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United States Women’s National Team Seek Fourth World Cup Title, but Hosts France Among Challengers Lurking

By Chris Altruda (@AlTruda73)

The United States continue to be the class of women’s soccer, but the gap between them and the rest of the world is shrinking – perhaps faster than they care to admit.

The Stars and Stripes enter the eighth edition of the Women’s World Cup as defending champions and looking to add a fourth star above their crest. The U.S. are the only team to have won the Women’s World Cup three times and have reached the semifinals in all seven previous editions.

Jill Ellis’ team boasts a staggeringly deep squad, one that striker and 100-goal scorer Alex Morgan jokingly boasted could send two teams to France this summer. The hero of the 2015 World Cup final – Carli Lloyd, who scored a hat trick in the 5-2 win over Japan – comes off the bench as reinforcements for a seemingly bottomless offensive juggernaut.

But the next month in France will be anything but easy for the U.S in their bid to join Germany (2003 and 2007) as the only repeat champions. For starters, the host Les Bleues are part of a strong contingent from the European continent who looked poised for a breakthrough at the international level. Former champions Norway and Germany continue to be perennial contenders, and while England’s men side captured the imagination of the country last summer in Russia, their Lionesses have the potential to do likewise across the channel.

Brazil and Australia also can make claims as possible contenders. While the South American giants have never lifted the trophy, Marta returns for her sixth World Cup and leads a precocious squad as she looks to add to her record haul of 15 goals. The Canarinhas will have a group showdown versus the Matildas, who boast arguably the best player in the world in Sam Kerr as they attempt to break the quarterfinal ceiling that has stopped them in their last three appearances.

This is the second Women’s World Cup comprised of 24 teams, with the knockout round consisting of the top two finishers from each group and the four best third-place teams. For this article, we are looking at finding those 16 teams, with the odds on winning their respective groups courtesy Fan Duel SportsBook.

GROUP A

Jun 26, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; France forward Eugenie Le Sommer (9) controls the ball against Germany defender Babett Peter (14) during the second half in the quarterfinals of the FIFA 2015 Women’s World Cup at Olympic Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

As is always the case for the World Cup hosts, France (-470) has been given a manageable draw that should seem them progress atop the group. In addition to home-field advantage, Les Bleues are in terrific form – having gone unbeaten since February – and also have two wins and a draw in their last three matches against the U.S., whom they could meet in the quarterfinals if things go according to plan.

Vice captain Eugenie Le Sommer (+650 for best player), with more than 70 goals and 150 caps to her credit, is a serial winner having just led Lyon to their sixth Champions League title. Defensive midfielder Amandine Henry (+500) is joint-favourite for best player with Morgan and a force in the middle of the park.

The potential of an epic group match between the hosts and 1995 champions Norway (+650) has been dulled by the decision of Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg to not play as part of her protest against her country’s soccer federation for poor treatment. Still, the Gresshoppene have more than enough talent to at least progress from the group and give Les Bleues a fight as midfielder and talisman Maren Mjelde will be counted on for offence and leadership.

Hegerberg’s absence could be South Korea’s gain as the Taegeuk Ladies are seeking their second straight trip to the knockout round. A stingy defence-minded first side, South Korea (+850) took a laborious path to France, needing to win a playoff versus the Philippines to advance after not conceding a goal during Asian qualifying.

Nigeria (+4,400) extended their 100 percent World Cup participation record, but even with Asisat Oshoala – the three-time African player of the year who just signed with Barcelona – this group may be too deep for the Super Falcons, who have not advanced to the knockout round since 1999.

GROUP B

Aug 19, 2016; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Germany forward Dzsenifer Marozsan (10) with the ball against Sweden midfield Kosovare Asllani (9) during the women’s soccer gold medal match in the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic Games at Maracana. Mandatory Credit: Jack Gruber-USA TODAY Sports

A fourth-place finisher four years ago in Canada, Germany (-330) appears tipped to join the U.S. as the only three-time Women’s World Cup winners. The No. 2 team in the world, Die Nationalelf are led by the potent combination of playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsan (+900) and midfielder Lea Schuller. The 21-year-old Schuller bagged the winner in Germany’s win over France in February and is off to a robust scoring start for the national team with eight goals in 12 appearances.

This World Cup may be one too early for Spain (+300) to make a deep run, but the side was nevertheless impressive in rolling through its European qualifying group with eight wins in as mnay matches while conceding just twice. It has been a rapid rise for La Roja, who made their World Cup debut four years ago and boast a Barcelona-heavy roster paced by veteran Vicky Losada and Patri Guijarro. Guijarro won the Golden Boot at the U-20 World Cup last summer, helping Spain reach the final.

China (+1,400) are in good position to be strong third-place finishers with Group B also comprising of World Cup debutantes South Africa, but they are a far cry from the 1999 side who took hosts U.S. to penalties in the final. They have had fits and starts in the World Cup run-up, losing to Japan in the semifinals of the Asian Cup and finishing last at the Algarve Cup before giving France a solid match in a 2-1 defeat.

South Africa (+6,500) qualified for France by finishing runners-up to Nigeria in the African Cup of Nations, but they did defeat the Super Falcons in group play of that tournament and lost to them on penalties in the final. Janine van Wyk is the standout player for Banyana Banyana, a stalwart defender who was also the first South African to play in the NWSL.

GROUP C

Aug 2, 2018; Bridgeville, IL, USA; Australia forward Sam Kerr (20) shoots the ball for a goal against Japan in the second half during the Tournament of Nations Women’s Soccer match at Toyota Park. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

As mentioned previously, Australia (-125) and Brazil (+130) may be the most hotly contested group play match in France as the two favourites vie for Group C honors. The 25-year-old Kerr (+900) has been with the Australia senior side since she was 15 and is as ruthless goal-scorer as they come – she has 27 goals since 2017 for the Matildas and a two-time Golden Boot winner in the NWSL – but the concern is on the other side of the pitch. Australia have struggled defensively, and new coach Ante Milicic has had only five months to try and fix those issues.

For all their individual talent, and there is plenty, Brazil have appeared in only one World Cup final, losing to Germany in 2007. This could be the last go-round for Marta (+4,400), but there is more to the Canarinhas to her. They won the Copa America Femenina in impressive fashion, outscoring opponents 31-2, and Debinha and Andressinha are in line to take the torch from their superstar teammate. Also of note will be 41-year-old Formiga, who will play in her record seventh World Cup – breaking the mark she shares with Japan’s Homare Sawa — and try to extend her record as the tournament’s oldest goal-scorer.

Italy (+700) make their return to the World Cup for the first time in 20 years, and the Azzurre will likely be vying for one of the four third-place spots to reach the knockout round. Cristiana Girelli and Barbara Bonansea power the offence for the Azzurre, and the duo will likely determine whether they will have a chance to match their all-time best finish of a quarterfinal appearance in 1991.

Jamaica (+8,000) are another of the newcomers arriving in France, with their squad getting a financial lifeline from Bob Marley’s daughter Cedella. While the Reggae Girlz are likely to only make a three-match appearance, Khadija Shaw scored 19 goals in qualifiying, and the striker nicknamed “Bunny” is likely to have defences hopping in her group.

GROUP D

Jun 27, 2015; Vancouver, British Columbia, CAN; England forward Jodie Taylor (19) reacts after scoring against Canada during the first half in the quarterfinals of the FIFA 2015 Women’s World Cup at BC Place Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kryger-USA TODAY Sports

There is little questioning England’s talent after back-to-back semifinal appearances in the 2015 World Cup and 2017 European Championships. And after winning the SheBelieves Cup in a field that included the U.S., Brazil, and Japan, the question is how will the Lionesses (-185) respond to having actual expectations upon them.

Phil Neville’s squad is stocked with scoring talent, most notably Nikita Paris and Jodie Taylor. The pair are +220 and +360, respectively, to finish as England’s top scorer in France, while defender Steph Houghton is a +1,100 selection to claim top player honours. One darkhorse to claim this award for England is also right back Lucy Bronze (+2,300), with Neville claiming she is “the best player in the world.”

2011 champions and 2015 runners-up Japan (+160) figure to give England their toughest test in Group D and showed they would be no pushovers this summer after getting a win over Brazil and a draw versus the U.S. in the SheBelieves Cup. Saki Kumagai has a stellar track record of delivering in big moments for the Nadeshiko, converting the winning penalty in 2011 and doing so again for Lyon in the Champions League final last month.

Scotland (+1,400) are in the World Cup for the first time, and their grudge match against England after being given a 6-0 hiding in the Euros could serve as a measuring stick for just how far they have come in a short time. Jane Ross and Kim Little both have more than 50 goals and 125 international appearances, and if Little and Caroline Weir can create a dynamic offensively, the Tartans could progress to the knockout round.

Argentina (+8,000) appear to be the outsiders of this group, having punched their ticket to France by defeating Panama in a playoff. La Albiceleste did not play a match from 2015 through 2017 due to internal strife among players and the Argentine football federation and will be counting on Estefania Banini to help them avoid a third last-place group finish in as many World Cup appearances.

GROUP E

Oct 17, 2018; Frisco, TX, USA; Canada forward Christine Sinclair (12) in action against United States during the 2018 CONCACAF Women’s Championship final soccer match at Toyota Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

According to oddsmakers, the Netherlands (-125) and Canada (+110) are the closest teams in terms of co-group favorites in the 24-team field in France. The Dutch continued their upward trajectory in stunning fashion, upending Germany to win the 2017 European Championships on the heels of their first World Cup appearance two years prior.

They have had some puzzling results, including losses to Spain and Poland at the Algarve Cup, but they also have bounced back with wins over China and fellow World Cup participants Chile and Australia. The Netherlands boast one of the best strike tandems in France with Lieke Martens and Vivianne Miedema (+1,800) as the pair have combined for more than 100 international goals, but whether a young side whose average age is 25 can show some tournament nous is a question that needs to be answered.

While this World Cup may be a tournament too soon for the Dutch to win, it may be the last chance for Canada to make a deep run. Led by veteran striker Christine Sinclair – who needs four goals to surpass Abby Wambach’s international record of 184 – the Canadians are battle-tested having already beaten Norway, Scotland, England, Sweden, and Nigeria.

Midfielder Jesse Fleming and defender Kadeisha Buchanan give Canada a high-quality component in each third of the pitch, and their group finale showdown versus the Netherlands will determine their path through the knockout round.

New Zealand (+1,000) is another of the teams pegged to get through as one of the best third-place finishers, and the Ferns can also claim a Top 20 spot in the FIFA rankings. They are in their fifth consecutive World Cup, with defender Abby Erceg playing in her fourth. Their result against Cameroon (+5,000) will likely determine their fate for advancing.

Speaking of the Indomitable Lionesses, they are back for their second straight World Cup appearance. Cameroon qualified by defeating Mali in a playoff after reaching the semifinals of the African Cup of Nations, but a lack of match competitions may come back to haunt them. After qualifying, Cameroon went six months without a match – something that may prove problematic in getting players beyond Gabrielle Onguene and Michaela Abam to make an impact.

GROUP F

Mar 5, 2019; Tampa, FL, USA; United States forward Alex Morgan (13) awaits a corner kick from teammate midfielder Megan Rapinoe (not pictured) during the second half against Brazil during a She Believes Cup women’s soccer match at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The United States (-430) are prohibitive favourites to win Group F, backed by the 100-goal scorer Morgan (+500) and Lloyd (+650), but there is also a quality defence to back the prolific offence. The Yanks did not concede a goal in qualifying, and Ellis has no lack of options in midfield among Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle, and Megan Rapinoe is as dangerous as they get on the flank. The lack of quality in this group beyond Sweden means there is some room for experimentation for Ellis, but this is a hungry side that cares little about the title of defending champions – they want to repeat.

The schedule of play in Group F does Sweden (+340) a huge favour as they are expected to claim all six points from matches against Thailand and Chile before their anticipated showdown with the U.S. Despite a disappointing performance at the Euros two years ago, this is still the country that stunned the Yanks in the Olympics. Stina Blackstenius and Sofia Jakobsson will be counted on to lead the line following the retirement of Lotta Schelin, but Sweden’s strength is in the back with keeper Hedvig Lindahl making her fifth World Cup appearance.

Chile (+2,300) are making their first World Cup appearance and could not have been put in a more daunting group. La Roja will be relying on standout keeper Christiane Endler, who plays for PSG in France, while Francisca Lara and Maria Jose Rojas will try to keep some of the pressure off the South American side’s defence by scoring goals.

Thailand (+8,000) have returned to the World Cup after making their debut in 2015, but another three-and-out performance is expected from the Asian side. Their hopes will ride with Suchawadee Nildhamrong, who has 12 goals since her initial call-up in 2017. Thailand played France to a respectable 3-0 loss in the run-up to the World Cup, and a big win over Chile could put them in the hunt for a spot in the knockout round as a third-place finisher.

 

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