The Matildas head to France with great expectations heaped upon their young shoulders, the first Australian national team with a legitimate shot at advancing to the medal rounds. With a new head coach and one of the best players on the planet, the Matildas also have their work cut out for them in the group stage, where they face a surging Italian squad and one of their greatest rivals in Brazil.
How they got here
At the 2018 AFC Asian Cup in Jordan, the Matildas opened the tournament with a nil-all draw against South Korea and an 8-0 rout of Vietnam. But it was a 1-1 tie of Japan in the next game that booked their tickets to France. Striker Sam Kerr found the back of the net in the 86th minute to level the game and send the Matildas to their seventh straight FIFA Women's World Cup.
Since 2011, the Matildas have built a deep and versatile roster on the strength of a crop of young players who are ready to assume their roles as leaders. Since January, those players, including team captain Kerr and vice captain Steph Catley, have become even more important. That's when Football Federation Australia unexpectedly fired Matildas head coach Alen Stajcic -- four months before the start of the World Cup.
Ante Milicic, a former Australian striker and assistant coach of the men's national team, was named as Stajcic's replacement in March, but has had only 2½ months to integrate into the program before his squad takes the field against Italy on June 9. Since taking over, Milicic said he believes the Matildas have the talent to advance past the quarterfinals for the first time. Once known as a predictable, one-dimensional squad, the Matildas have worked on their fitness and ability to adapt, both to game situations as well as to the style of team they're playing. "That's been the biggest challenge, having both elements in our game," Kerr says. "I think we've gotten to the point now where we're really good at the rough, fast, counter-attacking game and the new challenge is to be really, really good at playing football the European way, passing the ball around."
Money Stat: 29-1
At the inaugural 2017 Tournament of Nations, the Matildas defeated the United States for the first time in 27 attempts, beating the Americans 1-0 in Seattle. They went on to capture the title, which the U.S. won in 2018. (The Matildas tied the U.S. in the 2018 tournament, and lost 5-3 to the U.S. in a friendly in Denver in March.)
Players to Watch
Kerr is an attacking threat and unarguably one of the best players in the world. She was shortlisted for FIFA Women's Player of the Year in 2018 and is the all-time career scorer in the National Women's Soccer League, where she currently plays for the Chicago Red Stars, and the W-League, where she captains the Perth Glory.
Although this will be Kerr's third World Cup appearance, she has never scored in a WWC game. Expect that to change this summer. Kerr has scored 31 goals in 76 international games for the Matildas, in addition to being the top scorer in the U.S. and Australian professional leagues. During the 2018 W-League season, she scored one goal for every 106.5 minutes she was on the field. And when she scores, don't look away. Kerr is also known for launching roundoff backflips to celebrate her scores.
The Matildas face longtime rivals Brazil on June 13, a must-win game for the Aussies, who are the top-ranked team in their group for the first time in World Cup history. The Matildas lost to Brazil in the quarterfinals of the Rio Olympics, but have won all four matches against them since that heartbreaking defeat. "It wouldn't be a major football tournament for the Matildas unless we had to play Brazil," Stajcic said earlier this year.
"It would be my dream to see Australia win a World Cup," said former Matildas midfielder Heather Garriock, 36, head coach of Canberra United in the W-League. "It would be amazing for women's sport here in Australia. We're a small country and pride ourselves on the attributes a player like Sam [Kerr] portrays to the world: laid back, competitive, winning mentality, but cheeky and fun at the same time. Winning a World Cup would professionalize the W-League and gives us more pull to ask for more money and equal pay."
The Matildas tend to "play up," to rise to the occasion and level of the team across the pitch -- but they struggle against underdogs. Perhaps that's because they're more comfortable when they are seen as the underdogs. The highest-ranked team in their group stage for the first time ever, the Matildas are in for a challenge. They also enter WWC19 on a two-game losing streak for the first time since 2016, after losing to the U.S. and the Netherlands in friendlies. But if they keep their heads, stick to their game plan and win their group, they will be rewarded with their ultimate scenario: They won't face Team USA until the final.
Post-France, the Matildas have another goal: to lure the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup to Australia. A gold medal would go a long way in that campaign.