By Tim Grainey – The 2015 Women’s World Cup kicks off this summer in Canada. For the first time in tournament history, 24 teams will compete for the title. The expanded number of teams has added a Round of 16 to the elimination round adding 1 more hurdle for teams to overcome to claim the title.
Teams have been placed in 6 groups of 4 with the top 2 finishers in each group along with the top 4 third place finishers advancing to the Round of 16. After looking at Groups A, B, and C earlier in the week, the Grainey Report tackles Groups D, E, and F.
(Australia, Nigeria, Sweden, United States)
Australia have qualified for the quarterfinals at the last two Women’s World Cups but this face their toughest challenge yet. The Matildas were drawn into ‘the Group of Death’ but with a good combination of experience and youth squad and stability at the helm will hope for a 3rd consecutive appearance in the quarterfinals.
Sydney FC coach Alen Stajcic, who won two W-League Championships in the Harbor city, took over as interim coach on short notice ahead of last year’s Asian Cup after the federation dismissed Dutch coach Hesterine de Reus whose brusque style offended some players. Stajcic guided the team to the final game in the Asian Cup and has since turned his complete attention to the national team and Canada 2015.
A number of Australia’s key attackers are familiar to followers of NWSL: Lisa De Vanna (with Washington Spirit last season), Emily Van Egmond (released after the 2014 season by Chicago Red Stars), Stephanie Catley (Portland Thorns), Katrina Gorry (FC Kansas City) and Sam Kerr (transferred from Western New York Flash to Sky Blue FC for 2015, who should be recovered this spring from a knee injury she incurred last month with Perth Glory).
On defense, Tiegen Allen played sparingly for Western New York in 2014 while Caitlin Foord was a strong element for Sky Blue FC.
Overall, this is a younger squad with a tough assignment and a third straight quarterfinals berth may be beyond them but the stable coaching acumen of Stajcic should help provide the Matildas the stability they need to be competitive in this very difficult group.
Nigeria, the 2014 African Confederation Champion, finished second to Germany in last summer’s U-20 championships in Canada and their women’s national team program could be hitting a purple patch. Nigeria has the talent to easily slip into the quarterfinals or even beyond.
Desire Oparanozie (Guingamp, France) and Asisat Oshoala (formerly with River Angels in Port Harcourt, Nigeria but just transferred to reigning champions Liverpool in the FA WSL) scored the goals for Nigeria with a 2-0 win over Cameroon in the African Final. The 20-year-old Oshoala won the Golden Ball as the African Championship’s best player, to go with her Golden Ball award from the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada last summer. She also won the Golden Boot in Canada as the top scorer.
Another member of that U-20 side is Oklahoma State forward Courtney Dike. She just finished her sophomore season at OSU but could be a reserve this summer. She told this reporter in the fall—somewhat surprised at the possibility of being included on the WWC Roster — that it would be “a blessing.” If Nigeria can avoid turmoil over arrangements, visas and bonuses, then they have a very good chance for a semifinal spot this summer, which would be a landmark achievement for a nation that in six previous World Cup appearances advanced beyond the Group Stage only once, losing in the quarterfinals in the U.S. in 1999.
Sweden is hopeful of returning to the Women’s World Cup finals for the first time since 2003 and that is not an unrealistic goal for this side.
They have veteran experience in 31-year-old forward Lotta Schelin (Olympique Lyon), 35-year-old defender Charlotte Rohlin (who has played who entire career at Linkopings FC but once turned down an offer from Philadelphia Independence in WPS) and 37-year-old defender Teresa Sjogran (FC Rosengard who played with Sky Blue FC in 2011), who won her 200th cap in Sweden’s 2-1 loss to Germany last October.
Young forwards Sofia Jakobsson (Montpellier Herault in France) and Kosovare Asllani (Paris St. Germain and formerly with the Chicago Red Stars in WPS) could have breakout tournaments. Twenty-one year old midfielder Malin Diaz of Eskilstuna United could be a new star on the rise; she has previously played at Tyreso and AIK.
But the biggest difference for the Blagult (The Blueyellow) could be head coach Pia Sundhage. Sundhage is arguably the best women’s coach in the world and has a great understanding of tactics and talent but also knows firsthand how to beat the group’s other top team, the United States. The 54-year-old understands the American’s style better than anyone having guided the U.S. for 4 years, including second place in Germany in 2011 and two Olympic Gold medals and marching far in Canada ’15 could require finishing atop this group.
Abby Wambach, the all-time leading goal scorer—men’s or women’s—in international history with 177 goals, is solely focused on winning a Women’s World Cup title. The 34-year-old has never won the tile and the Stars and Stripes last won the ultimate prize in the last century, 1999 to be exact.
The American’s success depends on Wambach, not only for her goals on the field and her leadership off of it. She has been solid in NWSL over the past few years for her hometown Western New York Flash (Rochester), with 6 goals and 4 assists in 2014 and 11 goals and 8 assists in 2013.
She has support, however, with WWC 2011 breakout star forward Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns). The 25-year-old has struggled with injuries in NWSL but when healthy, can tear defenses apart with her speed. Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash) has scored the winning goal for the Americans in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Finals and at age 32 is still going strong, supported by creative winger Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign).
Lauren Holiday (Cheney—a NWSL champion in 2014 with FC Kansas City) was one of the revelations at the 2011 event and since has gone on to be a key lynchpin in the side and the Most Valuable Player in NWSL’s first season in 2013.
One big question could come at one of the Stars and Stripes historical strong positions, goalkeeper. Hope Solo has been in hot water with the national team and currently serving a suspension with questions surrounding whether she will be included on the roster for Canada 2015. As much as Wambach is required to led the attack, Solo may be a necessity if the U.S. is to win the title.
The U.S. will have sizeable support coming across the border for their first round games in Winnipeg and Edmonton. If they have a hiccup, it will probably be in their tough first round group. Anything less than a Finals Victory in Vancouver on Friday July 5 will be considered a failure and would likely cost head coach Jill Ellis her job.
(Brazil, Costa Rica, Korea Republic, Spain)
Brazil made a splash last month by defeating and tying the U.S. in an invitational tournament in Brasilia. Marta scored all the goals in the 3-2 victory over the Americans. And it is hard to forget how the forward ran circles around the U.S. team in the semifinals of the 2007 WWC. The 5x FIFA World Player of the Year (2006-2010) is the heartbeat of the Samba Queens but only one element of a side that is more team oriented than in the past.
2014 International Club Champion and 2013 and 2014 South American Libertadores Cup Club Champions Sao Jose Esporte Clube should provide a number of players for the national squad in Canada. NWSL teams have signed five Brazilian National Team pool players in recent weeks. Houston Dash brought in a pair of veteran Brazilians: midfielder Rosana (who won a WPS title in 2009 with Sky Blue FC and a UEFA Champions League title with Olympique Lyon in 2012) and defender Poliana from São José. Boston Breakers added forward Ketlen Wiggers from Centro Olimpico in Brazil (who played for Vittsjo in Sweden’s Damallsvenskan in 2013), forward Andressa Alves da Silva from Sao Jose in Brazil (who scored three goals in last fall’s Copa America) and Brazilian midfielder Francielle Manoel Alberto (also from Sao Jose and who was with Sky Blue in 2009 and won an Olympic Silver medal in 2008.)
A quarterfinals loss in 2011 was considered a failure for the 2007 WWC Finalists, so anything other than a last four spot will be a disappointment.
Costa Rica was a revelation in last fall’s Gold Cup (CONCACAF Regional Championships), finishing second and beating Mexico handily 1-0 in their opening match, when the score belied their dominance. Shirley Cruz, who has won UEFA Women’s Champions League club titles with Lyon and is now with Paris St. Germain, is a key offensive midfielder while the Gold Cup scoring sensation was Carolina Venegas.
They may struggle some, but playing two other Latin-style teams will be to their benefit. They will have a new head coach, as Carlos Avedissian left earlier this month to take a job as Puerto Rico’s director of both their men’s and women’s program. The Ticas promoted Amelia Valverde to head coach; Valverde had been with the national program since 2011 and had assisted the full national team and the U-20 national side.
“I’m very aware of the commitment and the responsibility that goes with this…We are going to give it our all in taking advantage of the time that we have in order to prepare the team….It gives me a lot of satisfaction that they have trust in my work,” Valverde said.
The Ticas hope to mirror the men’s success in the 2014 World Cup, surprisingly making the quarterfinals. Just making the finals is a huge boost to the women’s program in a country that successfully hosted the women’s U-17 World Cup last summer, averaging almost 9,000 per game, including over 29,000 to the National Stadium for the Japan-Spain final.
A Round of 16 spot is probably beyond them this time, but the experience will help cement their spot within CONCACAF’s top four teams—behind the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, with Caribbean Nations such as Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Haiti attempting to chase them down.
The Korea Republic is making their 2nd Women’s World Cup appearance and the first since 2003. The Taegeuk Nangja (Taegeuk Ladies) earned their berth finishing in 4th place in the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.
Ji So-Yun was named 2014 FA WSL player of the year after scoring 9 goals in 19 matches for Chelsea, where she plays for Emma Hayes, who was Chicago Red Stars’ first head coach in WPS and was a consultant when the Western New York Flash won the last WPS final in 2011.
Park Eun-sun is a dangerous scorer who had six goals in five games at the Asian Cup, where Korea Republic finished fourth. Eun-sun, 27, was 15 when she was on their 2003 Women’s World Cup side and was a top scorer in the 2004 AFC U-19 championship, but then left the game for five years. The team will play quickly but is probably a World Cup cycle away from breaking into the top eight.
Spain has leveraged success at the youth level, including two UEFA U-17 Championships in 2010 and 2011 and a 2010 U-17 FIFA World Cup third place finish in Trinidad and second place last year in Costa Rica, to build a solid team that much deserved its inaugural World Cup spot in Canada.
A powerful offense could be comprised of forwards Vero Boquete (1 FFC Frankfurt/Portland Thorns), midfielder Sonia Bermudez and forward Vicki Losada (who both played with Western New York Flash in 2014 and returned to FC Barcelona after the season, while Losada has since joined Arsenal, where the head coach is former Flash assistant Pedro Martinez Losa) and forward Jennifer Hermoso (FC Barcelona and formerly with Tyreso in Sweden).
This could be one of the more exciting teams in the World Cup and a good bet for a quarterfinal spot.
(Colombia, England, France and Mexico)
Colombia is arguably the most consistent side in South America the past four years, given Brazil’s yo-yo approach to their national team development at times.
Defender and Captain Natalia Gaitan (ex-University of Toledo) stayed in the U.S. with Houston Aces last season in the amateur WPSL, along with Orianica Velasquez (ex- University of Indiana) and Tatiana Ariza Diaz (ex-Austin Peay State University in Tennessee). Forward Yoreli Rincon recently signed a three year contract with ASD Torres CF of Italy. Long anointed by some as the next Marta, this could be her chance to increase her visibility on the world stage. Rincon was in the preseason camp of the Flash but was released and played last summer in the W-League with the New Jersey Wildcats. She was originally supposed to attend Indiana University but instead turned professional after the 2011 tournament, playing in Brazil and Sweden.
Colombia, with a strong defense, needs to boost their offense, as shown by their 2-0 defeat last November to Mexico in the final of the Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz, Mexico. Colombia was impressive in their debut in 2011 World Cup and may turn the tables on Mexico to earn third and a round of 16 berth this summer.
England has been a revelation under 32-year-old Mark Sampson (a native of Wales who previously coached Bristol Academy) who took over from Hope Powell after the London Olympics and brought a new energy to a national team situation that had gone quite stale. After quarterfinal spots the last two World Cups, a semifinal berth in Canada is a natural expectation.
The Three Lions are strong at goalkeeper with American raised Karen Bardsley (Manchester City) and long-time forwards Eniola Aluko (Chelsea) and 34-year-old Kelly Smith (Arsenal), who all played in WPS. Jodie Taylor (Washington Spirit in 2014 but traded during the 2015 College Draft to the Portland Thorns) was ignored for years by Powell but could be a force off the bench. Anita Asante won a WPS title in 2009 during her three years in the league and had a tremendous season in defense in 2014 with Swedish champions FC Rosengard. Forward Lianne Sanderson is a strong addition after years in the national team wilderness. Sanderson was ignored by Powell since 2010, when she left Chelsea to come to America to play with Philadelphia Independence in WPS. Coach Sampson has relied on her over the past year to such an extent that she has left Boston Breakers for a year to play at Arsenal, where she won a Champions League title in 2007, to be closer to the England team training ahead of Canada.
She explains the decision: “Mark [Sampson] fully supports me in everything that I do and he said to me, if I wanted to stay in America I could; it wasn’t like I was given an ultimatum where I have to come back to play for England. But this year I’ve had some pretty crazy flying schedules, flying to Seattle, to Chicago, to Kansas, to London, Ukraine, Belarus. It was hard with the jet lag and the time difference. I just want to put myself in the best possible opportunity to be picked. I want to be here and not feel like I’m floating through space because I’m jet-lagged when I am on the pitch.”
Her move to the Gunners should not be interpreted that she feels that her spot on the team in Canada is a sure thing: “I’m just going to do everything I can to put myself in the best position to be in that team, in the squad. Just because I’ve started most of the games under Mark doesn’t mean I’m definitely going to be picked for the World Cup. I’m going to try as hard as everybody else….We have a squad of around 30 players; anybody can start any game. It’s competition but it’s healthy competition; I think you can see that on our training field on any given time we meet up for camp–we don’t know who’s going to start. I think that’s important.”
England could make the semifinals in Canada with a settled squad utilizing solid firepower from multiple sources, which would be a definite improvement over two consecutive quarterfinals under Powell.
France finished fourth at both the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. Head Coach Philippe Bergeroo has led his team to wins in 2014 over Germany, Brazil, Sweden and group F opponents England. Louise Necib (Olympique Lyon) is one of the most accomplished midfielders in the world. France should make the quarterfinals at least and, depending on the pairings, could again make the last four.
France will be a popular side in French-speaking Eastern Canada. They will open in Moncton, New Brunswick for two games versus England and Colombia and finish Group F against Mexico in Ottawa (bordering Quebec). If they win the group, they will play three consecutive games in Montreal should they make the semifinals.
France’s U-20 World Cup squad, which finished third last summer in Canada, was a good sign for France’s future as a world leader in the game.
Mexico had a strong 2011 WWC, with draws against England and New Zealand, but a horrid 2014 Gold Cup, barely finishing in third. Bringing back lighting-rod goal scorer Maribel Dominguez, who chose to opt out of last fall’s Gold Cup because of fitness concerns while playing and coaching at a Mexican University, should help. Charlyn Corral, who now plays in Finland’s top women’s league—the Naisten Liiga—for Merilappi United after two seasons at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, has become a very dangerous forward. Monica Ocampo (Sky Blue FC) can slot in anywhere on the frontline or midfield. Arizona-raised Arianna Romero was transferred to Washington Spirit recently after a strong season with the expansion Houston Dash.
This team has the talent to play well in Canada but a poor WWC—anything less than a Round of 16—could spell the end for head coach Leo Cuellar and his son Christopher, who is an assistant and in charge of the U-20 side. Leo has taken Mexico to the 1999 and 2011 World Cups and the 2004 Olympics but one gets the sense that an overreliance on American-raised players has ultimately held back the development of local talent.
Their tournament will come down to a fight for third with Colombia, with potentially the future direction of the Mexican national teams’ program riding on the result.
Tim Grainey was the contributing editor for women’s soccer for Soccer365.com, the predecessor to 365.WorldSoccerShop.com, in his regular column The Grainey Report. He will be posting stories on the FIFA Women’s World Cup over the coming months as the first kick of Canada 2015 draws near. He is the author of Beyond Bend it Like Beckham. And you can follow Tim on Twitter @TimGrainey.
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