Four years after the United States women’s national soccer team lifted its record third World Cup trophy, the Americans will enter the 2019 contest as the odds-on favorite to add a fourth star to their jerseys.
To do so, the United States will have to outlast the deepest and most talented World Cup field in women’s soccer history.
The 2019 World Cup ― the eighth edition since FIFA started a women’s tournament in 1991 ― opens in France on June 7. No fewer than six teams think they can compete for the title. A few others have the potential to make deep, disruptive runs. And a handful of newcomers will aim to be heard, too. That level of competition — and the larger 24-team field — is a testament to the growth of the women’s game worldwide over the nearly three decades since the first World Cup, and proof that even more investment could further fuel the sport’s popularity worldwide.
That growth ― brought on by bigger investments from national federations, expanding domestic leagues and an unwavering commitment to the game first and foremost from the women who play it ― will likely make this the most exciting World Cup in women’s soccer history. It may even result in a new supreme force in the sport: The top contenders include a host of nations, most notably France and England, that hope to win their first Women’s World Cup title.
They won’t if the defending champions have their way.
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The United States Women’s National Team, which kicks off its World Cup on June 11 against Thailand, is still the best team in the world, especially when they have the ball. And they have the ball a lot.
Up top, striker Alex Morgan and her running mates ― wide forwards Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe ― form a three-headed attack capable of tying defenders in knots and pouring in goals. When the United States needs fresh legs or attacking reinforcements, manager Jill Ellis can turn to World Cup veteran Christen Press, starlet Mallory Pugh or 2015 hero Carli Lloyd ― now an out-and-out, kitchen-sink-style striker ― to batter tired defenses into submission. It’s a six-deep attacking outfit any manager would kill for. At its peak it looks like this:
The question for the United States is what happens behind those attackers, especially against tougher opponents than the Americans faced in qualifying or pre-World Cup tuneups. Led by Lindsey Horan ― the 2018 National Women’s Soccer League MVP and a genuine star ― and destroyer Julie Ertz, the midfield is uber-talented, but it has looked disjointed at times in those tuneups, especially when it comes to servicing the attackers. Ellis will need Rose Lavelle to play like the creative force she can be or she’ll have to tweak her lineup to get the red-hot Sam Mewis onto the pitch more.
The defense is also a bit of an open question. After the Americans conceded seven goals in four matches against World Cup contenders this spring, they’ve held their last four opponents scoreless. Is that progress or the benefit of weaker competition? In Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara, the United States has two wide defenders who can supplement the attack as much as they actually defend. But while stalwart Becky Sauerbrunn is back for her third World Cup, any of her three potential partners in the center of the defense will be making her first appearance on such a big stage. The U.S. also has a new face in goal. Add it all up and there are enough questions to cause at least a little concern.
But this isn’t unfamiliar territory for Ellis and the United States. The Americans were sloppy and out-of-sync in the runup to the 2015 World Cup and even into the quarterfinals of that tournament. They still beat Germany and Japan to win the whole thing.
The United States is good enough to do it all over again. Just don’t be surprised if somebody else takes their place on the throne.
France: France is home to one of the world’s best women’s development academies, perhaps its best women’s league, and, in Olympique Lyonnais, almost certainly its best women’s club. All that’s missing is a World Cup title. Now, Les Bleues have a chance to win their first on home soil, a feat no team, men’s or women’s, has accomplished since the U.S. women’s team in 1999.
A sign of France’s depth: Manager Corinne Diacre left Marie-Antoinette Katoto, the French league’s leading scorer, off the national team roster, choosing more experienced strikers over the 20-year-old who scored 22 goals last season. Four Lyon stars form the backbone of this squad: Forward Eugenie Le Sommer, midfielder Amandine Henry, defender Wendie Renard, and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi carried their club to a European title in May. A World Cup crown for their country this summer would make France the champions in both the men’s and women’s games.
England: Similar to the situation in France, English women’s soccer has benefited from years of development spearheaded by its wealthy clubs and the English Football Association. After a heartbreaking defeat in the semifinal four years ago, The Three Lionesses are among the favorites this time around.
England is loaded up front, with Nikita Paris, Ellen White and Beth Mead forming a potentially potent attack. England cemented itself as a contender this spring when the Lionesses rode wins over Japan and Brazil and a draw with the United States to victory in the SheBelieves Cup.
Germany: The two-time champions haven’t won a World Cup since 2007, and despite taking the gold at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, their dominant grip on European women’s soccer has loosened a bit. But Germany is still ranked second in the world and is more than capable of joining the United States as the only three-time champions come July. Captain Dzsenifer Maroszan is the star: The midfielder, who finished third in the Best FIFA Women’s Player voting in May, is among the world’s top players.
Japan: Japan sits a bit behind the rest of the major contenders, but doubt them at your own risk. The Nadeshiko upset the United States to win the World Cup in 2011 and reached the final again four years ago. This version is young and raw, and winning a gold medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics is a major priority. They’ve beaten Brazil and drawn the United States and Germany already this year and may be rounding into shape at exactly the right time.
The Netherlands: If there’s a team ready to explode onto the world stage this summer, it’s the Netherlands. The Dutch are making their second World Cup appearance ― they lost to Japan in the Round of 16 four years ago ― but maybe no team has come further faster since then. The Netherlands beat Sweden and England on the way to a European championship in 2017, and in Vivianne Miedema and Danielle Van de Donk, the Dutch boast two of the most exciting players who will take the field in France.
Brazil: The Brazilians reached the 2007 World Cup final and won silver medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics, but they’ve yet to take the ultimate step. Could this be the year? It would have to be for this generation of stars: Formiga, Cristiane, Barbara and, most notably, Marta ― a six-time player of the year and probably the greatest women’s footballer of all time ― are all likely playing in their last World Cup. The Brazilians may be a dark horse, but recent results haven’t been good: Brazil lost nine straight matches heading to France, all against the quality of teams they’ll have to beat to surpass a disappointing Round of 16 finish four years ago.
Australia: Is Australia good enough to win the whole thing? Maybe not! Will they be the best, or at least most uniquely, dressed team at the World Cup? Definitely! And do they have Sam Kerr, one of the world’s best strikers and a genuine wonder to watch? They do! Australia probably won’t win this thing. But The Matildas ― another team that’s benefited from growing investments in their domestic league ― are pretty good, they’re capable of making a deep run, and Kerr is a terror. No one will be excited to face them at any point in this tournament.
Keep an eye on Canada and Sweden too.
Investment in the Women’s Game: A handful of countries have dominated women’s soccer for one simple reason. Led by the United States, they have all devoted more money and attention to the sport than their peers have. That dominance is waning, though, because more countries are devoting more money and attention to the sport than they have before.
In some cases, that’s been a decadelong push. The depth of talent that France, England, the Netherlands and Australia will bring to the World Cup is the result of concerted efforts and investments from national federations and domestic clubs. France and England would be especially poignant winners: Women in both countries were banned from organized soccer for most of the 20th century, but their persistence across decades of official discrimination forced the hands of national federations and top clubs. Now, either could be on the cusp of a first world championship (and, for England, the country’s first major soccer trophy since 1966).
In others, the investment is even more recent. Spain has had a women’s league since 1988, but it was only brought under the control of its main league in 2015. These days Spanish clubs ― including the famed Barcelona ― and the Spanish federation are embracing the women’s sport in ways they and many others across the world never have before.
A few years ago, U.S. great Julie Foudy argued that smaller nations with little hope of breaking through in men’s soccer should view investments in their women’s programs as a “major untapped market” in their countries and beyond. This World Cup features one team (Thailand) whose men have never qualified and another (Jamaica) whose men have only qualified once. It’s unlikely either women’s team will go far in their maiden appearance, but the mere fact that they’ll be in France, on the sort of soccer stage those countries have rarely if ever reached, could bring the game greater prominence back home. The first-time presence of Chile ― whose men failed to reach the World Cup last summer ― and the return of Argentina ― whose women hadn’t qualified since 2007 ― could help boost attention to the women’s sport in soccer-mad South America, too, and prove that even the most meager of investments could propel those teams forward.
Equal Pay and Equal Attention: That progress doesn’t mean there’s been enough investment, a fact that will overshadow this World Cup no matter how great it is. The world’s most prominent team, the United States, will jet to France while in the midst of yet another equal pay fight with the U.S. Soccer Federation. And the biggest story of this World Cup, before it even begins, is a player who won’t be there.
Norwegian star striker Ada Hegerberg, the reigning women’s player of the year, is effectively on strike against her national federation over unequal treatment of the women’s team there. In a sane world, that would wake Norwegian officials up. Norway with Hegerberg could have been a disruptive force in France; without her, they’re probably not good enough to threaten the sport’s real powers. And so a country that was once at the forefront of women’s soccer — Norway won the 1995 World Cup — is now most notable for its unwillingness to keep pushing forward.
After outrage over gender pay disparities during the 2015 World Cup, FIFA announced it would double the amount it pays out to women this year. But that increase is still smaller than what it gave men last summer. Soccer’s global players union has criticized FIFA, saying that “women’s football remains an afterthought for many of football’s male administrators.”
There are some (small) positive signs, though. The German Football Association acknowledged in an advertisement promoting its team that it hasn’t done enough: “We play for a nation that doesn’t even know our names,” the women say in the ad. Nike specifically designed its kits for women athletes for the first time. Visa, one of FIFA’s top sponsors, has said it would spend more money on women’s soccer, and Adidas will pay the women it sponsors on the winning team the same amount it gave their male counterparts at the 2018 World Cup.
The potential of women’s soccer is proven and obvious. It just needs sponsors, federations and FIFA to take it seriously.
Potential Records: Watch Brazil if you want to see history. At age 41, midfielder Formiga is set to appear in her seventh World Cup, which would make her the first man or woman to do so. And with 15 goals, striker Marta is already the all-time leading scorer in Women’s World Cup history, so any time she scores in France, she’ll also add to her record. More importantly, two goals will push Marta past Germany’s Miroslav Klose as the leading World Cup scorer, male or female, ever. Canada’s Christine Sinclair is also just four goals away from the all-time record for goals scored in international play.
The U.S. Women’s Schedule
The Americans must be tired of seeing Sweden in major tournaments. This is the third consecutive World Cup in which they’ve been paired together in the group stage, and things haven’t gone so well for the U.S. in the previous two. Sweden beat the United States in 2011 and earned a draw in 2015. Sweden also knocked the Americans out of the 2016 Olympics en route to the silver medal. Their battle on June 20 will likely determine who wins Group F.
U.S.-Thailand, Tuesday, June 11 (3 p.m./Fox)
U.S.-Chile, Sunday, June 16 (12 noon/Fox)
U.S.-Sweden, Thursday, June 20 (3 p.m./Fox)
Don’t Miss These Matchups
In addition to U.S.-Sweden, the group stage features three other matches that will pit teams ranked in FIFA’s top 10 against each other. All of them should have major implications for how the tournament shapes up in the knockout stage.
Australia-Brazil, Thursday, June 13 (12 noon/Fox)
England-Japan, Wednesday, June 19 (3 p.m./Fox Sports 1)
Netherlands-Canada, Thursday, June 20 (12 noon/Fox)
France and South Korea will meet in the World Cup’s opening match on June 7 (3 p.m./Fox Sports 1).
The full schedule, with TV listings, is here.