World Cup fever has taken over again as the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada begins on June 6th...which means time for predictions! I correctly predicted Japan to win the 2011 Women's World Cup over USA in the final, and for Germany to win in 2014 (though craptastically wrong on the rest of the final four). The pressure is on now. The move up from 16 teams to 24 teams means the return of the top four 3rd place finishers moving onto the Round of 16, which was last seen at the 1994 Men's World Cup. It creates some more excitement surrounding those final group games, as more teams will have something to play for besides spoiler. This will also be the first big sports tournament to cross five different timezones, stretching all across Canada.
China 1991: USA. Sweden 1995: Norway. USA 1999: USA.
USA 2003: Germany. China 2007: Germany. Germany 2011: Japan.
Group A: 1. Canada, 2. Netherlands, 3. New Zealand, 4. China. This is probably the toughest group to predict, as depending how things go that any team could finish in any spot. Canada obviously has the home field advantage and are in good form lately, though that also creates added pressure. However, Canada has the most experience and should come out on top. 2nd place is a toss up, but the Netherlands have been climbing for a while and should be an exciting team to watch. China was one of the dominant powers of the 1990s and early 2000s before hitting bottom and failing to qualify in 2011. They've worked their way back up to respectability, but might struggle to score goals against a tough group. New Zealand should have more skill, but China faces stiffer competition in qualifying and should be more battle tested. The match between those two will be one to watch.
Group B: 1. Germany, 2. Norway, 3. Thailand, 4. Ivory Coast. The only question in this group will be who takes 3rd. Germany is the clear favorite to come out on top, and is one of the favorites to win the Cup. Norway have seen better days, but they are clearly better than Thailand and Ivory Coast. This is the first time Thailand has appeared at a Men's or Women's World Cup. The battle for 3rd will take place on June 11th, and I'm leaning towards Thailand for their experience playing top teams like Japan & Australia in qualifying. I don't think either Thailand or Ivory Coast will grab a 3rd place spot in the Round of 16 though.
Group C: 1. Japan, 2. Switzerland, 3. Cameroon, 4. Ecuador. Defending champs Japan are in a group with three newcomers and are favorites. However, Switzerland should be able to hang with them and are clearly the second best team in the group. Ecuador has come a long way and won a road playoff match against Trinidad to get to the World Cup, but Cameroon has the experience of playing in the 2012 Olympics which might give them an edge for 3rd place. Japanese star Homare Sawa will appear in her record 6th World Cup, the first person to do it.
Group D: 1. USA, 2. Sweden, 3. Australia, 4. Nigeria. The Group of Death, featuring three teams in the Top 10 of the FIFA Rankings (USA, Sweden, Australia) and the Champions of Africa (Nigeria). Sweden beat the US in the group stage in 2011, but this time I think the flip will happen with USA topping the group. USA also have a bit of a home field advantage with so many Americans traveling up to Canada. Sweden, a World Cup final contender, should take 2nd place. Australia and Nigeria are both good enough to make it to the knockout round, but only one will get that chance barring an upset over USA or Sweden. I want to pick Nigeria, but Australia has a more well rounded team. Young Nigeria should be a team to watch for 2019.
Group E: 1. Brazil, 2. Spain, 3. South Korea, 4. Costa Rica. Group E is one of the more interesting groups. Brazil will be the favorite, though Spain and South Korea are capable of giving them an upset. Still, Brazil should take first. Spain and South Korea are evenly matched, and both should qualify for the knockout round. That game should be a nail biter, South Korea may be more technically gifted, but Spain should have more scoring chances. I'll take the debuting Spain to finish 2nd. Ji So-yun of South Korea was recently named best player of the year in the English Women's League and will be a player to watch, as will Spain's Vero Boquete. Costa Rica did well in qualifying, but were outmatched by the US in the final, and might have some similar issues with this group. They are a team on the rise though.
Group F: 1. France, 2. England, 3. Colombia, 4. Mexico. France eliminated England on Penalty Kicks in the 2011 Quarterfinals. Now they'll open up their 2015 campaign against each other in one of the games to watch. France, who will host in 2019, are a pick for many to win it all. England have been working hard and could do some damage in the knockout round. Mexico are tough to put a finger on. They did well in the 2011 World Cup, were bad in the 2014 Gold Cup, barely qualifying. Then they had a solid performance in the 2015 Cyprus Cup. Mexico are also searching for their first win at a Women's World Cup. Colombia have gained some experience since 2011, so the fight for 3rd will be interesting.
Third Place Rankings: 1. Australia, 2. South Korea, 3. New Zealand, 4. Colombia, 5. Cameroon, 6. Thailand.
Round of 16: Netherlands over Switzerland. USA over South Korea. Germany over New Zealand. France over Spain. Sweden over Brazil. Japan over Colombia. England over Norway. Canada over Australia. Brazil taking on Sweden is the most enticing matchup I have. Sweden have such a well rounded team that it might be hard for Brazil to get through. Nobody is sure yet if they have the team to support Marta, however they have been finally getting more support from their federation ahead of the Rio 2016 Olympics.
Quarterfinals: USA over Netherlands. France over Germany. Japan over Sweden. England over Canada. I was going to pick Canada all the way to the Semifinals, but I'm not yet convinced they can do that if a team shuts down star Christine Sinclair. Do they have someone else to step up in a tough knockout round match? They did beat England in a friendly, but just ask Japan about getting beat before a World Cup (they lost some in 2011 before going on to win the whole thing). France finally beat a top team in a big tournament here in a monster matchup with Germany.
Semifinals: USA over France. Japan over England. While France are on the rise, I think their real chance to win the World Cup will be when they host in 2019. England finally make a semifinal, but their luck should run out against Japan. The turf may also help Japan consider their technical game of many short passes.
3rd Place: France over England. FINAL: USA over Japan. I didn't want to pick a rematch of the 2011 final and 2012 Olympic final. But maybe third time is the charm? Japan won't sneak up on anyone, but they should have an easier road this time around if they win the group. The US have had some struggles, but with a healthy mix of veterans and youngsters, plus being so close to home, it could be a golden opportunity to win their first World Cup since Brandi Chastain buried that penalty kick against China in the Rose Bowl in 1999.
I have to say though, while I was pretty confident in picking Japan in 2011 and very confident picking Germany last year, I'm a little less so this time around. Its a wide open final to me. Any of these teams can win: USA, Japan, Germany, France, Brazil, Sweden, Canada, and maybe England or Australia if they're at the top of their game.