The U.S. women’s soccer national team was soundly defeated by France in January. It could only manage home draws against Japan and England a month later, and is one or two injuries from looking a little thin on the bench.
But with World Cup play set to begin Friday, the Americans are still the betting favorite to win the trophy again after their victory in 2015.
Who is best positioned to take the title from them?
The main contender is France, the home of women’s soccer in Europe. France is hosting the tournament, boasts Europe’s best club teams and has that confidence-boosting victory over the United States earlier this year.
But the French also have a history of struggling in the later rounds of major tournaments. With their team playing at home France’s soccer fans will expect a title to match the men’s title last year, but despite the team’s talents, the country has yet to prove it can go all the way.
England has emerged as perhaps Europe’s second-best hope. The English, despite inventing soccer, got a late start with taking the women’s game seriously. They were widely mocked for hiring inexperienced manager Phil Neville in 2018, but Neville, a former player for England, seems to have driven his players to take the final step. English fans will be glued to the games; will the added pressure boost or paralyze England’s chances?
Some of the other usual contenders — Brazil, Germany and Japan — are off their game lately, but they’re still capable of knockout-round upsets. This year’s tournament is probably one too early for traditional soccer powerhouses like Spain, Italy or Argentina to make a decent run. Keep an eye on Australia, which always seems to be a contender.
The key to the United States’ tournament is the health of two players: Julie Ertz and Becky Sauerbrunn, the two center backs from the 2015 World Cup winners.
When Sauerbrunn was injured earlier this year, including during the loss to France, the U.S. looked lost defensively. Ertz has moved into a role as a defensive midfielder, but the American system demands that almost all of her teammates have offensive roles. Ertz, as the main defensive hub in the center of the field, will be tasked with breaking up counterattacks and supporting Sauerbrunn and the defense when the rest of the team is in attack mode.
If the U.S. and France both win their groups and their first knockout-round games, as expected, the two will meet in the quarterfinals. The final is July 7 in Lyon, but that June 28 quarterfinal in Paris might be the real final. If all goes as expected, the winner of that game will have one hand already on the trophy.