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Familiar names primed to again make deep runs in Women’s World Cup, including Team USA

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) USA midfielder Carli Lloyd heads the ball at goal during the international friendly match between China and the USA at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, Thursday June 7, 2018.

The history of the FIFA Women’s World Cup is rather short. The tournament started in 1991, which could be considered quite recent when factoring in that the men’s version dates all the way back to 1930.

But there’s something else about the WWC that’s short: the list of contenders for the championship trophy.

Since the start of the women’s tournament, only four countries have regularly appeared in the World Cup final to vie for a title: the United States, Germany, Norway and Japan. The U.S. and Germany have combined for five of the seven championships, withe the Americans winning three. Japan and Norway have one apiece and have each played in two finals.

By comparison, three nations — Brazil, Italy and Germany — represent the bulk of title winners on the men’s side, and a total of six nations have one at least two championships.

What does this all mean? Simply that the current state of international women’s soccer consists of the cream of the crop, followed by everyone else. The 2019 version of the WWC, however, could represent a shift in that reality.

“I think it’s going to be a remarkable world cup,” said Jill Ellis, coach of the United States Women’s National Team. “I think the level of competition four years on from the last one has exponentially increased — the different teams now rising. It’s going to be a very open World Cup and we’re excited to go out there and attack it.”

FILE - In this March 7, 2018, file photo, Germany forward Alexandra Popp (11) attempts a shot during the second half of a SheBelieves Cup women's soccer match against France in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

When the tournament begins Friday, 24 nations will compete in France for a chance at worldwide glory. A change to either put their country on the map, or keep it on the map. The U.S., for example, will attempt to win back-to-back World Cup titles for the first time since Germany did it in 2003 and 2007. Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn are back to help the U.S. reach that goal.

Speaking of Germany, its national team is looking to tie the U.S. in total number of World Cup championships. The last time it reached a final was 2007 against Brazil. Striker Alexandra Popp, playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsán and goalkeeper Almuth Schultwill lead the charge for the Germans, who have a new head coach in Martina Voss-Tecklenburg.

But to Ellis’ point, the U.S. and Germany are not the only countries with a legitimate shot to win it all this year, despite them being ranked No. 1 and 2, respectively, in the FIFA rankings. France is the host country and played very well in the SheBelieves Cup, which occurred at the beginning of the year, but has never made a final. England, ranked third by FIFA and led by Jodie Taylor and Lucy Bronze, played in the 2015 semifinal against Japan and has historically held its own against the U.S. and Germany.

Then there are the lower ranked but up-and-coming countries such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada and even Sweden. Japan is looking to avenge its loss in the 2015 final, while Australia wants to finally make it out of the quarterfinals after being stopped in its tracks there the previous three tournaments.

Meanwhile, four countries will get their first taste of World Cup competition — Jamaica, South Africa, Scotland and Chile. Although it may be easy for them to be satisfied with simply qualifying, at least one of those nations will try to make a deep run.

“Obviously Jamaica as a country has not been to the World Cup before,” said Kayla McCoy, a forward for the Houston Dash and member of the Jamaican national team. “But I don’t think we’re going in with an intimated mindset of facing bigger countries that have been there before, been there several times, have more people. I don’t think that’s something that’s kind of a daunting task for us. We’ve very confident in the personnel we have, in the skill we have and the talent we have on our team.”

The thing about the World Cup is once the group stage is over and the tournament shifts to the win-or-go-home knockout round, anything can happen. The possibly exists for a dark horse to come out of the woodwork and shock with the world with a Cinderella story-like run.

But until that happens, it will be the familiar flags of the U.S., Germany, England, Norway and Japan that the other 19 nations have to get through first.

France's Amandine Henry (6) scores a goal during the first half of a SheBelieves Cup women's soccer match against Germany, Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

GROUPS

A: France (4), South Korea (14), Norway (12), Nigeria (38). The Group of Death

Who will advance: France, South Korea, Norway. Despite the challenges here, look for France not only to make it out of its group, but to finish on top behind captain Amandine Henry. It’s difficult to imagine Nigeria earning the six points it will likely need against stronger competition. Norway and South Korea will advance, but which one will finish second and third is a toss-up.
Don’t sleep on: South Korea. In eight of its WWC qualifying matches, it only gave up one goal while scoring 30. The country is not the sexiest in the group, but it made it to the Round of 16 in 2015. While it lost to France that year, South Korea will be led by top goal scorer Ji Soyun in the nation’s second consecutive WWC.
Overrated: France. Although the host nation is ranked fourth in FIFA, the country has never finished higher than fourth in any World Cup. If it finishes at the top of the group, it could be on a collision course with the U.S. France’s days might be numbered in the quarterfinals in 2019.

B: Germany (2), China PR (16), Spain (13), South Africa (49)

Who will advance: Germany, China, Spain. It seems like a no-brainer that Germany led by Dzsenifer Marozsán, Alexandra Popp and Almuth Schultwill, will win this group, and could possibly sweep all three games. China and Spain will fight for second and third, and South Africa won’t be able to measure up in the country’s first-ever World Cup appearance.
Don’t sleep on: Spain. The Spaniards did not drop a single point during qualifying, and are buoyed by a strong mix of youth and veterans on their national team. Spain and Germany are each other’s second group match, and it could prove decisive.

Overrated: China. While it has proven time and again that it is still dominant in Asia, it has not graduated to the level of European or North American teams. Making it out of the group stage will be the furthest China goes in 2019.

C: Australia (6), Italy (15), Brazil (10), Jamaica (53)

Who will advance: Australia, Brazil. It’s difficult to leave Italy out, but it will have a difficult time contending with every team in this group except Jamaica. Australia and Brazil are the favorites to advance, and rightfully so. Jamaica is in its first-ever World Cup and will struggle with the more experienced teams in this group.
Don’t sleep on: Italy. This World Cup will the the first for the country since 1999, where it did not make it out of the group stage. The Italians will be hungry, are a staunch defensive team and play organized. Things have to break right, but it might be enough to earn one of those coveted third-place spots to sneak in to the Round of 16.
Overrated: Australia. It’s a country that has a strong women’s soccer history on the world stage. But it lost its head coach in January after reports surfaced of a toxic environment within the team. There may not be enough time for Australia to recover.

England defender Lucy Bronze (2) and United States midfielder Megan Rapinoe (15) battle for a header during the first half of a SheBelieves Cup women's soccer match Wednesday, March 7, 2018, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

D: England (3), Scotland (20), Argentina (37), Japan (7)

Who will advance: England, Japan, Scotland. England and Japan are among the countries with a legitimate shot to win it all in 2019. They should advance easily. Scotland and Argentina are another story. It’s Scotland’s first-ever World Cup, and captain Rachel Corsie, who plays for the Utah Royals FC, should get them through.

Don’t sleep on: Japan. The world’s seventh-ranked team might fool casual followers of women’s international soccer, but make no mistake: Japan is the real deal. In 2015, the Japanese reached the final only to lose to the U.S. Strong passing through the midfield and creative attacking helped Japan beat Brazil and draw both Germany and the U.S. in 2019 matches.

Overrated: Argentina. In the past, Argentina has had difficulty making it out of the group stages in World Cups. Also, it might only beat Scotland while getting torched by England and Japan. It will struggle in this group, which is second in difficulty only to Group A.

E: Canada (5), Cameroon (46), New Zealand (19), Netherlands (8)

Who will advance: Canada, Netherlands, New Zealand. This group will likely be all over the place from the standpoint of who finishes where. Cameroon is certainly an underdog, but in the end it will be experience that bears out for Canada, New Zealand and the Netherlands.
Don’t sleep on: New Zealand. Although the country has qualified for four World Cups in its history, it has never made it out of the group stage. But with a stellar performance OFC Women’s Nations Cup where New Zealand scored 43 goals and allowed none, it’s certainly on the upswing, and 2019 could be the year it finally makes a Round of 16.
Overrated: Canada. Injuries could be what will leave Canada short of expectations. Midfielder Diana Matheson, who also plays for Utah, and goalkeeper Erin McLeod were ruled out of the tournament. Together, those two players have 321 appearances for Canada. Missing that veteran leadership might be too much for the Canadians to overcome.

U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher (1) and teammate Becky Sauerbrunn (4) celebrate the team's 5-0 victory over New Zealand in an international friendly soccer match Thursday, May 16, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

F: USA (1), Thailand (34), Chile (39), Sweden (9)

Who will advance: USA, Sweden. The Americans are the odds-on favorites to win their second-straight World Cup, even though the road this time around will likely be more challenging. Sweden is up there with the other top teams in the world. That all makes for Thailand and Chile not having much of an opportunity to sneak by.
Don’t sleep on: Sweden. The Swedish beat the U.S. in the 2016 Olympics in Rio, snatching away a podium finish for the Americans for the first time in history. The U.S. will certainly want revenge, but Sweden is a real threat to the U.S. not sweeping this group.
Overrated: USA. That’s right — it’s a hot take! The U.S. will make it out of the group, but with plenty of quality teams gunning for the Americans in 2019 and a possible decisive showdown with France in the quarterfinal, the U.S.’s road to the World Cup trophy is not as set in stone as it was in 2015.

Knockout Round

This is the fun part. While practically all the top-ranked countries will not only advance to the one-game, win-or-go-home round, they will likely win their groups, putting them in a specific spot on the knockout bracket. What happens from there will be a whirlwind.

The top teams should still advance to the semifinals, like the U.S., England, Germany and the Netherlands. But because draws have the added intrigue of 15-minute overtime periods and penalty shootouts, this is the opportunity for teams like Scotland, South Korea, Norway or Spain to stage upsets in the round of 16 and shake up the entire tournament.

In the end, though, the top two FIFA-ranked teams will fight for the trophy.

Final

Given the historic strength of both nations and the fact that both are chasing history, expect to see the U.S. and Germany left as the final two teams in the tournament. While they have never before met in a WWC final, 2019 will put them on a collision course.

Germany has played the U.S. tight in the two matches between them — the 2015 World Cup semis and the 2018 SheBelieves Cup. But the Germans were unable to score a single goal against the Americans in either match.

It will be another tight one, but the U.S. will win the 2019 Women’s World Cup, repeating as champions.

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