8. Switzerland (2nd in Group C, def. by USA in Quarterfinal)
At long, long last, Switzerland has qualified for a major international tournament. Switzerland’s futility in qualifying for both the World Cup and the European Championship has been nothing sort of astonishing, with the nation having failed on seventeen different occasions before the qualifying campaign for Canada 2015. Considering some of the teams that have had one-offs at least in big competitions, it’s simply unfathomable for a nation with the footballing talent of the Swiss to have been shut out for this long.
Of course, all Switzerland did in qualifying for Canada was win their qualification group by nine points and score fifty-three and concede one in ten matches. And while the end result was lopsided, the dominance was a shock considering their group also featured an Iceland side that had made it to EURO 2013, as well as a Denmark side that boasted no shortage of talent. With a generous draw that should provide no problems in terms of knockout stage qualification, the Swiss have suddenly gone from outsiders to everyone’s sleeper to make a deep run this Summer.
It’s not hard to see why the Swiss are being tipped for big things when you look at their big two up top. Lara Dickenmann and Ramona Bachmann aren’t just great players, they’re world class players who have helped raise their nation from obscurity. Both have experience on this continent, albeit with very different outcomes. Dickenmann was a stud for Ohio State when she played collegiate ball in the U.S. and hasn’t skipped a beat since she moved back to Europe, helping turn Lyon into one of the world’s best women’s club teams. An extremely versatile player, Dickenmann will win her hundredth cap at this tournament and will combine with Bachmann to give the Swiss a top notch strike force.
Bachmann has come a long way since a miserable stint in the U.S. with the hapless Atlanta Beat of WPS. While she sulked her way through much of that one season in American professional ball, Bachmann has again found her stride in Sweden, starring for both Umea and Rosengard as she’s been able to stave off her persistently troublesome back to lead both club and country to big results. While this tournament will prove a big test for her health and fitness, there’s not indication that she won’t be up to the task, meaning defenses in Group C and beyond must be on their toes.
Switzerland are far from a two-trick pony though, as they also boast the deadly talents of Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic. Despite not being nearly as known as Switzerland’s big two, the attacker of Croatian heritage has still ripped up defenses in Germany at club level while netting thirty-five goals at international level. She’ll likely play on the left wing of a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 for the Swiss. The other wing spot is up in the air. Veteran Vanessa Burkl played there for most of qualifying and at the Algarve Cup but made way for Fabienne Humm in recent friendlies. Whoever plays there isn’t nearly as big an offensive threat as the other attacking talents for the Swiss. Humm, Crnogorcevic, and newcomer Eseosa Aigbogun could also spell the center forward duo up top.
The interior midfield duo for the Swiss will likely be two from the trio of Vanessa Bernauer, Martina Moser, and Lia Walti. Bernauer’s come a long way since turning out for the non-descript likes of Levante and Cloppenburg and has been impressive with German powerhouse Wolfsburg. Moser herself is an ex-Wolfsburg player and is one of the team’s most experienced hands, having racked up over a hundred caps. With Switzerland making their major tournament debut, her experience at this level should be invaluable. Walti is the wild card, already over forty caps despite being just twenty-one years old. She can also deputize at center-back, though on paper, it seems she may be used as one of the first subs off the bench.
While there’s little doubt as to the potency of the Swiss attack, their defense has been shredded by the likes of Germany, the U.S., and Brazil in the run up to the finals in Canada. The center-back pairing of Caroline Abbe and Rahel Kiwic looks to be set in stone barring some last minute upheaval. Captain Abbe will be looking for more silverware this Summer after helping lead Bayern Munich to Frauen Bundesliga glory in the Spring and has over a hundred caps to her name. Kiwic is more of a newcomer to the international stage but is an absolute mountain of a woman, standing at 6’1”. Walti and teenager Noelle Maritz, American born, provide depth.
Maritz though is likely to feature somewhere on the backline, it’s just a matter of where, as she’s flipped back and forth between right and left-back through qualifiers and friendlies. If manager Martina Voss-Tecklenburg opts for Fabienne Humm at right-back, Maritz will likely shift to left-back. If Voss-Tecklenburg trusts the inexperienced Rachel Rinast to play left-back, Maritz could shift back to the right with Humm going into midfield. Other options include Nicole Remund and Sandra Betschart.
In goal, the undersized Gaelle Thalmann looks likeliest to feature for Switzerland, having played most of the qualifiers and the team’s last friendly against Germany. But Switzerland also played with Stenia Michel between the posts for the Algarve Cup, and it’d hardly be a shock to see her get the call for the World Cup debutants.
Hiring a winner like Voss-Tecklenburg bodes well for Switzerland, not just in the present, but also the future of a potential women’s soccer giant after so much underachievement. But expecting the Swiss to bolt out of the gates and compete for the big prize is a step too far after some serious woes following sealing their qualification. A 4-1 loss to the U.S. may have been a wakeup call against top opposition, but two friendly losses to Portugal must have left the Swiss red faced before the Algarve Cup. Though the competition has been fierce in the new year, the Swiss have been on the wrong end of some beatings by the U.S. (again), Brazil, and Germany, clearly showing the Europeans have a long way to go to being title challengers.
At the same time though, the draw against Norway and shock away win against Sweden should underline the raw talent the Swiss has. Drawn in a very friendly group and with a winnable knockout stage game likely, they might just cause a shock or two. I think they’ll finish second in their group and take out Holland in the knockout stage first round before finding the U.S., again, to be too hot to handle.
7. Canada (1st in Group A, def. by Norway in Quarterfinal)
Perception will meet reality this June when a Canada side that perceives itself as able of keeping the trophy at home meets with the reality of trying to break new ground and overcome a history of near misses and not-so-near misses. The latter category certainly encompasses Canada’s performance at the last World Cup, where they finished dead last after a brutally poor showing that led to a change at the top. John Herdman, then of New Zealand, took the reigns and will be looking to become a Canadian soccer hero by leading his charges to glory this Summer.
Herdman’s influence has certainly been felt to this point, with the manager having led his side to a bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics, with some feeling that Canada should have been playing for another color medal after the contentious semi-final defeat to the United States. The hard part has been judging just how far Canada’s come since, with no competitive matches on the docket as hosts, leaving them to play a string of friendlies and Spring tournaments in their preparation for the showpiece event. On the face of it, Herdman has settled on a pretty consistent squad, though injuries have complicated matters as kickoff has approached.
There are no such worries with Christine Sinclair, the best football player in Canada’s history, male or female. Sinclair will be looking to seal her spot at the very pinnacle of the women’s game by adding a much coveted world title to a glittering CV that has seen her do everything and win much at club level. The thirty-one year old Sinclair may not be at the peak of her powers any more but has come good in terms of scoring form in Canada’s matches this year after a worrying downturn last season with the Portland Thorns of the NWSL. Sinclair is the only sure thing in the frontline for Canada, and if she’s not playing well and exerting her influence on the game, the hosts stand little chance of winning the title in July.
Who partners Sinclair on the frontline is a big and troubling question. On paper, the easy choices appear to be Adriana Leon and Melissa Tancredi. Tancredi ignored any notions of being past it and delivered four goals for Canada’s bronze medal winning team in 2012 but has played precious little club ball since, finishing up her chiropractic studies to prepare for a life after football. But in time with Chicago of the NWSL last season, Tancredi showed she’s still a big threat to score goals, with her power game making her hard for opposing defenders to corral. At thirty-three though, Tancredi’s minutes will have to be managed carefully if she’s to make it to the deeper stages of the tournament running on all cylinders.
Adriana Leon offers up a different look than either Sinclair or Tancredi, a slashing winger capable of some spectacular goals. The downside is that that spectacular element has often been fleeting with Leon, a painfully inconsistent performer for club and country. The problem is, there aren’t really any great options off the bench for Herdman to turn to. Josee Belanger has always been a fan favorite but may have a different role after starting at right-back in a recent friendly, while Jonelle Filigno’s scoring record at this level is awful. Injuries or drops in form could be trouble for the hosts up front.
In midfield, all eyes will be upon Diana Matheson to see if the talisman can return from injury in time. Matheson’s influence is such that Herdman looks set to keep her on the roster despite the real possibility that she may not be able to play until the last stages of the tournament should Canada get that far. Before tearing her ACL last year and breaking her foot in the rehab process, Matheson’s importance to Canada was second only to Sinclair’s. Healthy, Matheson offers up a deadly threat in front of goal, bite in the tackle, and no shortage of workrate. But Matheson is in a tough race against time, and if she does make it, odds are it’ll only be for brief cameos off the bench.
Without Matheson, Herdman faces some tough choices in ensuring his midfield offers up enough support for the frontrunners. Sophie Schmidt’s profile has dropped in the past year after being one of Canada’s most important players for a while, but recent displays have only underlined her talents when on form. Nobody quite knows what to make of that form right now though, as Schmidt chose not to play at club level before this tournament. If she’s right, Schmidt offers up a little of everything in midfield, including the power to rifle shots home from distance. Teenager Ashley Lawrence may also figure into the mix. Lawrence has impressed in college with West Virginia but may be the weak link in the middle of the park and is far from a sure thing to start, especially considering her inexperience.
Then again, inexperience may not matter in getting another of Canada’s hopes for the future on the pitch. Jessie Fleming isn’t even in college yet but has been tipped as a player that could be a key for Canada’s trophy hopes in the present and in the future. But at just seventeen and standing at just 5’3”, Herdman will have to watch over his precocious young midfielder to make sure she doesn’t run out of steam by the end of the campaign, as her quality is something many other players on this roster just don’t have.
Desiree Scott provides the steel in midfield. She’s not the biggest player on the roster, but she might just be the toughest. She’ll likely be one of the best defensive midfielders in the tournament and will have to do a great job screening the back four from danger. Kaylyn Kyle provides cover and is a potential late game sub in midfield if Canada’s looking to see a lead out.
There’s little to note in the defense with Lauren Sesselmann appearing ready to be able to go full steam at center-back. Victim of an ACL injury that put her in a fitness race to make it to the finals, Sesselmann is back and starting for Canada at center-back, and her physicality will be needed if the hosts are to emerge triumphant. She and teenage wunderkind Kadeisha Buchanan might be one of the most physical center-back duos in the tournament. Buchanan is already one of the best players in college soccer and has been brutalizing opposing forwards at international level for a few years now. The big question is whether Buchanan’s bruising style will get her in trouble with the officials in Canada, as being without their defensive star could be very bad for the hosts. Error prone Emily Zurrer and injury hit Carmelina Moscato and Robyn Gayle are hardly the most reassuring cover, meaning the starting duo has to stay healthy and out of the book if Canada is to win it all.
Allysha Chapman struggled to get a look into the team but has made the most of her chance with Canada, sealing down the starting spot at left-back with little difficulty. The bigger question is who plays opposite of her at right-back. Veteran Rhian Wilkinson is the natural option on paper but is also thirty-three years old and may need to be spelled at times if she’s to be effective down the stretch. Herdman opted to use Josee Belanger at right-back in a recent friendly, perhaps indicating which way he’s thinking in terms of cover. Most of the backup defenders are left-backs, and the decision to drop Sura Yekka from the side as one of the final cuts could loom large if Canada needs a replacement right-back.
The perennially heated battle in goal for the Canadians has finally appeared to swing Erin McLeod’s way after battling Karina LeBlanc for ages. McLeod has seemingly shaken off the inconsistency that plagued her earlier in her career and is definitely an asset for Canada in goal coming into the competition. Both LeBlanc and third-string Stephanie Labbe are experienced netminders and would probably do fine for the Canadians if called into action over the next month.
Can Canada win the World Cup? It’s a question that probably wouldn’t be given serious thought if they weren’t hosting the thing. On paper, half of the team looks too old, and the other half looks too young, making the Canadians a group that looks to be caught between generations at a bad time. The injury to Matheson cannot be understated given how much she has brought to the team in the past decade and how brittle the depth looks on paper for the hosts. That injury has made the offense fairly one-dimensional, going through Sinclair, and it’s tough to see where the other consistent source of goals is going to come from. Even if Matheson does make it back, just how much will she be able to give?
But Canada is hosting the tournament. And Herdman’s made his side a diabolically hard one to put down in the run up to the event. After the 2014 Cyprus Cup, the only side to beat Canada by more than one goal has been reigning champions Japan last October. A draw with the U.S. and a draw with Sweden following a win over Pia Sundhage’s side further emphasize how dangerous Canada is when on song. They were creditable in defeat to France before beating England in their final friendlies, further raising hopes.
But the Canadians also haven’t scored more than one goal in their last five, and even with the defense doing well, that inconsistent offense is reducing the margin of error to a very fine line indeed. I think the Canadians have more than enough to make a solid run into the knockout stages after winning their group. But I think the age of some of the team’s best players and the glaring lack of depth is going to prove costly. Canada may be tough to beat, but I think they’ll meet their match in the quarterfinals against an equally well drilled Norway side, coached by their old boss and new nemesis, Even Pellerud.
6. Sweden (2nd in Group D, def. by Japan in Quarterfinal)
It’s never easy with a Pia Sundhage team. Last time out in the World Cup, Sundhage’s U.S. team nearly won the damn thing after nearly failing to qualify for it. It was the latest example of big tournament prowess for Sundhage, who would’ve gone down as the accomplished coach in USWNT history had the penalty shootout bounced a different way. Bracketing that close shave, Sundhage brought home a pair of Olympic gold medals, leaving after the 2012 triumph to head back home and try to engineer a World Cup winning campaign with Sweden.
Upon initial evidence, it ain’t gonna be a walk in the park for Sundhage here either. She did well in getting Sweden to the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2013 on home soil before falling to Germany, which naturally raised expectations for this tournament. The Swedes won ten from ten in qualifying to ease to a spot in the finals, conceding just one goal in the process. But with such a lopsided order to things in UEFA, a truer measure of the Swedes has come in the face of increased competition leading up to the finals in Canada. In true Sundhage fashion, it’s been a roller coaster ride, combining great wins with befuddling defeats.
Considering how poorly Sweden has defended in some of those matches, offense is going to have to be the bread and butter for a title push in all likelihood. Luckily for the Swedes, they’ve got more than enough firepower to keep up with the rest of the field. Sundhage has a lot of options to pick from, but it’s fair to say that Lotta Schelin will be one of those chosen to lead the line up top. One of the most prolific scorers in the history of women’s club soccer, Schelin is likely in her final World Cup and will be looking to make the most of it. Schelin has the potential to win the Golden Boot if Sweden makes a deep run, and her pace and finishing ability makes her one of this tournament’s most dangerous scoring threats.
One of the favorites to partner Schelin up top is Sofia Jakobsson, a big fish in a small pond at Montpellier in France. A nomad despite being just twenty-five years old, Jakobsson will be hoping to bring some of her recent club scoring form with the French side to this World Cup. The big forward hasn’t exactly set the world alight at international level, netting just ten times in fifty-six caps but has been tipped to play a big role for the Swedes in Canada. Jakobsson could also end up playing out wide as a left-winger for Sweden. If that’s the case, Sweden will likely throw Kosovare Asllani up top. Asllani was not particularly fondly remembered around these parts after a dreary stint with Chicago in WPS but has promptly turned into one of the world’s rising stars back in Europe at PSG. She’ll probably be on the pitch in some capacity, if not up top, then on the left flank, where she played at times in qualifying and in friendlies. Youngster Olivia Schough should provide depth on the flanks and up top if necessary.
There’s not much question as to who’ll line up on the right, as veteran Therese Sjogran has been there for almost all of the campaign. Now over two hundred caps in a storied career, Sjogran is still ticking and playing at a high level with Swedish powerhouse FC Rosengard. Ready for her fourth World Cup, Sjogran’s indefatigable presence in the Swedish lineup has been something to behold. But the reality is, she’s a thirty-eight year old playing as a winger in a grueling tournament played on turf. She may be an iron woman, but she’ll also likely be a target for opposing breaks down the flank and may not be able to go ninety minutes full throttle if she’s to last the month.
The midfield plans were thrown for a loop when Hanna Folkesson tore her ACL in the April draw against Denmark. Folkesson was almost a sure thing in the lineup for Sundhage before the injury, and the manager has been scrambling to find a suitable replacement. The first in line to replace Folkesson may be veteran Lisa Dahlkvist. Well versed at this level, Dahlkvist has nonetheless dipped in and out of favor under Sundhage and may be on a short leash if she underperforms in a very challenging group. Midfield all-rounder Malin Diaz may get a shot for Sundhage as well, though she’s perhaps more suited to duties out wide considering her size and some of the group’s opponents.
There aren’t any doubts as to the other midfielder in Sundhage’s pack, as Caroline Seger will look to lead Sweden to glory from the middle of the park. A physical and dangerous presence going forward from midfield, Seger has the capacity to be one of the world’s best when she’s in form. As WPS followers would note, however, Seger isn’t always at her best, and Sundhage will have to get the best out of the thirty year old if her side is to be lifting the big trophy come July.
The defense. Oy, the defense. Sweden has defended like a pub team at times over the past year, and if they get sent to an early demise, most will probably look in that direction for an explanation. In the middle, the only sure thing seems to be the presence of veteran Nilla Fischer. A long-time defensive midfielder for Sweden, Fischer was converted to center-back by Sundhage at the start of her reign, and it worked a treat, with Fischer signing for Wolfsburg in Germany soon after. The big question is who partners her at center-back with Sundhage having chopped and changed thoroughly in the run up to the competition.
Based on recent lineups, Emma Berglund looks the likely choice. Berglund may have actually sealed down the role earlier but missed parts of qualifying while recovering from a 2013 ACL injury. Back in the lineup as of late, Berglund still faces competition from Linda Sembrant and Charlotte Rohlin. Another well traveled player, Sembrant scored Sweden’s goal in her fiftieth cap against Canada in November. One club player Charlotte Rohlin started some of the year’s earlier friendlies but is thirty-four years old and probably won’t be able to go ninety minutes in what looks like a high octane group on paper.
The situation looks a little more settled out wide for Sweden. On the left, veteran Sara Thunebro was prodded out of international retirement by Sundhage and started most of the qualifiers but has given way to youngster Elin Rubensson. Rubensson is still a raw prospect and one that has only been a left-back for a few years after previously being an attacker. She’ll have to be disciplined in a group with such dangerous wide players, and it isn’t out of the question that Thunebro comes in late to help close games down. On the opposite flank, Lina Nilsson started most of the campaign for Sweden and is favored to do so again here. The other option is Jessica Samuelsson, a natural left-back who nonetheless has played a lot of right-back under Sundhage.
In goal, Hedvig Lindahl looks set to start after fighting off injuries and ailments of multiple varieties recently. Seemingly healthy, the Chelsea Ladies keeper will look to keep a shaky backline in check as she continues as Sweden’s #1 after a decade in the role. Sundhage has taken the opportunity to blood Carola Soberg as Lindahl’s backup in some opportunities through the new year, though the thirty-two year old is probably not a long-term option for the Swedes.
Sweden are perhaps this tournament’s most interesting team considering they have both the highest ceiling and perhaps its lowest floor. Unlike some of the other powerhouses, it’d hardly be a shock to see the Swedes sent packing at the first hurdle given the strength of “outsider” teams Australia and Nigeria. At the same time though, with Sundhage on the touchline and the likes of Schelin and Seger among others on the pitch, Sweden perhaps represents the best hope for a team outside of the “power four” to lift the trophy in July. Given Sundhage’s record at major tournaments, it would be foolish to count them out.
But it’d also be foolish to extend Canada the benefit of the doubt too much. Sundhage’s side has won just one of their last four matches in the run-up to the World Cup, a stretch which includes a loss to Switzerland (by multiple goals no less) and a draw with Denmark. The defense hasn’t kept a clean sheet in its last four matches and has shipped ten goals in those four matches. Pia or no, that’s a defensive record that’s hard to truly embrace if you’re regarding Sweden as title contenders. I think they’ll come through the group fine but are going to get dissected by Japan in the quarterfinals.
5. France (1st in Group F, def. by Germany in Quarterfinal)
It’s now or never for France in their bid to win a first world title. OK, that’s not really true. France will likely be favored to lift the title in 2019 when they host the thing, but after so many teasing glimpses of quality at these big events, it’s finally time to cash in and win or continue to be labeled chokers on the big stage. The French have come close during the last World Cup in Germany only to be undone in the semi-finals by the U.S., in the Olympics before wilting at the hands of Japan in the semi-finals, and not nearly as close at EURO 2013 where they suffered a humiliating penalty shootout defeat to Denmark after being tipped by many to win the competition.
That last indignation spelled the end for Bruno Bini, who made way for Philippe Bergeroo, a EURO 1984 winner on the men’s side for France but also a coach who hadn’t really been involved in big-time coaching since a two-year stint with the French U17 men a decade prior. Bergeroo has done a fine job in keeping France playing in succulent style, but aesthetics have never been an issue with the French. With the team having shown it can beat anyone in the world in the run up to this tournament, the pressure is greater than ever to finally deliver that world title that’s proven so elusive. You sense that just one major trophy could cause an avalanche for the French that could lead to a veritable women’s footballing dynasty.
The French, as you might expect from a title contender, are loaded from top to bottom with elite talent and few weaknesses. Likely to engage in a continental 4-2-3-1, France may depend on Marie-Laure Delie to lead the line. Delie’s scoring numbers for club and country are absurd, including a pace of over a goal a match with PSG while also netting fifty-seven goals in eighty-five caps for France. Delie’s name isn’t a household name for women’s soccer casuals, but she has the potential to change all of that with a big showing in Canada. Lyon vet Eugenie Le Sommer could play the #9 role for France if she’s not filling in as an attacking midfielder, while another in that mold, Gaetane Thiney could operate as the center forward when she’s not in the attacking band in midfield. France has a multitude of options up top, and considering the toll of the tournament, they could give everyone different looks through the group stage at least.
“The Female Zidane”, Louisa Necib looks likely to play a role as the left-winger in the 4-2-3-1. A player with figurative eyes in the back of her head, Necib will be looking to spring French attackers with her sublime range of passes and vision and looks set to be the architect of many a goal in this tournament. Necib, of course, could also slip inside and function as a conventional #10. On the opposite flank, Elodie Thomis offers up something entirely different: pure unadulterated pace. There are few in the world that can keep up with Thomis when she turns on the jets. Her scoring rate doesn’t compare to the likes of Delie or Thiney, but she has the ability to unbalance defenses and stretch the field which cannot be overlooked. Thiney and Le Sommer could both put up here as well as Bergeroo tries to find the right combination. Keep an eye out for Kenza Dali as well. A late comer to the international scene, she’s started a handful of matches on the right flank and could be an important player off the bench here. Youngster Kadidiatou Diani is another in the crop of young superstars coming through the ranks and is another weapon out wide France can call upon.
For the interior attacking midfield spot, Le Sommer is probably favored to take the role up and is a nice hybrid between a playmaker and a second striker playing behind the center forward. Thiney could also feature in the role, especially if Le Sommer moves up top, while a couple of the team’s younger players, Claire Lavogez and Kheira Hamraoui are also in the mix. Lavogez is widely considered one of the best young players in the world and could be one of this tournament’s best players off the bench if she can shake off a late injury. Hamraoui is another late bloomer who’s made the most of her chance, though she’s probably going to be starved for minutes on this loaded squad.
Bergeroo has a big choice to make in the defensive band of midfield, picking two from Amandine Henry, Elise Bussaglia, and Camille Abily. Abily is fondly remembered on these shores for her WPS stint with Los Angeles and FC Gold Pride and has not skipped a beat since her return to France, starring for Lyon. Bussaglia is also a club teammate of Abily and also has just shy of one hundred fifty caps despite not turning thirty yet. Henry is more of a defensive option for France and might be used in the latter stages of the competition when France need to be less gung ho in mentality. The reality is Bergeroo is spoilt for choice and can confidently rotate the trio to keep them in peak condition heading into the money rounds.
France is strong in defense too, with towering center-back duo Wendie Renard and Laura Georges both likely to combine to form one of the best partnerships in defense in this World Cup. Despite being just twenty-four, Renard is captain for both France and club powerhouse Lyon and is one of the best central defenders in the world. Renard’s height also makes her a great target for set pieces, making her an essential Plan B if the offense is getting bogged down in the run of play. Georges is familiar with North America having played collegiately at Boston College and could end up with near two hundred caps by the time her career is over. She’s another great center-back with size and has formed a great rapport with Renard. Youngster Anaig Butel provides cover, along with utility defender Sabrina Delannoy. Neither are bad options in central defense, but their limitations were clear against the U.S. in the Algarve Cup final. The wild card is Griedge Mbock Bathy, perhaps the best young defender in the world. Her time will come, but it’s hard envisioning her not getting some solid minutes this tournament considering her ability.
Out wide, Laure Boulleau on the left and Jessica Houara on the right are well entrenched as starters for France. Neither are superstars, but both are going to still be amongst the best options anyone can call upon in this competition. Delannoy can fill in at right-back if needed, while Houara has played on the left at times. Amel Majri is another of the young French prospects in reserve and could also see time at left-back, along with Mbock Bathy. Combined with the team’s center-backs, France should have a defense capable of stifling any attack in the tournament.
The goalkeeping situation has come a long way since Berangere Sapowicz’s flailing displays at Germany 2011. Back in the #1 slot is Sarah Bouhaddi, also #1 at Lyon and seemingly having solidified herself as one of the world’s best netminders. Bouhaddi can still be a bit scatterbrained with her decision making at times, but she’s still a cut above almost every other keeper in this tournament. Veteran Celine Deville has been here forever and will again be the French backup, with Bouhaddi’s backup at Lyon, Meline Gerard here as the third option.
If they play up to their massive potential, France will be lifting the World Cup trophy come July 5. Their first unit is simply astonishing in terms of talent and can slice opponents apart with minimal fuss while the defense can suffocate just about anyone they come up against. Blemishes? The second unit didn’t exactly cover itself in glory against the U.S. in the Algarve Cup final, indicating that if some of the first unit goes down with injuries or suspensions, France could struggle a bit against top opposition. Of course, that could be said about any team at the tournament.
But the million dollar question is the mental game. France has beaten all of the top contenders for the title in the run up to the tournament and often done so in viciously convincing fashion. Yet until the French come home with the big title, there’ll always be questions as to whether they can win the big one. Knowing they haven’t done so, it’s tough for me to put all my faith in them finally getting over the hump this time. I actually think they’re the second best team in the competition. Unfortunately, I think they’re meeting the best team in the quarterfinals, and those Germans will end French dreams prematurely once more.
4. Norway (2nd in Group B, def. by Japan in Semi-Final)
It’s been a case of Back to The Future for Norway, who have moved on nicely after the shock of being eliminated in the group stage in Germany 2011 under Eli Landsem. That result, besides being embarrassing for the former world champions, meant they wouldn’t go to the Summer Olympics a year later, further stunting the development of the program. Pretty much everyone knew change was necessary. Few, however, would have bet on that change coming in the form of the return of Even Pellerud, who was in charge of the program during its glory years in the early nineties.
Even fewer probably suspected that his return would go so wonderfully. Those who claim you can never go back may want to look at Pellerud’s run as Norway boss for the second time. They reached the final of EURO 2013 against Germany and perhaps should have been crowned European champions had they not been so wasteful at the penalty spot in the final. Still, that result ignited enthusiasm and confidence in the Norwegian WNT once more, leading some to hope that Norway would be in the mix for honors in Canada as well. Their road wasn’t exactly smooth though, as they just pipped Holland for the group win and automatic qualification spot having lost to the Dutch on the final qualifying matchday.
But hopes of a world title took a significant blow with the loss of Caroline Graham Hansen through injury. Despite being just twenty years old, Hansen is already one of the world’s best players and was a crucial part of the puzzle offensively for Norway. Despite Norway and Pellerud’s pedigree, the manager has tried to turn Norway into a slightly more progressive side, and Hansen’s skill was a big part of diversifying that offense. Without her in the lineup, Norway isn’t going to go back to being a pure hoof n’ hope side, but they also may have to rely more on their power game to make deep progress.
The Norwegians aren’t completely screwed on offense though, as they have another young star in attack in the form of Ada Hegerberg. Hegerberg showed American fans what she was capable of when she netted against the U.S. in the Algarve Cup and has been showing European audiences what she’s capable of for half a decade now. Incredibly, Hegerberg already has thirty-four caps and sixteen goals at full international level despite being just nineteen. She has world class ability and could be one of this tournament’s shining stars if she gets the proper service from her teammates.
One of the dilemmas facing Norway is whether to go with a 4-2-3-1 that they used for much of qualifying or shift into a 4-4-2 that they used in their last friendly against Belgium. The latter may be the formation of choice for Norway against the two lesser teams in their group before shifting into the more defensively stout 4-2-3-1 at the business end of the tournament. A contender to partner Hegerberg up top (or lead the line alone if Hegerberg plays at left wing) is veteran Isabell Herlovsen. German born Herlovsen has been an international since the age of sixteen and already has a hundred caps despite not turning twenty-seven until midway through this tournament. She’s more than capable of knocking them in and may have to to keep Hegerberg from being swamped.
The wings are a zone of contention with Hansen out. The Norwegian star would have played on the right had she not been injured, and Pellerud has some hard decisions to make to fill that gap. On the opposite side, Kristine Minde played most of qualifiers on the left flank and is another young prospect with plenty of experience internationally. Minde is also a contender at left-back though, potentially opening up a spot for either Elise Thorsnes or Emilie Haavi. Complicating matters is the situation on the right, where Thorsnes and Haavi could also both feature along with Minde. Solveig Gulbrandsen, an ageless wonder, started on the right against Belgium and could feature there in Canada if she isn’t called upon in midfield. It’s not bad for someone who had originally retired in 2010 before being cajoled back.
Injuries have hit the center of midfield as well, with Ingvild Isaksen, who started most of the qualifiers in the center of the park missing out. Herlovsen and Gulbrandsen are two of the options in the center of midfield, but as stated above, both may be needed in other roles elsewhere. The same could be said of Maren Mjelde, a star in EURO 2013 at right-back. She played in central midfield in the friendly against Belgium though and could end up there for Norway at the start of this tournament. Other options include Haavi, late bloomer Ingrid Schjelderup, and versatile Lene Mykjaland.
You pretty much know what you’re going to get with Norway’s defense: big, physical defenders who can more than hold their own in the air. The center-back pairing is a sure thing, with Nora Holstad Berge, the sole player in the squad to ply her trade in Germany, and Trine Bjerke Ronning, a veteran of over a hundred and fifty caps partnering up in central defense. Ronning is more than accomplished in front of goal as well, having racked up twenty-one goals to her name. Youngster Maria Thorisdottir is the most likely cover at center-back, with some of the other options committed to playing out wide.
As for the options at full-back…well, your guess is as good as mine. Marita Skammelsrud Lund played at right-back for Norway in the friendlies this year as well as the Algarve Cup showdown with the U.S. and appears to be the favorite to continue on there despite not featuring as a starter there for much of the qualifying campaign. The opposite full-back spot is a mess. Mykjaland played there for some qualifiers but has played in midfield for much of the new year. Pellerud used Thorsnes their in the Belgium friendly but rotated Minde in after the halftime break. Schjelderup is another option, but the position is a clear worry going into the tournament.
Not a worry is in goal, where veteran Ingrid Hjelmseth looks to continue on in what could be her final major tournament. She was in pristine form at EURO 2013 for the runners-up and is a steady and experienced set of hands that Pellerud can count on. Backing her up is another veteran, Silje Vesterbekkmo, who started the Algarve Cup defeat against the U.S. She’s not world class by any means on that evidence but is probably a lot better than some of the backups clubs have in reserve.
For players like Gulbrandsen, Ronning, and Hjelmseth, this is probably the last dance and the last chance for a major trophy. Most suspect that the loss of Hansen probably snuffed those hopes out, but Norway has shown before that they are not a side to be underestimated. With the likes of Hegerberg coming through the ranks, the future remains bright for one of the world’s original powers in women’s football. You cannot underestimate the impact of having Pellerud on the bench either, as the veteran coach has the big game experience that many of his peers do not coming into this tournament.
But while the questions of many may be on offense given the loss of Hansen, the defense has been under great scrutiny based on recent form. They’ve shipped three to Sweden, two to the U.S., two to Switzerland, two to Denmark, three to Holland, and three to Belgium since qualifiers ended. That’s the form of an early exit, and it’s something Pellerud has to figure out quickly if his Norway side is to avoid disappointment. The good news is that Norway has kept scoring despite that, so the offense, even without Hansen, should keep them in most matches.
The draw has been unbelievably kind as well. Qualification for the knockout stages should be a cinch, setting up what looks like a challenging but manageable path to the semi-finals. Though England and Canada, on home soil, are no pushovers, Norway is still probably a more complete team overall than both and have a great shot of ensuring they get the full complement of seven matches in Canada this Summer. But Japan may well pass them into the ground in the semi-final in what looks like a great contrast in styles. Then again, Norway might just power through the holders, and it’d hardly be stunning to see Pellerud’s bunch gatecrash another major tournament final.
3. USA (1st in Group D, def. by Germany in Semi-Final)
OK, if you’re reading this, I’m going out on a limb to say you’re familiar with the U.S. and how they got here. Let’s talk some specific questions:
Who Plays Up Top?
Lord. To solve this dilemma. Jill Ellis has five forwards that can play up top, but just about the only one you’d start without hesitation is Christen Press, and even then, Press may be needed on the right side of the midfield. Or the left, if the South Korea match is any indication. Alex Morgan naturally starts if she’s healthy and on form. The former is no guarantee, and she certainly wasn’t the latter when healthy this year. Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez have drifted in and out of favor under Ellis, though the former may be back en vogue if the last few friendlies are an indicator. Abby Wambach, of course, also looms large over the lineup, though common sense would seem to indicate she won’t be able to rack up too many minutes in the group stage if she’s to not be gassed by the end of the tournament.
My guess? Press is a lock, it’s just a matter of where at this point. I, and everyone else, seem to like her as a center forward, but the odds of her playing on the wing only increase if Megan Rapinoe can’t play early. Morgan will obviously be in the lineup if she’s match fit, which is a hell of an ‘if’ considering she’s been on the shelf for so long. I think it’d be prudent to use her in second half bursts for a few matches, but the pressure is really going to come down on Ellis to run with her at the start if the U.S. drops points. I think Ellis starting Leroux the past two matches is a pretty big tip as to her starting the tournament in the first XI for the U.S.
My guess? Leroux and Press for game one, Leroux and Morgan for game two, and Wambach and Rodriguez for the Nigeria match if the U.S. is on course to qualify, with Press and Morgan if there’s any doubt. Beyond the group stage, it’s a tougher call depending on fitness and opponent.
Will Christie Rampone Play A Minute?
It’s one of those weird questions you certainly didn’t think you’d be asking for much of this cycle. Rampone has been such a lock for center-back for this team through the years, even as her central defense partner has changed, that pondering life without her has been hard. At the same time though, she’s been increasingly vulnerable to injuries over the past year or two and is noticeably in decline, albeit from a very high standard. One such injury opened up the door for Julie Johnston…who hasn’t looked back since. There’s simply no way that Ellis can leave Johnston out of the team at this point, meaning that Rampone is on the outside looking in for the moment.
And it may be to her great misfortune that she plays center-back, where partnerships usually don’t get broken up if managers can help it. Theoretically, if the U.S. is clear and away by match three, they could switch it up and put Rampone and Whitney Engen in defense, but Rampone’s fading pace against the Nigerian frontrunners might not be a pretty sight. Perhaps the best hope for Rampone getting on the pitch may be if Ellis decides to shut up shop in a match by putting Johnston in a defensive midfield role and bringing Rampone in at center-back. However, with Shannon Boxx seemingly the go-to player for that role in Ellis’ eyes, Rampone may find opportunities limited in Canada.
The Defensive Midfield Conundrum
Can you win a major tournament in modern day football playing a 4-4-2? Japan pulled the feat off in 2011, and the U.S. did it at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but the game has gotten only faster since then, with teams also more technically skilled. Three years is an eternity in footballing terms, and the relative tactical dogma that Ellis and her staff have approached this tournament with is going to be put to the test in Canada. The decision to not even toy with a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 since the new year is a very interesting one considering the edicts coming down for the youth teams to play in a more progressive manner.
What’s been more maddening is the U.S.’ insistence in not playing with a ball winner unless trying to shut up shop late in a game. Instead, Lauren Holiday has been used in a deep role that doesn’t quite suit her, with Carli Lloyd playing as the attacking midfielder (when she hasn’t been used on the wing). Holiday’s defensive ability has certainly been called into question, and against teams using three in the center of the park, the fear is that technically adept sides will be able to play around the U.S. unless some of the wide midfielders pinch in and help in the numbers game.
But Ellis has been obstinate. The only other option really that has been entertained is using Morgan Brian in the center of midfield, with Lloyd shifting out wide. Brian’s not a defensive midfielder either. Barring a sudden change in tactics, Ellis’ U.S. will live and die with the 4-4-2, and Holiday and Lloyd are going to have to win that zone if the Americans are to lift the trophy.
The Alex Morgan Question
I actually don’t envy Jill Ellis on this one. If she starts Morgan right away, and she’s ineffective or, god forbid, injured again, Ellis will be castigated for rushing Morgan back. If Ellis holds Morgan out and the U.S. offense sputters, she’ll be raked through the coals for not utilizing the Americans’ most dangerous frontrunner when at the top of her game. About the only way this goes right is if Morgan scores and plays like a woman possessed whenever Ellis turns to her this month.
The ‘when’ question is the most striking one though. Throwing Morgan into the starting lineup right from the off against Australia when she hasn’t played for a good while and is coming off injury would be a massive gamble with potentially tournament altering consequences if it backfires. Yet you can’t underestimate the effect that a healthy and on form Morgan has on the U.S. attack and the general confidence of the entire squad when she’s firing. If Ellis waits too long to give Morgan extended minutes, she might struggle to get into a groove, already a problem when she’s been healthy as of late.
Managing Morgan might be the key to a title, and there aren’t any easy answers for Ellis.
The Megan Rapinoe Question
Call me crazy, but I think Megan Rapinoe is the most important player for the U.S. that’s currently an injury doubt and not Alex Morgan. Blasphemy in the eyes of some, but you can’t help but notice the difference in the attack when Rapinoe is in the attack to help stretch teams wide, even if those performances came against the likes of New Zealand, Ireland, and Mexico. More than anything, Rapinoe’s presence in the lineup is almost like a security blanket for Ellis, who isn’t tempted into crazy experiments like stranding Carli Lloyd and/or Morgan Brian, both central midfielders and clearly so, out on the flank.
Besides adding necessary width to a lineup that looks pretty damn vertical without her, Rapinoe brings creativity and flair to the side, whereas most of the other attackers in the U.S. cache depend on power and pace to attack defenses. Too often when Rapinoe isn’t in the lineup, the American attack is too one note and unidimensional to trouble the top teams. Ellis getting the most out of Rapinoe may be a key to winning the competition. The problem is Rapinoe’s already carrying an injury and hasn’t been the most durable force over the years. Like with Morgan, the Portland alum is going to need to be managed effectively if she’s to make it to the final in peak form.
The Abby Wambach Question
To the casual fan, Abby Wambach is still the current face of American women’s soccer. For the Internet WoSo Community, Wambach is a figure who they can’t see the back of soon enough. It’s hard to envision a more polarizing USWNT player, with the former group still regarding the veteran Wambach as the heroine who headed the U.S. back from unimaginable adversity just four years earlier, while the latter bristles every time she’s on the pitch. It’s a deep and perhaps unbridgeable divide, and it’s one that’s not going to make life easier on Ellis any time soon this month.
By any statistical measure, Wambach is almost assuredly near the end of the line, and her scoring stats against top opposition in a USWNT shirt have plummeted off a cliff since the beginning of 2014. She’s creeping towards immobility up top and negatively affects any attempts at a high pressing game the U.S. may implement, which could definitely be costly against opposition who don’t sit back and soak up American pressure. And there’s simply no way Wambach is going to last the month playing the bulk of the available minutes. Ellis likely wouldn’t try to do so anyway, but she’ll be trying to silently answer the ‘how much is too much’ question all month long.
But at the same time, it’s not like Wambach has forgotten how to score goals, even if she is breaking down physically. On set pieces, Wambach is still a titanic force in the box and is willing to put her head where the boots are flying to get onto the end of a cross. While few would argue she merits a starting spot full stop, there really isn’t a better Plan B out there than Wambach. Now, it’s just a matter of managing expectations and ensuring there’s enough in the tank to make it to the finish line with something left to give.
Jill Ellis’ Legacy
While this tournament may be seen as a last referendum on the legacies of Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, Christie Rampone and a handful of others in all likelihood, it’s also potentially the final exam for manager Jill Ellis. It’s safe to say much of the Internet WoSo Community did not approve when Ellis was promoted to the throne after the sacking of Tom Sermanni last year, and results since have only fueled the fires of dissent. Ellis has been stoic in the face of much of the criticism, only letting the veneer drop during the Algarve Cup after the insipid 0-0 draw with Iceland. While Ellis saw red following criticism of the U.S.’ playing style, she best be prepared for a greater volume of criticism should that stultifying performance be duplicated on the biggest stage.
As pressing as many of the questions above have been in the run up to the World Cup, the biggest ones still linger over Ellis. It’s safe to say that she’s probably sick and tired of hearing of her reputation as a big game bottler after her College Cup failings with UCLA and U20 World Cup disaster in 2010. But talent alone is not going to win major trophies in the women’s game any longer, and as the balance tips from talent to managerial acumen in the last rounds of the tournament, the bright lights will shine on Ellis again. Ellis is in an awfully thankless position, partly not by her own design. Barring a Brazil 1970-type performance, Ellis is going to get none of the credit and all of the blame come tournament’s end. American supporters will be desperately hoping that she’s learned well from the past and proves the USSF brass wise in their decision to plant her in the hot seat last year.
2. Japan (1st in Group C, def. by Germany in Final)
It’s been four years since Japan shocked the world and warmed hearts globally with their triumph in Germany. The game was beautiful once more, as Japan passed opponents into submission and raised the ultimate prize in women’s football after an unbelievable classic against the U.S. While Japan would come up just short at the 2012 Summer Olympics, the future is still unbelievably bright, with many pointing towards the 2014 U17 World Cup triumph as a sign that the system will produce world class talent for generations to come, with the likes of Hina Sugita, Yiu Hasegawa, and Mamiko Matsumoto all likely to make their mark in the years to come.
But the future is the future, and Japan will have designs on retaining their title in Canada. Much of the Germany 2011 title winning team has returned, including Golden Ball winner Homare Sawa, now thirty-six years old and in the twilight of her storied career. Sawa’s inclusion in the Japan squad for these finals was in doubt for a while, but she came through in the end. If friendlies are any indicator, Sawa will continue to be a big influence on the Japanese side as well, with the captain starting both matches in the run up to the tournament. Though she may be aging, Sawa is still a player who plays much bigger than her 5’5” frame and has a nose for important goals. Norio Sasaki will have to carefully manage his team leader’s minutes though, as it’s a long, grueling tournament on turf. If Sawa’s at full strength though, there’s little reason to think Japan won’t have the better of most opponents.
Who partners Sawa in central midfield is a big question. Ball winner Yuri Kawamura was experimented with as a center-back in the Algarve Cup but since moved into central midfield and offers a good complement with Sawa directing traffic if Japan’s playing a more attacking-centric opponent. More than likely though, Japan will stick with the partnership that saw them win it all in 2011, with Mizuho Sakaguchi partnering up with Sawa. Sakaguchi is already approaching a hundred caps despite being just twenty-seven and combines with Sawa to form a midfield duo that can recycle possession, win the ball back, and instigate attacks. Having scored twenty-six goals at international level, Sakaguchi’s no soft touch in front of goal either. Other options include Rumi Utsugi, who has also played left-back for Japan this year, and Aya Miyama, who will be on the pitch in some manner but isn’t a bad #10 if Sawa’s absent.
More than likely though, Japan will employ Miyama out left. A fan favorite for years both on these shores and in her homeland, Miyama’s extraordinary play sometimes goes overshadowed given Sawa’s immense presence. But Miyama is still a two-time AFC Women’s Player of the Year and was just last year named the best player at the Asian qualifying tournament for the World Cup. Her free kicks are the stuff of legend, and with this potentially her last World Cup as well, Miyama will look to add another winner’s medal to her haul and go out on top. Deputizing are Naho, if she’s not playing on the opposite flank, and Aya Sameshima, who is the likely starter at left-back.
It’s been more of a battle on the right side, though it appears that Naho, after starting up top last World Cup, will man that flank. The former Seattle Reign forward was a revelation on these shores with last year’s regular season winners in the NWSL and could send her reputation soaring further if she stars at this tournament. Capable of threatening directly on goal or setting up her teammates, Naho is a complete winger and set to light up this tournament. There’s no shortage of cover either. Asano Nagasato is still a relative newcomer at this level but started a pair of games on the right during the Algarve Cup. The pair of Kozue Ando and Shinobu Ohno can both play at center forward but are also adept on the wing as well if Japan needs them there.
Wolfsburg striker Yuki Ogimi looks set to lead the Japanese line once more after a bit of a rocky road at club level. After lighting up Germany with Turbine Potsdam, Ogimi netted just five goals in twelve matches at Chelsea before moving back to Germany this year. Ogimi remans a dangerous forward at this level though and will relish peeling apart Group C defenses spearheading Japan’s attack. The other starting spot likely comes down to veterans Kozue Ando and Shinobu Ohno. Ando’s more of a second striker playing between the lines and has no shortage of experience but doesn’t have a great scoring record at this level. Ohno’s career hasn’t quite taken off with frustrating stints in Europe coming after last World Cup’s glorious triumph. Yuika Sugasawa saw time in the Algarve Cup and has to be considered a viable option off the bench, with a solid scoring record at this level.
The ultimate wild card is Mana Iwabuchi. Once considered the golden girl of Japanese football after a tremendous youth international career, Iwabuchi’s career has stalled out a bit, with the former phenom struggling to score goals at full international level. She won’t go into this tournament as first choice, but the future may be now, with a few goals potentially being all she needs to take the next step in her development.
Japan’s never going to have a group of big maulers on defense, so ball possession and technical skill are key to not being overrun. Despite some physical limitations, the Asian side are still consistently a team that can suffocate opposing offenses and confound some of the best attacking talent in the world. The back four Sasaki starts with may be the same one he used in the World Cup final four years ago. Centrally, the veteran duo of Azusa Iwashimizu and Saki Kumagai look set to continue. Kumagai was a revelation in 2011 despite being just a twenty year old at the time and has since taken her game to the next level since moving to Europe and powerhouse Lyon. Iwashimizu had a great Asian Cup last year but has also shown vulnerability to pace and isn’t the biggest center-back at 5’4”. Cover comes in the form of versatile Yuri Kawamura and Asuna Tanaka, who both can do a job in midfield as well.
Former Boston Breaker Aya Sameshima looks set to start once more at left-back and will be an important factor in establishing width on the left flank with Miyama looking to cut inside towards the middle of the pitch with the ball. With Naho a bit more of a threat to get chalk on her boots, the pressure on Yukari Kinga to do the same isn’t as great, but the likely starting right-back for Japan is still a threat on the overlap on the right flank. There’s plenty of depth here as well. Rumi Utsugi may perhaps be the most likely of the non-starters to break the hegemony at left-back, while Megumi Kamionobe and Saori Ariyoshi also saw starting minutes at the Algarve Cup.
Sasaki is likely to keep everyone guessing with his choice in goal. After her heroics in Germany in 2011, most would assume that Ayumi Kaihori would be an easy first choice for the reigning champions, but Sasaki has kept his cards close to the vest in the months leading up to the World Cup. Kaihori isn’t the biggest keeper at 5’7”, but she’s almost faultless in every other respect and may be a tentative #1 going into the finals. While Miho Fukumoto has seen her minutes decline in recent months, the towering presence of Erina Yamane lingers in the background as a potential spoiler. Yamane is a colossus at 6’1” but is also an occasionally lumbering figure coming off her line, with Sasaki perhaps loathe to throw her into the mix in a crunch game down the stretch.
Realistically, the defending champs probably don’t have the best squad coming into the tournament, despite returning the bulk of the team that shocked the world in 2011. Much of the core is four years older, while the rest of the world is four years faster and more physically imposing. And still, for all that, Japan has a damn good chance of lifting the trophy again this year. They are the quintessential team that’s much more than the sum of their parts, and once they get you on the carousel with their quick passing and movement, the end result is often disastrous for opponents. And for all of Sasaki’s fiddling in competitions and friendlies leading up to the World Cup, he’s one of the few proven bosses with a winner’s medal at this level, so you have to give him a certain benefit of the doubt.
The draw helps too. If seeds hold, Japan would avoid Germany, France, and the U.S. until the final. Do you fancy the likes of Sweden, Brazil, Canada, Norway, or England to really knock off the reigning champs when the chips are down? I don’t. Japan may have their weaknesses, but the above teams potentially in their side of the bracket have bigger weaknesses that Sasaki’s side look likely to pry apart like a can opener. In the final? The big guns may finally have Japan’s number. But then again, I’m sure a lot of people thought similarly in 2011.
1. Germany (1st in Group B, Winners)
They may be missing the reigning world player of the year. They may be missing a player who would likely be starting at right-back. They may be missing another big time weapon in attacking midfield. But god almighty, have you still seen with this German side has at their disposal? The loss of the above would’ve sunk just about every other team in this competition. For Germany, it might just be a speedbump. The world’s most consistent producer of young women’s footballing talent has not failed them. Injuries be damned, Germany are still one of the favorites to earn some redemption after the crushing embarrassment of 2011.
By now, that story is well known. Massive favorites to win on home soil, Germany froze up and fell to the eventual champions Japan in one of the biggest upsets in women’s footballing history. The disastrous defeat not only robbed them of glory on home soil but kept them out of the Summer Olympics, further stunting development of the program. But Silvia Neid didn’t just survive, she got Germany back to the top of the continental mountain with a title at UEFA EURO 2013. The stakes are higher this year. Neid will be coaching Germany in her last World Cup before giving way to Steffi Jones. She won’t be short of motivation in trying to set 2011 right.
The loss of Nadine Kessler to a troublesome knee injury is a big blow for Germany considering she won the World Player of The Year award last year, but it’s one that the side can recover from given their depth. The German midfield, like everywhere else here, is loaded with tremendous talent. One of the survivors of the 2007 World Cup winners, Anja Mittag looks like playing the #10 role behind the single striker in Germany’s 4-2-3-1. Mittag recently signed for PSG in France after a ridiculous stint in Sweden with Rosengard that saw her net sixty-one goals in sixty-eight appearances. Unsurprisingly given her scoring record, Mittag will be the backup #9 for Celia Sasic as well and can also play on the flanks.
On the left, Alexandra Popp appears to have come through injury hell to start for Germany. The youngster already has a scoring ratio of a goal every two games at this level and is one of the most dangerous players in the air at this tournament and can slide inside to play in central midfield as well. Plans at right-back were thrown into turmoil when it was announced that Fatmire Alushi would miss out through pregnancy. While Simone Laudehr and Lena Lotzen both logged time there in qualifiers, Neid used Melanie Leupolz on the flank in the last friendly against Switzerland. Leupolz was also an option at central midfield, and Neid may end up fiddling with her starter at right wing before settling on someone before the knockout stages. Melanie Behringer started on the left for much of the time that Popp was out and is a hell of an option in reserve, with Laudehr, Leupolz, and new sensation (and AWK favorite) Sara Dabritz also in contention.
The defensive band in midfield will be a spot of great contention, with many arguing that Dzsenifer Marozsan needs to be playing higher up the pitch. The Hungarian born Marozsan has a better than 2:1 appearance to goal ratio at international level and provides much offensive thrust deep in midfield, though many feel her talents are better suited to a more attacking role. Who exactly forms the counterweight is anyone’s guess, as Neid has three tantalizing options to choose from. Lena Goessling has been a stud with Wolfsburg at club level and will be hard to keep out of the lineup at any rate. Leupolz and Laudehr also saw time in central midfield in qualifiers and at the Algarve Cup. Again, Neid has the luxury of a weak group to sort things out and may rotate anyway to keep fresh legs with the knockout stages ahead.
Up top, there’s no real arguments as to who the club’s #9 is. Celia Sasic is one of the world’s best forwards and one of the leaders of this club. She relishes the big moment and is going to have no shortage of opportunities to carve her name into history this year in Canada. Mittag is, realistically the backup option here, with youngsters Lena Petermann and Pauline Bremer also likely to get some burn early on as Germany overpowers some of the minnows in their group.
The German defense is typically German, i.e. big, physical and efficient. Annike Krahn and Saskia Bartusiak have both combined for nearly two hundred caps between them. There are probably some concerns over Bartusiak going the distance in this tournament, as she’s thirty-two and not that far removed from a serious knee injury. In case Neid needs them, Josephine Henning, who played in qualifiers at center-back, and Babett Peter, who was first choice alongside Krahn at the Algarve Cup, are available off the bench. The group of center-backs is plenty talented and experienced, it’s just a matter of Neid keeping them in one piece and on form through seven matches.
It’s a little more up in the air out wide. Young Bayern Munich left-back Leonie Maier was the player of choice at that spot for most of qualifiers but has seemingly fallen out of favor as the tournament’s gotten closer. It seems more likely now that another of Germany’s young stars, Jennifer Cramer will start on the left for the side in Canada, though Tabea Kemme has also seen time on the left and could end up there for Neid. The injury to Luisa Wensing has complicated matters on the right. Bianca Schmidt played almost all of the qualifying campaign on the right for Germany but hasn’t started there since the end of qualifying. Neid used Maier there in the last friendly against Switzerland, opening up more possibilities.
Nadine Angerer won raves (and individual glory) for her heroic displays at EURO 2013, but there’s evidence that the current Portland Thorns #1 is getting long in the tooth. The explosiveness off the line she once possessed is noticeably fading, and there are some who view the veteran as one of Germany’s weak links in this tournament. That’s not to say Angerer isn’t still one of the better keepers in Canada this Summer but that she may not be at the lofty standard of some of her teammates. Youngsters Almuth Schult, already being blooded by Neid, and youth international star Laura Benkarth will probably watch and learn for one more tournament before doing battle for the #1 jersey before Rio 2016.
Germany are not a flawless team. Angerer is slowing down and the defense isn’t going to be winning the forty-yard dash any time soon, while Marozsan is carrying an injury into the World Cup and is doubtful for the opener. The loss of Kessler, Alushi, and Wensing robbed the team of three likely starters and have forced Neid to dig deeper for depth. But the point is that Germany, unlike just about every other nation at this competition has that depth. The youth system has done an unbelievable job of cranking out top talent, and Neid has done a great job of throwing those youngsters straight into the fire. As a result, the Germans have the deepest squad in Canada and should be able to absorb injuries and suspensions as they come.
The path to a title isn’t easy though. While they should sail through the group, the knockout stages could be murderous. The wrong combo of third-placed teams could send them Group D’s #3, potentially Australia or Nigeria…or even Sweden or the U.S. France likely awaits in the quarterfinals, setting up a potential semi-final against the U.S. The final? Potentially Japan. Then again, Germany would probably relish delivering payback to a Japanese side that crushed so many dreams four years ago. They’ve got the talent, they’ve got the depth, and they’ve got the motivation. Come July 5, I think Germany will also have the World Cup trophy in their grasp as well.