Chile arrives to its first World Cup as the latest hope that South America can become something more than a one-team continent on the world stage. For all its own infrastructure issues in the women's game, Brazil has 18 wins and 59 goals in its World Cup history. The rest of the continent, thus far in the form of Argentina, Colombia and Ecuador, has produced one win and seven goals.
Unlike Colombia, which appeared a team on the rise even before a stunning victory against France and a place in the knockout round in the 2015 World Cup, there weren't as many signs at the youth levels that Chile was building toward this. And like most of the rest of the continent, the country still lacks a viable, fully professional league for women. But through the efforts of players to organize collectively and lobby their federation to host the Copa America -- and the positive public response to that tournament -- Chile is a part of the continent's story in women's soccer. Now it will try to add to the story on the field.
How they got here
Eliminated before the final phase of South American qualifying four years ago, Chile wrote one of the best stories this time around by qualifying for its first World Cup in front of large crowds and national television audiences on home soil in the Copa America Femenina.
Which isn't to say that qualifying was easy. Chile finished second in its group in the first phase of the Copa America Femenina. A draw against first-place Colombia gave Chile the clear edge on Paraguay for second place, vital because only the top two finishers advanced to the final four-team group. Chile then secured a place in the World Cup on the final day of the tournament with a 4-0 win against Argentina, when all the opponent would have needed to secure direct qualification was a draw.
Unlike some of the tournament's lower-ranked teams, Chile shouldn't be overwhelmed by the level of competition when it gets to France. The Chileans have played a schedule that borders on brutal since they qualified -- 11 games against fellow World Cup participants. That run includes two games each against the United States and Australia and a game against the Netherlands.
The clear highlight in that schedule was a 3-2 win on the road against Australia. The Australians had a sizable advantage in possession statistics and made Chile's Christiane Endler the star of the show with a series of saves, but Chile's ability to play a defensive game without completely losing its attacking instincts paid off with a win in front of more than 15,000 in Sydney.
The rest of the warm-up schedule has demonstrated how difficult it is to find that balance between defense and attack. Chile was routed by the United States, Netherlands and Australia (in their second game against the Aussies). It allowed 19 goals in those four games, and was beaten twice by Jamaica.
Money stat: 4
Four holdovers. There are likely to be at least four players, perhaps as many as six or seven, on the World Cup team who were also part of the squad that participated in the 2008 Under-20 World Cup. That event was hosted by Chile and remains the nation's only appearance in the sport's premier youth event. The quartet of Karen Araya, Christiane Endler, Daniela Pardo and Daniela Zamora, at the least, will carry on what began in one of Chile's first times on the world stage.
Players to watch
Yanara Aedo: It isn't likely to take quite the same form as four years ago, when Colombian standout Lady Andrade did her best to rile up the U.S. team in advance of a knockout-round game by predicting a victory and suggesting the Americans talked too much. But Aedo might have a point to prove when the U.S. next meets a South American team in the World Cup. Briefly a member of the Washington Spirit, Aedo never played in the National Women's Soccer League before a move to Spain (she did have a lengthy run with the Spirit's reserve team). One of Chile's best goal scoring options in international play, she'd surely love to make an impact in the same group as the Americans.
Christiane Endler: She's locked in a crowded goalkeeping situation at PSG, where Polish international Katarzyna Kiedrzynek earned a majority of domestic starts this season and a place on the all-league team in France's top division and Endler handled the Champions League. There is no such job-sharing with Chile, where Endler remains the unquestioned star, captain and best hope for success. Quick and agile at around 6 feet, perhaps the most athletic keeper in the sport at the moment, she's at her very best when forced to rely on her reactions.
The tournament will have one of its first major shocks if Chile enters its final group game against Thailand with more than a point (and even a point would be a feat). But barring a disastrous result in the opening games that ruins its goal difference, the Chileans might still have an opportunity to advance as a third-place team. That's going to test the mental resilience of a group of players competing on this stage for the first time. They have to stick with this for all three games.
"Qualification was something we were looking for so long. The group has been fighting for this for nearly 10 years. It was very emotional when we knew we were going to the World Cup. I remember everything about that night." -- Christiane Endler
"That kind of thinking, that we might not get past the first round or we will try not to lose too many goals, would be mediocre. We are going to take the game to them and try and win. Not getting beat is not what we're going there for." -- Maria Jose Urrutia
The investment in pre-tournament scheduling should pay off and allow Chile to collect three points against Thailand. If it keeps the score manageable against the U.S. and Sweden, those three points might be enough to get out of the group. If so, that would likely mean a knockout-round encounter with one of Australia, Brazil, England or Japan and the end of the run.