E, which most likely will be Brazil (less nice).
• If the United States finishes third in its group: The Americans would play the first place finisher from Group A or B. That could be Canada (THE HOSTS) in Group A and Germany in Group B (not nice at all).
While we are projecting, let's take a look at the other groups:
Group A: Canada, China, New Zealand and Netherlands. The hosts did not fair so well, either (there goes the conspiracy theory chatter). This is the second hardest group; it's the only group with all four teams ranked in the top 20. Canadian coach John Herdman will be meeting his former team, New Zealand, which always makes things spicy (bonus).
I am taking Canada and ... drum roll, please ... the Netherlands to advance out of this group. I really like Dutch 18-year-old Vivianne Miedema, who has been the key cog in getting Netherlands to its first Women's World Cup. The teenager finished European Qualifiers as the TOP SCORER, with 16 goals. Dang.
Group B: Germany, Ivory Coast, Norway and Thailand. Germany is singing in this group of life. And motivated. The Germans lost in the quarterfinals of the most recent World Cup (which they hosted), which meant they did not qualify for the 2012 Olympics. Double ouch. They are ready to rumble. Germany and Norway should dominate this group.
Group C: Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon and Ecuador. Japan, the reigning World Cup champion, is happily alongside three debutants. Switzerland can cause some problems for Japan, but Japan and Switzerland should take this group.
Group D: United States, Australia, Sweden and Nigeria. As you already know, the D stands for Death. I am taking the U.S. and Sweden for this group.
Group E: Brazil, South Korea, Spain and Costa Rica. Brazil is surrounded by a pair of rookies (Spain and Costa Rica are in their first World Cup) and a team making its first trip since 2003 (South Korea). Brazil should take this group, but I really like Spain. What's not to like when a player such as midfield maestro Vero Boquete (of the NWSL's Portland Thorns) runs the show?
Group F: France, England, Colombia and Mexico. France reached the semifinals in both the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. It is no longer a dark horse and is now a contender. England continues to grow, now under the guidance of new coach Mark Sampson. France and England will take this group handily.
There you have it.
For those who wonder how in the heck the best team from each pot can end up in one group, well, there is a silver lining. It is called motivation. It is called focus. It is called a throbbing, visceral pounding in your heart. Just when you think you don't need any more motivation as a player (it is the World Cup, after all), this happens.
Suddenly every U.S. player knows it is GAME ON.
The Women's World Cup kicks off 180 days from Sunday. I can't wait.