Tuesday, March 17, 2015

2015 FIFA Women's World Cup Contenders

The 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup comes at us from Canada in June, and qualified teams have begun preparing for the big tournament through the Algarve Cup and friendlies. It'll be the first World Cup broadcast by FOX in the US, who will be devoting more time on the main broadcast channel than any World Cup (Men's or Women's) previously has. Besides the 16 matches on FOX, every match will also be on FOX Sports 1 & FOX Sports 2. Time to break down the Twenty Four teams that will be featured at the Cup.

Favorites:

Japan - The defending World Cup champs are just as technically sound as they were when they won in 2011. The main difference this time is nobody will be caught off guard by them. Everyone knows its hard to repeat a championship, but Japan have the team to pull it off. There is a question if Homare Sawa (Japan's version of Mia Hamm in popularity) will be in Canada. She famously scored the tying goal against the United States in the 2011 Final before winning FIFA World Player of the Year in 2011. The 36-year-old was not taken to the Algarve Cup. A veteran presence could be a boost coming off the bench, which is something they'll have to decide.

United States - USA are looking to capture their first World Cup since the famous 1999 Title won on Brandi Chastain's penalty kick against China in the Rose Bowl. They also won in 1991. Its been an up-and-down year for the squad with losses to Brazil, France, Denmark, & Sweden as well as ties with China, Canada, Brazil & Iceland. However, they finished the Algarve Cup strong by beating France. They were drawn into the Group of Death with Sweden, Australia and Nigeria. Winning the group would be ideal, as the 2nd place team would likely face Brazil in the Round of 16. As long as Alex Morgan stays healthy, this team should be just fine. This will most likely be the final World Cup for Abby Wambach, Hope Solo, and Christie Rampone (the only remaining player from 1999).

Germany - The 2003 & 2007 champs were probably the #1 favorite a few weeks ago, but they just lost their best player and 2014 Player of the Year, Nadine Ke├čler, to a knee injury that required surgery. As one of the best teams in the world they have the depth to get through injuries, but you never want to lose a star player. They were also beaten by Sweden & France recently, showing they are mortal.

Sweden - They are the best and most consistent country to never win the World Cup, losing the final in 2003 to Germany and finishing 3rd in 2011. They're coached by Pia Sundhage, who coached the US to Olympic Gold Medals in 2008 & 2012, as well as 2nd place at the 2011 Cup.

Brazil - Marta and Co have become more of a team as of late, which could be scary for the rest of the field. However, they still lack the all around aspect that they always have due to not playing together as often as the other top squads. The Brazilian federation have given them much more support in the lead up to this World Cup and the Rio 2016 Olympics though, so they could easily mesh well enough to win one of the two tournaments. The lost the 2007 final to Germany and will be looking to get back.

France - France has taken the world by storm as of late with some big wins against top teams, finally beating Germany in October after years of losses. They've risen to an all-time high of 3rd in the FIFA Women's Rankings. They can do everything well on the field. However, they have yet to win a major tournament, though this could be their year.

Dark Horses:

Norway - The 1995 Women's World Cup champs have fallen behind the pack since being eliminated in the Group Stage in 2011. However, they are still a force, and gave the US some tough competition at the Algarve Cup by playing well defensively and countering. They do lack the fitness of the top teams which could hurt them in the knockout round later in games.

England - While its unlikely they can do enough to win it all, they have a good squad that could make a deep run to the Semifinals and possible upset there. They lost in the Quarterfinals in 2011 by typical English fashion - a Penalty Shootout, which they were leading before some botched shots did them in. In friendlies against Germany they went on the attack too much, and against the US they played too much defense, so they'll need a better balance in Canada.

Canada - Their outstanding & controversial Olympic semifinal game against the USA lifted hopes for Canadian soccer glory after they nearly made it to the Olympic Final, losing in the final seconds of overtime. If Christine Sinclair is in top form they will be a tough team to beat on home soil.

Australia - They've reached the Quarterfinals of the past two tournaments, and have the talent to possibly make it one step further. They do have the challenge of being in a group with the US and Sweden. The top four 3rd place teams move onto the Round of 16 though, so that gives them a shot. The bad thing is that also means they'd have to face a group winner right away in the knockout stage.

China - One of the women's soccer powers of the 1990s (along with USA & Norway), they've struggled more in recent years. However they seem to be working their way back. They recently tied Brazil, USA & Japan. They play good defense, but scoring it an issue when they face top opponents due to a young and inexperienced team, which has made wins tough to come by. They can make it out of the group, but draws obviously won't be enough in the knockout round. I'll still keep them here, they may have a small chance to figure it all out enough to pull an upset, though it's unlikely they can make it too far in the knockout round.

New Zealand - They can hang with top teams, but like some others just lack the experience to be able to string together enough wins against them to make it to the final. But they have talent, and if everything fell into place they could cause an upset in the knockout round even if they don't make the final.

Spain - They upset England at the 2013 EURO's and qualified for their first Women's World Cup by finishing ahead of Italy last year. Vero Boquete, who plays for Portland Thorns in the NWSL, will be one of the more exciting players to watch. One thing is for sure, they should have a better finish then the men did in the 2014 World Cup.

Netherlands - The Oranje will also be making their debut at the Women's World Cup as they continue their rise in the women's game. However, 2015 may be too soon for them to make it to the final four, especially in a pretty tough group with Canada, China and New Zealand. Every team in Group A is capable, without a weak link in the bunch.

Good, But Unlikely To Go Far: 

Switzerland, South Korea, Nigeria, Mexico, Colombia

Switzerland and South Korea have a good shot to make it to the knockout round due to their groups giving them an opening to pick up points. South Korea will be contending with Spain for a guaranteed 2nd place spot, but whoever finishes 3rd has a chance to pick up the needed points and goal differential. Nigeria is talented enough to go to the knockout round, but being in the Group of Death their only chance would be to beat Australia. Mexico should finish 3rd in their group behind France & England, but Colombia could pose a challenge. Mexico also struggled in Qualifying, finishing behind Costa Rica in their group and needing overtime to beat Trinidad & Tobago.

Happy To Be There:

Thailand, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Cameroon, Ivory Coast

All of these teams are making their debuts and will just be looking to improve their play by facing the world's best. Thailand is actually appearing in its first ever major FIFA tournament, men or women. They benefited from traditional power North Korea being banned for PED use in 2011. Ecuador defeated Trinidad & Tobago in a playoff that saw both teams fill big stadiums. Costa Rica may be the most talented of the bunch, but still have lots of work to do.