16. Cameroon (3rd in Group B, def. by Canada in Round of Sixteen)
It may have taken them a while, but Cameroon can finally legitimately claim that they’re one of Africa’s powers after qualifying for their second straight major competition, a feat almost unheard of for anyone but Nigeria in this region. Their first breakthrough didn’t exactly result in a memorable experience though, as Cameroon were well out of their depth in the 2012 Summer Olympics, losing all three of their matches and conceding eleven goals while scoring just once. Getting to their first World Cup proved to be harder than expected as well, as Cameroon made hard work of Senegal in the preliminaries before winning their qualifying group in the final qualifying stage. More drama was to follow, with a late, late extra time winner against Cote d’Ivoire needed to seal a spot in Canada. The continental championship proved to be beyond them though, as Cameroon fell to regional kingpins Nigeria in the final.
Like Nigeria, a smattering of Cameroon’s players have managed to move away from the domestic league and ply their trade in Europe. Unlike with many of the Nigerians, most of those players have been shuttled to Eastern European outposts or the French lower leagues, leaving the mysteries to most. Not a mystery is Cameroon’s key player and a sleeper to make a big impact in June, Gaelle Enganamouit. While she hasn’t been a big scorer at international level thus far, Enganamouit does have nine goals in twenty-six appearances with Eskilstuna United in Sweden. As one of the few Cameroonians with major experience in a higher quality league, Enganamouit is probably going to have to star if the African side is to make the knockout stages.
Otherwise, it’ll likely be up to the likes of Madeleine Ngono and Gabrielle Onguene to supply the offense for the Africans. Ngono is thirty-one but has done the business with a variety of French sides and does have thirty-eight goals at international level. Onguene had a brief sojourn in Russia and is the only other Cameroon player besides Ngono to have more than ten goals at international level. One of the few others in the squad with any type of big league pedigree is Francine Zouga, who had a small run at French mid-tablers Montpellier. WNY Flash supporters will notice Ajara Nchout in the Cameroonian squad, though they won’t quite be sure what to expect considering the negligible impact she’s made in the NWSL thus far.
As is the case with a lot of the competition’s smaller teams, defense is likely going to make or break Cameroon’s hopes. And in this regard, the Africans might not be as doomed as some of their smaller brethren. They conceded just one goal in three matches in the group stage of qualifying, while the only side to knock more than one goal past them in the African Championship was champions Nigeria. Goalkeeper Annette Ngo Ndom won the Golden Glove at that competition and will be looking to further build upon her burgeoning reputation. Ahead of her, the likes of Augustin Ejangue, a journeyman whose seen time in both Russia and most recently with Amazon Grimstad in Norway, will be tasked with shutting down some talented Group C attackers.
One of the big worries with Cameroon though is a lack of big time preparation going into their opener against Ecuador on June 8. Since the African Championship, Cameroon has played just three games, none of them against the most taxing of opposition. A couple of 2-1 wins against Ethiopia isn’t likely to have settled much, while a 3-2 win over Cote D’Ivoire must be improved upon if Cameroon is to have any hopes of moving through to the last sixteen. With the defense keeping zero clean sheets in those three matches, there are definite questions as to whether that defense that looked so competent in the last stages of qualifying will hold up in Canada.
But at the very least, Cameroon should have a solid chance of advancing. The draw did them a favor in giving them Ecuador in their group and giving them to Cameroon in the opener at that. On fresh legs, Cameroon should have the opportunity to lay down a marker at the very least and set up more conservatively in the last two games to try and preserve their goal differential. I think they’ll go through, just, on three points but won’t provide much in the way of a challenge to Canada in the round of sixteen.
15. New Zealand (3rd in Group A, def. by Japan in Round of Sixteen)
It’s about getting over the hump for New Zealand. The Ferns have won many fans thanks to their dogged tenacity over the years but are looking for more tangible rewards in the form of major trophies. In a sense, the Oceanic nation is caught in something of a Faustian bargain. With Australia now competing in the Asian region, New Zealand won’t have to worry about qualifying for a major tournament ever now given the glacial growth of the game in other Oceanic nations. But at the same time, that lack of challenge in qualification may be stunting the growth of New Zealand as a potential contender on the world stage. Iron sharpens iron, and despite the Ferns trying to schedule competitive friendlies, there is a sense of stagnation at the moment.
That stagnation can be seen in full voice since the team clinched qualification for Canada. The nation has played eleven matches since that qualifying tournament and won just a single match. While a narrow defeat against France and a draw with Norway and two draws with Spain look good on paper, the sheer lack of wins in that time span has to be a serious concern. At the very least though, New Zealand can take heart in the fact that they’ve only really been shown up once since qualification, a blistering 4-0 defeat to the United States in which the offense looked short on ideas against the Americans. The Ferns know that they won’t be facing an offense as good as the U.S.’ in the group stage at least, giving them hope in what looks like a very tight group on paper.
Defense has been a contentious subject for New Zealand, as they’ve kept just one clean sheet in those eleven friendlies. Center-back Abby Erceg captains the side and has already proven her worth at club level with the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL. Who partners her is up for grabs. Rebekah Stott is young at twenty-one but will win her fortieth cap at this tournament and is an experienced option in that regard. There’s another decision to be made at left-back, where Ali Riley could strut her stuff. Riley is one of the world’s best full-backs but may be needed further forward as an offensive option or defensive winger. In that case, Katie Bowen is a favorite to play there, though she’s another who could be used in the midfield. Right-back is a no-brainer with Ria Percival already over a hundred caps despite just being twenty-five years old, with the experienced full-back also having lots of experience with Jena in Germany.
Erin Nayler is first choice in goal but isn’t likely to win too many games on her own. She’ll have to star, since the cover is Rebecca Rolls and Cushla Lichtwark, who have combined for twenty-one caps and seventy-three years on the planet.
Another concern is a lack of invention in midfield, potentially a reason why Tony Readings toyed with using Riley and Bowen further forward in friendlies. Betsy Hassett and Annalie Longo will do a lot of running for the cause but aren’t natural #10s in the conventional sense of the word and may be more focused on winning the ball. Veteran Kirsty Yallop, who plies her trade in Sweden, will also be a contender for a midfield berth, though this group on the whole is worrisome if the forwards aren’t scoring.
How they’ll lineup is not set in stone, but New Zealand looks very likely to use Amber Hearn, Sarah Gregorius, and Hannah Wilkinson in combination up top. Hearns is New Zealand’s all-time leading scorer at international level and isn’t a stranger to top competition having played with Jena in Germany. Gregorius has been a bit of a footballing nomad in comparison and has done a much better job scoring for the Ferns than she has at club level. Wilkinson is the wild card. She has often flattered to deceive for the University of Tennessee in collegiate action in the U.S. but still has the change of pace and strength to trouble defenses when she’s on. Youngsters Jasmine Pereira and Rosie White have been used off the bench, with the latter familiar to college soccer watchers as a member of UCLA’s attack for the past few years.
I think New Zealand is being undervalued by many going into Canada. They have some top players in the biggest leagues in the world, and more importantly, they’ve got experience at multiple big tournaments. Erceg and Riley (if she plays on the backline) give New Zealand half of a very good backline, while the preferred three up top can be a handful on their day. The lack of invention in midfield is a worry, but I still think the Ferns will eek their way into the last sixteen where Japan will prove to be a class apart.
14. South Korea (3rd in Group E, def. by USA in Round of Sixteen)
Oh, the difference a scoreless draw can make.
Going into last weekend’s friendly with the U.S., most probably saw South Korea as a side that might scrape their way through to the knockout stages but who would provide little real difficulty to the competition’s better sides. But a organized and stubborn resistance against a lackluster American side probably raised the stock of the Asian side considerably, even if most wanted to make the story about the U.S.’ insipid display. It may have just been a friendly, but it was also a pretty significant indicator of the progress that’s been made since the nation’s only other appearance at the WWC, a three-and-out showing in 2003.
In the meantime, South Korea’s never qualified for the Summer Olympics and didn’t get particularly close to qualifying in 2007 or 2011 either. The expansion of the field and expulsion of North Korea from the competition effectively robbed the South Korean qualifying campaign of any drama, with the real intrigue being how far they might go in the Asian Cup proper. Avoiding both Japan and Australia in the group stage was a boon, and the Koreans advanced to the semi-finals as group winners. But they’d hit a wall in the knockout stage, losing 2-1 to both Australia and China to finish fourth. The latter defeat was perhaps a bigger psychological blow, showing that the rebuilding Chinese squad was still above South Korea in the pecking order for now.
What South Korea has that China doesn’t though is a world class player, in the form of midfield impresario Ji So-Yun. Thought of as one of the world’s most promising youngsters, Ji moved to Chelsea in England and didn’t disappoint. The midfielder won the PFA Women’s Players’ Player of the Year honor, a huge award for a foreign player in her first year in England and a signal that Ji truly is one of the world’s best coming into Canada. The match against the U.S. only furthered Ji’s reputation as a player to be reckoned with, her touches on the ball occasionally veering into the sublime territory.
But if the U.S. draw revealed anything, it’s that South Korea may still struggle to score against top teams, even if Ji is wielding a large influence in the middle of the park. Park Eun-sun looks like a top contender for goals given an enviable tally at international level, and she’s also one of the few besides Ji to take a step out of South Korea to play club ball, currently playing in Russia. Fellow forward Yoo Young-a and midfielder Jeon Ga-eul will also look to get in amongst the goals, though they’ll still likely be very dependent on Ji to help open up defenses with her probing runs and slide rule passes.
Defensively, South Korea was able to stifle the U.S. with some smart defending and an organized approach which they’ll need to replicate if they’re to escape Group E. The backline is a fairly non-descript group, with captain Shim Seo-yeon looking to marshal the back four and stop some big hitters in their group such as Marta, Vero, and Shirley Cruz. They’ll probably need some help from goalkeeper Kim Jung-mi who looked confident in the air and composed making saves for much of last weekend’s draw with the U.S. With questions about goals, South Korea will need more of that form in defense rather than the somewhat leaky displays in the last games of qualification.
While there’s undoubtedly going to be a groundswell of belief in South Korea after that U.S. draw, taking a step back, it was the highlight of a rather patchy buildup to the WWC. While the Koreans romped through the early phases of the Asian Games, they’d still finish third after a loss to bitter rivals North Korea. Despite a loss to Canada, wins over China and Mexico had some believing that the Koreans would be able to surprise a few teams in the Cyprus Cup. They didn’t. Losses to Canada, Italy, and Scotland were a big reality check, and the Asian side only avoided complete humiliation by beating Belgium on penalties in the consolation game. Form has picked back up with wins over Russia (twice) and that U.S. draw, but form on the whole probably indicates South Korea isn’t much of a threat to get past the first knockout round.
But if anything, South Korea has revealed themselves to be a chore to break down, even if there’s not much of a capacity for comebacks when behind. I think they’ll be able to grind their way to three or four points in Group E, setting up a rematch with the U.S. in the round of sixteen. There, I doubt the Americans will be as lackadaisical as in their late May encounter.
13. Holland (2nd in Group A, def. by Switzerland in Round of Sixteen)
The Oranje may have a chance to be brilliant in Canada this Summer. Or at least traverse new frontiers that they could only dream of for the longest time. The Dutch women’s football program had seemingly been in an eternal slumber up until 2009, having not qualified for a major competition until they qualified for the 2009 EUROs in Finland and shocked the world with a stunning semi-final appearance on their debut. That showing was what made their failure to even reach the playoff round so disappointing as they tried to qualify for their first Women’s World Cup. While Holland did make it back to EURO 2013, they’d be dismissed rudely at the first hurdle, failing to win a single match.
The expansion of the field to twenty-four teams really eliminated any excuse Holland had in not reaching the finals, but they still were drawn into a tough qualifying group with rivals Norway. At the end of the day, the Norwegians emerged triumphant by two points, dropping the Dutch into the repechage playoff. In the end, Scotland and Italy would be vanquished though, with Holland finally sealing their long awaited WWC debut. Fortune smiled on them with the draw as well, with the Dutch landing in a group they have an outside shot of winning. Even second place, which has to be seen as the minimum goal, would land the debutants into a position in the bracket which would certainly give them a shot of reaching the last eight.
Going into the opener though, there is real worry over the fitness of teenage phenom Vivianne Miedema, who was held out of a recent friendly with Sweden, nominally as a precautionary measure. If Miedema can’t go at full speed, it’d be a massive blow for the Dutch, with the youngster already looking like a player of world class potential. With nineteen goals already in just twenty-three international caps, Miedema could well set Canada on fire if she gets locked in in what looks like a very doable group on paper. Manon Melis is hardly a gigantic downgrade if Miedema can’t go, with the veteran having fifty-four international goals herself. Integrating both into the lineup will be key, with Melis likely to play on the wing when Miedema’s leading the line. Another youngster, Lieke Martens, who was top scorer at the UEFA U19 tournament in 2010, will likely be posted at the other wing position for the Dutch. Additional cover up top comes from Twente player Shanice van de Sanden, while old warhorse Kirsten Van de Ven and international newcomer Vanity Lewerissa provide additional depth out wide.
If Holland keeps the faith with their 4-2-3-1, the #10 role likely falls to Danielle van de Donk, though her lack of experience outside the BeNe League is a minor concern. The same could be said of veteran Anouk Dekker, who hasn’t played outside of Holland in some eight years. Nonetheless, Dekker looks like forming the double pivot in the 4-2-3-1 with Sherida Spitse, the first player in Dutch women’s football to be privy to a transfer fee. Dekker is the taller of the duo and figures to do more of the dirty work in the middle of the park. Another of the young starlets coming off the conveyor belt, Tessel Middag, got three starts in qualifiers and is the best option for depth in the middle of the park.
While the offense has talent to burn, the defense is a serious worry, as they’ve certainly been guilty of some self-destructive defending in the matches since sealing qualification. Shipping two to the likes of Iceland and three to Scotland should send alarm bells ringing in Oranje quarters, even if their group doesn’t possess the most top flight attacking talent in the competition. The preferred center-back pairing in qualifiers was Mandy van den Berg and Stefanie van der Gragt, the latter having risen to prominence with Daphne Koster’s time in international football having come to a close. van den Berg will be looking to make up for lost time after missing EURO 2013 through injury. The team played Anouk Hoogendijk, also capable in midfield, at center-back in place of van der Gragt in a friendly, so it’ll be interesting to see who partners van den Berg against New Zealand. Desiree van Lunteren looks to have emerged as the club’s right-back of choice, with the other main right-back from qualifying, Kika van Es not on the final roster. The ageless Dyanne Bito, hoping to add to her one hundred forty-six caps, will deputize. Left-back is a massive worry, with regular starter Siri Worm ruled out through injury. Petra Hogewoning, once of Sky Blue FC, and Merel van Dongen, once a defensive midfielder at the University of Alabama, each played a half against Sweden in the last preseason friendly. Hogewoning’s experience will likely win the day, but the zone is one of real worry.
Loes Guerts also has American experience having played collegiately for Western Illinois nearly a decade ago. She has over one hundred caps and is the Oranje’s undisputed #1 in goal. Given the back four, she could be a busy netminder in Canada.
Holland are a terrifying team to back and to face in this tournament given their truly volatile form. The Dutch are a team with some serious firepower and know how to use it most of the team, as evidenced by a 3-2 win over Norway in April that underlined their ambitions as a contender to make some noise in this tournament. But they’ve also won just two of their last eight matches, with some truly puzzling results in that time span. They were thrown a bone with their draw which should ensure a trip to the knockout stage. You’d have to say the defense is a time bomb waiting to bury the debutants though, and anything beyond the last sixteen should be seen as cause for major celebration.
12. Spain (2nd in Group E, def. by France in Round of Sixteen)
So maybe the patience was worth it. Or apathy for the more cynical of our lot. Ignacio Quereda, in charge of the Spanish women’s side since 1988 (!), finally began to make good in the federation’s faith in him with qualification for EURO 2013, the first major competition Spain had made it to since EURO 1997, where the Spaniards put in a creditable display in getting to the semi-finals. It was nearly unfathomable that they wouldn’t be seen again on a big stage until sixteen years later, where they reached the quarterfinals, humbling England in the process.
There could be no excuses for failing to qualify for the expanded WWC, and Spain didn’t blink in going unbeaten in ten group stage qualifiers, pipping Italy to automatic qualification. The draw was one that could’ve gone better for the WWC debutants. Brazil has as much firepower, while both South Korea and Costa Rica could be tricky opponents as well. Add in a likely matchup with either the second placed team in Group D or the winners of Group F, and you’ve got a recipe for a tough road for Quereda’s charges this Summer.
That road might be a little smoother if team talisman Veronica Boquete plays up to her gigantic potential. American fans will be well aware of Vero’s reputation from her time in the U.S. with Philadelphia in WPS and Portland in the NWSL. Vero at her best is one of the world’s top players, and the well-traveled superstar has almost single-handedly put Spain on the women’s footballing map, with her rise auguring well with the Spanish WNT’s climb up the rankings. She’s been used in a bit of a deeper role for country than many American fans are used to seeing her on these shores, but it goes without saying that opponents will be well served to mark her tightly and ensure she doesn’t have time and space to make runs from deep or pick out her teammates with passes.
The young and promising Virginia Torrecilla has been everpresent in the Spanish midfield throughout the qualifying campaign and looks likely to be the other part of the double pivot if Quereda sticks with the 4-2-3-1 for this tournament. Torrecilla has just thirteen caps at this level though, and it’ll be interesting to see how she helps stop the likes of Ji So-Yun and Marta in the middle of the park. Ahead of those two, in the nominal #10 role will be Jennifer Hermoso. A one-time member of Tyreso before the Swedish side imploded, Hermoso has since tried to help Barcelona achieve Spanish superiority. A bust in the NWSL with WNY, Vicky Losada has since caught back on in Europe, currently with Arsenal in England, and will also fight for a starting spot in the center of midfield. Veteran Silvia Meseguer will also provide midfield depth.
While Vero gets the column inches, the rest of the Spanish attack isn’t anything to sneeze at. Losada’s Arsenal teammate, Natalia Pablos figures to lead the line for Spain and will be looking to drive her country deep into the knockout stages after a glittering club career. Pablos has been pretty useful at international level also, netting nineteen goals in twenty-one caps. Pablos and aging understudy Erika Vazquez are likely in their last shot at World Cup glory, so they’ll want to make the most of the opportunity. It’s also likely the last chance saloon at this level for Sonia Bermudez, another bust in the NWSL with WNY who has come good back at Barcelona and also has a strong scoring record at this level. Marta Corredera figures to fill the opposite flank, but she’s the least of the scoring options in the attack for Spain and could be spelled by Alexia Putellas, yet another Barcelona product. Vero could also see time in the frontline should Spain be thirsting for goals.
Spain may have some serious weapons going forward, but they also have been patchy in defense since qualification was sealed. The Spaniards didn’t tinker much with their center-back pairing of Irene Paredes and Ruth Garcia during qualifiers and have few reasons to do so now at the tournament proper. Neither has played outside of Spain, and Quereda has to hope that the duo will be up to the task of stopping some of the world’s best attackers. Cover comes in the for of Marta Torrejon, the club’s likely starting right-back. With the other center-back starter in qualifiers, Miriam Dieguez not making the squad, Torrejon is the likely third option in the middle.
Torrejon’s been ever-present here for a while though, and she’ll be needed for support considering Corredera looks like the weakest link in the attack. If needed elsewhere, she’ll likely be spelled by Celia Jimenez Delgado, a JUCO stud in the U.S. collegiate system and coming to Tuscaloosa to play at the University of Alabama this Fall. Left-back is where all the questions are, with Quereda using three different players in qualifiers. Elixabet Ibarra is the experienced option with forty-two caps but is also thirty-three, and one wonders how she’ll hold up in the heat and on turf given the stern opposition. It’s more likely that Spain will turn towards Leire Landa who got valuable time in the qualifiers herself. Melanie Serrano, Landa’s teammate at Barcelona is an outside bet.
In goal, Ainhoa Tirapu is the Spanish #1 and played all of the important fixtures for Spain in the qualification run and has experience from the EURO 2013 run as well. Youngster Dolores Gallardo won the Golden Glove at the 2010 U17 World Cup for Spain and is likely the long-term option here and has gotten experience in some of the less important qualifiers. She’s a solid set of hands and will likely be the team’s #1 at EURO 2017.
Quereda’s burned a hell of a lot of bridges on the way, but he’s finally gotten Spain to the promised land of the World Cup. There’s some reason for guarded skepticism though. Even with Laura Del Rio long since frozen out of the side and the likes of Adriana Martin amongst the final cuts, this is still a side that’s probably a lot older than most suspect. Six of the likely starting eleven for Spain will be thirty years old or over by the time the next cup roles around, and the likes of Torrecilla, Paredes, and Corredera among others might find this a competition to soon to make a big mark. While Spain hasn’t lost a game in their buildup since qualification, they also have won just two of those, while the level of opposition has hardly been much to talk about. The offense has looked laggard at times, while the defense, though improving, isn’t going to win any trophies for Spain. Most will pencil Spain in for second in the group and be done with it, but there’s a part of me that wonders if things aren’t going to be much harder than expected for Quereda’s bunch. As is, I’ll go with common logic and say Spain advances before being outclassed by Spain in the last sixteen.
11. Nigeria (3rd in Group D, def. by Germany in Round of Sixteen)
The time is now for Nigeria. The perennial African champions enter Canada 2015 with perhaps the best chance ever for a side from their continent of making a deep run into the tournament. It’s been a bit of a slog at times for Nigeria through the years, but after so nearly winning the U20 World Cup last year, they’ll be confident of progressing to the knockout phase at the very least. Considering Nigeria was drawn into one of the most imposing groups in Women’s World Cup history, that says much about the renewed optimism surrounding the Nigeria program, no doubt bolstered by great performances at youth international level, including last year’s runner-up finish in Canada.
As seemingly is always the case for Nigeria in qualifying for the World Cup, they made easy work of their opponents in the quest for qualification. They rolled over Rwanda by a 12-1 aggregate scoreline to advance to the final tournament and won all three of their group stage games there with a +10 goal differential to boot. A 2-1 win over South Africa in the semi-finals locked up qualification for the finals, while a 2-0 victory over Cameroon gave Nigeria their ninth continental title. Continental dominance may have seemed like fait accompli, but international supremacy is going to take some doing with Nigeria drawing the U.S., Sweden, and Australia in the toughest of groups for the finals in Canada.
More than likely, Nigeria will be hoping to blow teams away with their offense this Summer. The leading attraction is Asisat Oshoala, well on her way to becoming one of the world’s best players after a star turn in Canada last year during the U20 World Cup, a feat she repeated during the African qualifying tournament for the WWC. Possessing a long stride coupled with explosive pace, Oshoala has been gliding past overmatched defenses for a while now and will be looking to do the same in Canada for the second straight Summer. With nobody in this group likely to just look to sit back and defend, Oshoala should find plenty of room to break into as she attempts to fire Nigeria into the knockout stages.
Anyone foolish enough to regard Nigeria as a one-trick pony in attack is going to quickly be relieved of those miscast beliefs. Before Oshoala, there was Desire Oparanozie, another great talent at youth international level but one who has struggled to assert herself at club level despite being just a year older than Oshoala. Playing at modest French side Guingamp, a big showing in Canada could spur the Nigerian into a move to a bigger club once more. Four-time African Woman Footballer of the Year Perpetua Nkwocha also returns for Nigeria at the spry age of thirty-nine. She has hardly been playing top level football, turning out in the Swedish lower leagues but has a scoring record at this level that cannot be questioned.
A new crop of youngsters are also waiting to establish themselves for Nigeria. Francisca Ordega is another who has shone at youth international level and has shown flashes of potential with the Washington Spirit of the NWSL. Ini Umotong, who played once upon a time with Wright State in American collegiate soccer, and current Oklahoma State star Courtney Dike, who hasn’t actually played for Nigeria outside of the U20 World Cup and this upcoming competition will also be in contention for minutes. Part of Edwin Okon’s dilemma is going to be finding a way to get all of his wonderful young attacking talent onto the pitch without disrupting the balance of the side. The midfield for Nigeria is also brutally young for the most part, with the most experience coming from captain Evelyn Nwabuoku and another young wonderkid, Ngozi Okobi.
And that’s going to be the million dollar question for Nigeria, as they’re a team that’s still very much littered with question marks in defense. The center-back partnership of Onome Ebi and Osinachi Ohale returns intact from the 2011 World cup, but Dash supporters who saw Ohale defend last season probably can attest to some of the Nigerian’s struggles against top level opposition. The story of Nigeria’s defense may be as much about who isn’t there as who is. A row about whether to release players for Olympic qualifiers (Nigeria’s was, ironically, cancelled via opponent forfeit) that didn’t fall on FIFA dates has seen the Super Falcons drop Faith Ikidi, one of the best defenders in the Swedish league and a player who might have made all the difference in defense. If Nigeria’s campaign falls apart defensively, expect Okon and the federation to be in line for some major heat in regards to their decision making with the Ikidi affair.
Veteran Precious Dede has the bulk of the experience in goal, but she also is thirty-five years old and gave way to Ibubeleye Whyte in African qualifiers. It’ll be another case of experience versus potential for Okon to decide upon and another decision that he’ll have to get right if Nigeria wants to advance.
Finally freed from the humiliation of not qualifying for the 2012 Summer Olympics, Nigeria has again taken their place at the top of the pecking order continentally after a rather effortless qualifying campaign that saw them crowned champions of Africa once again. But the fates appear pointed against Nigeria given that they were drawn into the hardest possible group and have seemingly not prepared for the tournament with much in the way of friendly matches. The Super Falcons have played just two recorded friendlies since qualification, both against Mali, and one of those matches was a 1-1 draw. Olympic qualifiers were supposed to stand in for other friendly opportunities, but those were cancelled when Nigeria’s opponents forfeited.
It’s a confluence of events that has to have Nigerian supporters worried going into Canada. This team is still incredibly young, with just five of the players on the roster older than twenty-three years old. The potential friendlies that weren’t scheduled could’ve been invaluable for experience and gelling the team, but Nigeria enters the World Cup as a team of immense potential but with precious little in the way of proven production. The offense could score goals by the bucket, but with so many questions about the defense, a shock run to the latter stages looks unlikely.
And yet for all that, I’m picking Nigeria to go through. I think their gung ho style of attacking and offensive talent will be good enough for at least one win, with the counter attack also good enough to keep goal differential in their favor in search of a last sixteen spot. In the knockout stage, they’ll rekindle one of youth international football’s great rivalries against Germany, who beat them in last year’s U20 World Cup final. The African champions should be game, but I think they’ll fall by the wayside far too soon against the European champs.
10. England (2nd in Group F, def. by Norway in Round of Sixteen)
Don’t say it loudly, but 2015 may be the very definition of a transition tournament for England, who for the first time in ages are without Hope Powell on the touchline for a major tournament. It’s hard to argue with Powell’s removal from the job after the Three Lionesses were humbled at UEFA EURO 2013, winning zero of their group stage matches and going out in the group stage, confirming the nadir of a national program that had seemingly been on the precipice of glory after finishing runners-up in EURO 2009. But England failed to build on that a few years later in Germany, falling to great rivals France on penalties in the quarterfinals.
With Mark Sampson in charge, England didn’t particularly find themselves tested in qualifying. And that might be the understatement of the century considering they won all ten of their matches, scored fifty-two goals and conceded just once (!). It was a bit of an anti-climax, but it was also just fine for a side trying to move beyond a contentious switch in management, as well as the international retirement of their longtime talisman, Kelly Smith. But for the first time in a long time, expectations for the English aren’t particularly high. In 2015, the quarterfinals may be a suitable target instead of a stumbling block to be rued over for a talented team falling just short.
The burning question is who supplies the offense for England with Smith gone. After fiddling with formations in qualifying, Sampson seems to have settled on a very English 4-4-2. Just who starts up front is something that probably isn’t going to be certain until the lineups are announced for the first match for the Three Lionesses. Sampson used two entirely different partnerships up top for the team’s last two friendlies. If you take England’s lineup against Canada to be a full strength one, Lianne Sanderson and Ellen White will be the preferred duo for Sampson. Sanderson is back from her international retirement and played some of her best ball with Boston in the NWSL last year before heading back to England. White boasts a similar strike rate at international level but missed much of last year with an ACL injury, though she’s seemingly back to close to full speed now.
Injury has also hit Jodie Taylor, a late comer to the party having just made her international debut last year. But Taylor has looked promising thus far in the Three Lionesses shirt, with four goals in eight caps and has to be seen as a threat for minutes if she’s healthy. The Portland Thorns striker has been out for a while with injury and is very much a fitness doubt for the moment. The polarizing Eniola Aluko is brilliant at her best and maddening at her worst and may be best used as a super sub running at tired legs deep into matches. Sampson will also be chomping at the bit to get Fran Kirby into matches, as the youngster has looked one of England’s most promising prospects for the future despite playing in the English second tier.
Sampson will be hoping service from the midfield comes from either Jordan Nobbs, a spritely and hyperactive figure, or Toni Duggan, who will be looking to be make headlines on the pitch after a tumultuous past year off of it. There is the possibility, of course, of Sampson cramming both Nobbs and Duggan at the same time in a narrower diamond in midfield. Otherwise, it seems a good bet that England (and Chicago Red Stars) cult heroine Karen Carney will operate centrally for the Three Lionesses. Carney’s club teammate, Jade Moore, has also seen time in friendlies and looks a good bet to spell Carney off the bench if needed for Sampson’s side.
Also in the center of midfield, one of the sure things in the England lineup is the presence of the towering Jill Scott in the lineup. Scott was one of the few players to start both of England’s final friendlies and is an important fulcrum in front of the defense to ensure her side doesn’t get overrun with just two central midfielders. Another former Chicago Red Star, Katie Chapman, would give England even more steel in midfield, which could come in handy against France, but the veteran star also might make the side too functional in the center of the park. Fara Williams is a more offensive option, and the club wouldn’t be sacrificing experience considering she’s the most capped player in the history of England. Josanne Potter is the wild card, having been a shock recall last August after seven years in the wilderness and is another option in central midfield for Sampson.
The defensive picture is no less clear for England, with Sampson having chopped and changed liberally with his back four this year. Marauding right-back Alex Scott didn’t play in the Canada friendly, but it’s hard to envision England operating without the full-back, who’s been one of her nation’s best players for over a decade, notching up over a hundred caps. Injury haunted Claire Rafferty is healthy once again and appears to be first choice for Sampson at left-back after playing there in the recent friendlies. She’s still a neophyte at this level though compared to her teammates, meaning Alex Greenwood could also be in contention despite being just twenty-one. Greenwood, though far younger in age than Rafferty, actually comes into the tournament with more caps. Another youngster, Lucy Bronze, is the utility defender in the team, able to play across the backline, which certainly doesn’t hurt especially considering her considerable talent.
Greenwood and Bronze are also contenders at center-back, where Sampson again has opted to try out a lot of options. The two in central defense against Canada were Steph Houghton, who wore the armband, as well as Casey Stoney. Formerly England’s left-back, Houghton has slid inside and shaken off the injuries that have plagued her earlier in her career to thrive for the Three Lionesses. The aging Stoney lost her captaincy to Houghton and has had to fight off a foot injury to stay relevant internationally but started for England against Canada and appears to have a decent shot at starting in the middle come the World Cup. The other contender is Laura Bassett, a nomadic and experienced center-back who has been the most consistent player in the teamsheet on defense for England.
American born Karen Bardsley is again the #1 in goal for England and has been in the frame for England at international level for a decade. She’s a solid goalkeeper with great size and a proneness to the occasional moment of madness. Long-time backup Siobhan Chamberlain returns to that role, with the younger Carly Telford potentially the team’s goalkeeper of choice come EURO 2017.
It’s a little hard to get a true grip on England’s potential for this tournament considering they had such an easy time qualifying for it. Home friendlies against Germany and the U.S. were discouraging for different reasons, but the Three Lionesses responded well to win the Cyprus Cup, beating rivals Canada in the final. With a five match unbeaten run entering into the last friendly before the competition proper, England would fall to that same Canada side, 1-0. The showing raised more questions about an English offense that has failed to ignite against the better defenses it has faced. The potential is certainly there for some fireworks, but England also looks to be lacking that one true world class attacker the top teams in this competition have. The defense, while not a brick wall, has shown itself to be solid against all but the creme de la creme, meaning England should at least be in almost every game it’s in in Canada this Summer.
Inevitably, the biggest questions might be on the touchline. Sampson got it wrong badly in the friendlies after qualification, setting up naively against Germany and getting punished for it before taking on a more timid approach in a disheartening capitulation on home soil against a lackluster U.S. side. Recent form has perhaps shown that Sampson has learned hard lessons, but there will still be doubts until he proves himself against top competition. While England look sure bets for knockout stage qualification, the path likely leads right to Norway. It’s a bad draw for the Three Lionesses, as the EURO runners-up can outmuscle them, while the experienced and wily Even Pellerud could well teach Sampson a few more hard lessons, as I have England going out in the last sixteen.
9. Brazil (1st in Group E, def. by Sweden in Round of Sixteen)
Irony of ironies, Brazil finally seems to be doing the right thing in terms of federation support, and the fates still appear to be punishing them. After getting by on talent for the longest time and so nearly winning a world title in 2007, Brazil had come into this Summer’s competition with diminishing results, having been eliminated in the infamous quarterfinal against the U.S. in 2011 before a thoroughly limp 2-0 defeat to Japan in the Summer Olympic quarterfinals a year later. While few anticipated any difficulties in reaching Canada 2015, it was clear that some changes were needed if Brazil stood a chance of finally achieving glory on the world stage.
In at manager came Vadao, whose CV reads like a Brazilian travelogue, with the new boss having had twenty-six different stints in charge of a club and never staying more than two seasons since his first job with Mogi Mirim. Perhaps that’s to be expected in the cutthroat world of Brazilian domestic soccer, but the nomadic life, coupled with a lack of experience in coaching women before taking this job raised some eyebrows. Less controversial was the decision to implement a full-time residency camp through the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. While everyone will naturally point to a world title this Summer as a goal, the big target is bringing home a gold medal on home soil next Summer.
For a while, it looked like Brazil had lucked out in terms of the draw after winning the continental title to qualify once again, netting two debutants and a South Korean side that had been missing from the world stage for over a decade. But the reality is that Brazil winning their group could be a curse, with the Group E winner slated to face the Group D runners-up, which could be the U.S. or Sweden. It would set up an early glamour tie for the competition but one which the Brazilians would likely not relish given their seeded status, which was a fierce point of contention before the draw considering their lackluster performances in comparison with some rivals over the past two major competitions.
And then the injury bug hit. Forward Debinha was the first to fall, suffering a knee injury at the Algarve Cup. Team captain Bruna was the next out after another serious knee injury in the run-up to the start of the competition. And most recently, Erika, one of the pantomime villains of the last WWC, went down with another serious injury in a career that has, sadly become blighted with them. The Bruna and Erika injuries in particular are especially worrying considering how poorly the defense has played at times against top competition in the lead up to the finals.
Those injuries have placed increased pressure on Marta to finally come through and lead her side to glory. While Marta surely will still be in the frame for another World Cup come 2019, this is surely her last WWC at the peak of her powers, offering up a last chance to carve out a legacy on the world stage after dazzling so many for so long. As much as anyone in this tournament, Marta will have a free role for Brazil in the attack, capable of serving as a #9 but also so very potent dropping deeper to gain possession and run at defenses with speed. Marta may be the best 1v1 player in the history of women’s football, and there are few defenders that can stand a chance of stopping her when she gets up a head of steam with the ball at her feet.
How Vadao builds the team around her is the million dollar question. Cristiane is likely the function as the nominal #9 and is the best example of a true center forward Brazil has on their roster. A maddening figure capable of being the best player on the pitch or being an anchor dragging them into the abyss, Cristiane has been a deadly weapon for her clubs when fit and motivated…which hasn’t always been the case (see Red Stars, Chicago). Another knowing that this might be their last shot at this level, Cristiane will likely be hellbent on going out with a bang in leading the line for Brazil.
The options behind Cristiane and Marta at center forward aren’t great. Bia and Darlene are two possibilities, but neither are true center forwards in the predatory #9 sense of the word. Brazil may be in a position where they have to ask for some offense from veteran winger Rosana, who has been in the wars for many years for the South American heavyweights but who isn’t particularly blessed with great finishing acumen. Infamous WPS bust Maurine can also play out wide or centrally in midfield and has been much better at international level than she was with the WNY Flash. Raquel is still getting her feet wet at this level but will be another in contention for major minutes in an in flux situation in midfield for Brazil.
The next star for Brazil might well be Andressa Alves, who might see time as Brazil’s #10 if Marta is pushed further forward in a pure attacking role. The sky is the limit for the twenty-two year old, who already looks like having the potential to be one of the world’s best players. Andressa could be one of the tournament’s breakout stars if Brazil goes on to great success in Canada and could be an important secondary source of goals if Brazil’s big two are wrapped up by defenses.
Also centrally, the club may rely on the combo of Formiga and Thaisa to shut down opposing attacks through the middle. Everyone knows about Formiga, one of the best defensive midfielders in the history of women’s football and a player that just keeps on ticking despite being thirty-seven years of age. While many may worry about the toll the expanded tournament and the turf may have on the veteran, it’d be foolish to write her off considering her body of work. Thaisa is less well known, though she did at one point enjoy a stint in America, playing with Florida International University. Andressinha and Gabi Zanotti provide further midfield depth.
It’s a good thing that Brazil has those weapons in midfield and up top, because the defense looks like a train wreck. The quality of defending against Germany in two matches this year was nightmarish, with the Brazilians looking slow and static in their marking of the dynamic European champions. And that was before the loss of captain Bruna to the aforementioned injury. If anything, that injury has made the center-back pairing pretty much fait accompli, with Monica likely to partner Tayla in the middle. Tayla is younger by five years than her counterpart but actually has a good deal more caps than the late blooming Monica. The uncapped Gessica may be one of the sole center-back options in reserve.
Out wide, right-back Fabiana is probably the surest thing in defense for Brazil. Once a precocious teenager impressing in the U.S. with the Boston Breakers, Fabiana is now a mature and marauding full-back who will be needed to stretch teams wide and open up space for the other attackers. If Brazil needs more attacking width, Fabiana could move further forward, with one-time Houston Dash player to be Poliana slotting in, though her height makes her another reserve option at center-back. Tamires will likely get the nod at the other full-back position, though Rafaelle, great in college with Ole Miss, not so great in the NWSL with Houston, is another option, albeit an unexperienced one at this level.
In goal, Vadao will likely decide between Luciana and Barbara, both of whom have seen time in the new year, and neither of whom inspire a great deal of confidence. Goalkeeping has long been a bug-a-boo for the Brazilians, and neither of the above have done a great job in establishing themselves as a confident #1. The decision to drop the aging but experienced Andreia could come back to haunt Brazil, as the veteran would’ve been a decent failsafe in case things turned hairy.
The decision to finally put some muscle behind the support of the Brazilian WNY by the federation was admirable but probably too late to show any great effects in 2015. A win and draw against the U.S. in December certainly stoked hopes that Brazil might finally make the breakthrough at this level, but an earlier defeat to France was telling, while two heavy defeats to Germany indicated a side that was too defensively frail to compete with the top of the food chain at this WWC. The injuries have also gone a long way in sapping the already fragile depth Vadao was coming into this tournament with, and a few more injuries or some untimely yellow card accumulation could be fatal.
For all that, Brazil have been drawn into a doable group, as they should pick up three wins if they play to their potential. There probably aren’t any easy marks, with even Costa Rica looking formidable on their day, but there isn’t anything here preventing Brazil from winning their group. But a likely matchup in the knockout stage first round against Sweden or the U.S. is probably going to be the end of the road. Both sides have enough firepower to not blink in the face of Marta leading the line and are apt to punish a Brazilian defense that hardly looks up to the task of bringing home a trophy.