The World Cup Draw results are just two days old, and that leaves 180 more until the action kicks off in Edmonton on June 6, when Canada battles China. The beautiful thing about World Cup draws is they set off a full six months of hype and preparation. There is no other sporting event in the world where the date, time, and opponent are known so far in advance for such an important match as a nation’s World Cup opener.
This is the first time the women’s event will feature 24 teams and as such the first time teams that finish 3rd in their groups will advance (four of the six will). That means just as we were assured some debutantes at the ball, so too are we now assured at least one of them will reach the knockout phase after Cameroon, Ecuador, and Switzerland went to Group C with Japan. We also learned that the United States was handed just about as difficult a draw as could have been expected once the pots were announced. It shouldn’t be anything they can’t handle, but it won’t be the cakewalk that Japan and Germany figure to get.
WIN IT OR ELSE
BEST CASE: The United States are ranked No. 1 in the world so if they really are in the toughest group it has a lot to do with them being in it. Sweden should have some confidence in the middle match, but Australia and Nigeria would have both been fine in just about any other quartet. If the U.S. beats Sweden or draws Sweden and has a superior goal difference against Australia and Nigeria, they likely win the group. That would mean a 3rd-place finisher in the Round of 16 and a 2nd place finisher in the quarterfinals. Unless the loser of the England-France opener slips to 3rd in Group F, the likely Round of 16 opponents would be Ivory Coast, Mexico, Spain, or South Korea. The quarterfinal opponent could be Canada, but more likely China or New Zealand since Group C features three debutantes and Japan who is likely to finish on top.
TROUBLE LURKING: The Swedes have not been kind to the United States of late, and a loss to Sweden at the World Cup four years ago nearly sent the U.S. home before the semifinals for the first time ever until stoppage time magic beat Brazil. Well, a slip-up against Sweden, or even Australia, that lands the United States in the runner-up spot would mean facing Brazil in the Round of 16 with more travel and less rest (and assuming Brazil wins Group E). And Japan would be waiting in the quarters unless they can’t get out of one of the tournament’s weakest group and then beat a 3rd place team. So while the U.S. is a near synch to be in the knockout round, anything short of 1st place will make the road to July 5 far more difficult.
OUTLOOK: The United States has to win the World Cup to consider the tournament a success. Period. For all the talk about how good they are, Christie Rampone will be the only player on the roster to have won a World Cup. And Abby Wambach has not been shy about this being her last chance to win the most prestigious trophy in the sport. The team figures to look significantly different in 2019.
BEST CASE: It probably already happened at the draw. Switzerland is considered a strong side for being at its first World Cup, but as a trip with Cameroon and Ecuador should pose little threat to the holders finishing first in Group C.
TROUBLE LURKING: Four years ago the knockout phase began with Japan authoring a stunning upset over hosts Germany. It won’t be so tough this time, but assuming they win their group it could be Australia, or maybe England or France if one of those slips to 3rd, or one from the group including Canada, China, and New Zealand. And the quarterfinal matchup will be against the winner of what everyone expects will be Brazil vs. U.S./Sweden.
OUTLOOK: Barring and epic flame-out in the group stage or a Round of 16 loss to a minnow it will be difficult to view this event as a failure for Japan a cycle after they announced themselves as a world power by winning the World Cup and taking silver at the Olympics. But so too is it difficult to place them in a lower rung.
BEST CASE: Qualifying was a joke for the two-time world champions and the group stage figures to be much of the same. Norway can give them trouble, but Germany will be favored to win there, and to win big against Ivory Coast and Thailand. If they win the group as expected it will be a 3rd place finisher in the Round of 16 with Australia the strongest of likely opponents. The Germans look to have clear sailing to the quarterfinals.
[KASSOUF: Assigning seeds to groups compromises Draw]
TROUBLE LURKING: The quarterfinal matchup is likely to be against whoever emerges from Group F between England and France. It is the same stage they were bounced on home soil in 2011 and it is where the pressure will ratchet up after an easy qualifying setup and an easy group stage. France also beat Germany in October. A semifinal against the U.S.—June 30 in Montreal if both win their groups and two knockout matches—would be a mouthwatering matchup.
OUTLOOK: Like the United States, the Germans need to win the World Cup in order to consider it a success and they really have no wiggle room to justify a defeat. The biggest difference is their eight-year gap to winning in 2007 as opposed to 16 years for the U.S.
BEST CASE: Beat England in the fascinating opening match in Moncton to give them the inside track to win Group F…actually, welcome to the pitfalls of the 24-team World Cup. The Group F winner will face something like a South Korea/Spain/Costa Rica-Germany-United States rout to the final. The runner-up will get something more like Norway-Canada/Australia-Brazil. Of course the other groups could see upsets, but which spot would you sign up for?
TROUBLE LURKING: While a loss or draw against England could ultimately set the French up for a deeper run by finishing runner-up, opening match losses have taken down better teams than them over the history of the men’s and women’s World Cups. They should handle Colombia and Mexico, but they will be under considerable pressure to do so if they drop points to England.
OUTLOOK: They’re not in the win-at-all-costs boat as some others, but France has troubled enough big teams at big events without results that it’s high time they emerge from a World Cup with a signature victory. And if things fall apart at their feet they are a dark horse for Vancouver.
BEST CASE: The Samba Queens don’t have an easy group, per se, but they will be big favorites to win all of their games against South Korea, Spain, and Costa Rica. If they can get to the semifinal in Edmonton on July 1 there could be a hole in the draw for them, but no group winner will face a more difficult road than whoever wins Group E.
TROUBLE LURKING: The seeding controversy that awarded a seed to Brazil over Sweden could be decided on the field if their respective groups play to world ranking. It would mean a Brazil-Sweden matchup in the Round of 16 on June 21 in Moncton. And if Sweden happens to win Group D then that June 21 match is likely to be against the United States. The most likely quarterfinal opponent is Japan.
OUTLOOK: No one ever knows quite what to expect from Brazil at the start of these tournaments. Four years ago they had the U.S. beat in the quarterfinals and hadn’t the slightest idea how to close out the match. They’ve been close enough often enough that they should expect themselves to win a big one before it’s too late to do so in the Marta era.
BEST CASE: Their recent success against the United States continues and they win Group D to earn a Round of 16 match against a soft, 3rd place finisher and a quarterfinal against someone like Canada, China, or New Zealand.
TROUBLE LURKING: If they won’t win the group, the consolation prize to the runner-up is likely to be a meeting with Brazil making it possible the 3rd place finisher in Group D will get it easier than the 2nd place finisher.
OUTLOOK: They’re good enough to beat anyone in the tournament. The question is if they’re good enough to stay alive through four knockout matches.
BEST CASE: Start strong against China and ride the momentum of the home fans to an enthralling month similar to what they did at the Olympics in 2012. If they win their group, the toughest team they should get in the Round of 16 is Australia unless the U.S. or Sweden slump to 3rd in Group D. After that it would probably be Norway or England/France. In other words, the path is there for them if they’re good enough.
TROUBLE LURKING: The pressure of hosting combines with a tricky group to put them mid-pack and they have to fly east to play the United States or Sweden in the quarterfinals.
OUTLOOK: Expectations are high on the heels of the 2012 Olympics and the hosting duties. But reality is Canada has not been good enough of late out of context a quarterfinal result would be looked upon favorably.
BEST CASE: See France for the relative benefits of winning Group F. For confidence purposes they probably need group success more than their neighbors across the Channel.
TROUBLE LURKING: An opening match loss dooms their tournament and they continue to emulate their male counterparts by disappointing on the world stage.
OUTLOOK: Talented group has much to prove at this level. Can’t think of anyone who believes they are good enough to win.
BEST CASE: Play to form in Group D by playing tough but finishing behind the U.S. and Sweden and slot into the match against the Group A winner in the Round of 16. That will be the softest group of four when the knockout bracket is set.
TROUBLE LURKING: They forget they also have to deal with Nigeria and slip to the bottom of Group D and out of the knockout stage. Yes that can happen to anyone, but Nigeria is by far the strongest of the teams deemed weakest in its group.
OUTLOOK: NWSL fans have had the pleasure of seeing some of the talented youngsters in the squad, but they’re still searching for an earthshattering result outside of group play.
BEST CASE: They dig in and upset Germany and ride that confidence into the knockout phase where they would be able to cruise from their first kick all the way to the final without having to leave the Eastern Time Zone. Even a runner-up finish in the group would land them in a favorable part of the knockout bracket.
TROUBLE LURKING: Can’t see them getting tripped up by Ivory Coast or Thailand so let’s go with getting drubbed so badly by Germany that they are left with no confidence to capitalize on the soft portion of the bracket.
OUTLOOK: The forgotten former champions have not been in the upper echelon in awhile but were close runners-up to Germany at the last European Championship, offering some hope they can get back to being contenders.
BEST CASE: Beat Canada and former coach John Herdman and inherit the host’s rose-pedal path to the back-end of the tournament.
TROUBLE LURKING: Slip against Canada and China and wind up in a Round of 16 match against Germany.
OUTLOOK: Not tipped to win anywhere but the Kiwis have to think they landed in a group they can win. A break or two could make them a surprise semifinalist.
KNOCKOUT ROUND ENOUGH?
BEST CASE: Upset Australia and keep things tight enough against the U.S. and Sweden to get a 3rd place bid out of Group D.
TROUBLE LURKING: No team has had worse luck at Women’s World Cup draws than Nigeria, who will be underdogs in all three group matches.
OUTLOOK: Africa is still looking for a breakthrough performance at a Women’s World Cup, but looks unlikely to come from Nigeria who has played at every one of them but advanced from their group just once in 1999.
BEST CASE: Gain enough confidence against Brazil in group play to set themselves up well as runners-up and a likely Round of 16 date with England or France.
TROUBLE LURKING: Spain and Costa Rica won’t be easy opponents meaning getting out of Group E is no sure thing.
OUTLOOK: There won’t be many brackets with South Korea in the last eight, and it will take a sizeable upset for it to happen.
BEST CASE: The team gets healthy, forgets about its several disasters against the United States in 2014 and challenge England and France for the second spot in Group F.
[TELEMUNDO: Cuellar says first game against Colombia crucial]
TROUBLE LURKING: Nothing Mexico did in 2014 indicates they are good enough to make their best-case scenario happen.
OUTLOOK: It has been a long four years since their great upset of the United States in Cancun. Further international glory will likely have to wait a little longer.
BEST CASE: The one-time world power takes advantage of a group without a standout and builds off its near miss to Japan at the Asian Women’s Championship and recaptures some magic from the 1990s.
TROUBLE LURKING: The lack of any real drama in qualifying translates to an inability to deal with all that accompanies a World Cup and a second straight knockout phase is played without China.
OUTLOOK: The 1999 runners-up should be expected to get out of their group. After that it’s house money.
BEST CASE: The South American No. 2 continues an upward arc by overcoming Mexico and troubling England and France to sneak into the Round of 16.
TROUBLE LURKING: Dropped points against Mexico will make advancement difficult with England and France on the horizon.
OUTLOOK: In the last four years Colombia has twice finished 2nd to Brazil in the South American Women’s Championships and played reasonably well in defeat at the World Cup and Olympics. Advancement out of the group stage is not out of the question.
Switzerland: The Swiss are in the odd position of being favored to get out of their group in their inaugural appearance at the World Cup. Qualifying out of Europe is no easy feat and they landed in a group with Japan and two other debut teams.
Cameroon: Runners-up in the Africa Women’s Championship will be out to replicate past successes of their male counterparts whose victory over Argentina in the opening match in the 1990 World Cup stands as one of the great individual upsets in the history of the tournament.
Ecuador: South American side earned the last spot with hard-fought playoff win over Trinidad & Tobago, who many in America had adopted as a surrogate team. It was evident how much it meant to them to reach the World Cup. It was also likely as far as they’ll get.
Ivory Coast: Came through a tense, 1-0 win over South Africa to grab Africa’s final berth and a big win over Thailand could see them into the knockout round if things break their way around the country.
Thailand: They are considered the weakest team of the 24 which likely means they won’t be, but they did get in as the best of the Asian also-rans thanks to North Korea being expelled from the competition. Their June 11 match against Ivory Coast is likely their only shot at a result.
Spain: Talented side has a real chance to take 2nd in Group E over South Korea and Costa Rica. Only Brazil figures to be too strong for Vero & Co.
Costa Rica: Difficult to knock their work ethic or stick-to-itiveness, but it is also hard to see them doing much damage with a decided lack of firepower.
Netherlands: Canada coach John Herdman called them the dark horse of the tournament. Whether or not that was posturing it bears repeating that qualification via Europe is no easy feat. No world beaters in Group A.