Yeah, it’s that time. I’ll admit, I’m not as well versed in international soccer as I am in other areas, so please, crucify me at will.
This will be in three parts, with the first part covering the eight teams I think won’t advance to the knockout stage. Where I think each team will finish will be in parentheses. Note, this isn’t a ranking of teams 1-24, as Australia would obviously be higher than #17 if it was. It’s just a ranking of teams as I go through each stage, with this set of rankings being for teams out at the group stage.
24. Thailand (4th in Group B)
OK, let’s get this out of the way: This probably isn’t going to end well for debutants Thailand.
On paper, they’re the weakest team in this competition by a mile and got drawn into a group with European heavyweights Germany and Norway, which could lead to some eye-popping scorelines. A 7-0 defeat to China and 4-0 loss to South Korea in WWC qualifying underlined the gap in quality between the Thai side and the upper echelon in Asia. In some respects, there has been a modicum of progress, with a shock 2-2 friendly draw with that China side last September, though the side disappointed in September’s Asian Games, losing to rivals Vietnam, 2-1, who they had pipped to a WWC qualifying spot. Preparations have been scattershot in terms of competition, with poundings of minnows Papua New Guinea taking little of the sting off lessons in class from the likes of Holland, who beat Thailand in a friendly, 7-0 in February. A win over Myanmar in the AFF Women’s Championship was a nice step forward, but on the whole, you suspect Thailand will be in for a real shock when they take the pitch in their opener against Norway.
The entire side is based domestically, though a few of the Thai players have had some jaunts outside of the country. Naphat Seesraum, a midfielder played a year in Japan along with Kanjana Sungngoen, a forward, while forwards Thanatta Chawong and Taneekarn Dangda turned out for Swedish side Ostersunds. On paper, Sungngoen and Nisa Romyen look the best bet to grab a goal for Thailand with strong scoring records in internationals, though obviously against lesser competition than what they’ll face in June.
With North Korea’s reinstatement following this tournament, it’s highly unlikely Thailand will be reaching these heights again any time soon unless Asia is chosen to host a Women’s World Cup. That means it’ll probably be a matter of enjoying the likely brief ride in Canada, bumps and all.
23. Ecuador (4th in Group C)
Hosts they may have been, but, still, few were expecting much from Ecuador in the 2014 Copa America Feminina that doubled as WWC qualifying for South America. Brazil was Brazil, Colombia had the big match experience, and Argentina and Chile had the hype. Just qualifying for the second stage of the competition and thus reaching the Summer’s Pan-American Games probably would’ve been seen as a success before the tournament started.
Fate had other ideas. Ecuador got a plum draw in the first place, avoiding Brazil, Argentina, and Chile in the first group stage, allowing them to reach that final group stage despite losing their final two matches to Colombia and Uruguay. Their defense had led them through on goal differential, but still, few gave them much of a shot in the final group stage with the big guns looming. Hopes appeared to be shattered after a 4-0 loss to Brazil and 2-1 setback to Colombia, but Ecuador would win a de facto third-place playoff after falling down 2-0 to Argentina, roaring back to win 3-2 in the biggest result in the history of the women’s program in Ecuador. The intercontinental playoff with Trinidad & Tobago would be a nerve-shattering affair, but Ecuador squeaked through at the death thanks to a stoppage time goal in the second leg from Monica Quinteros.
It’s easy to be pessimistic about the immediate future though. Ecuador’s played four recorded friendlies since that playoff win and lost all four, twice to Mexico and twice to Colombia. The defense hasn’t been atrocious, but the offense is still lagging, netting just two goals in that series of friendlies. To underline how worrisome the offense is, none of the squad has more than ten international goals, with bright young thing Ambar Torres’ ten in twenty-three matches a likely beacon indicating her importance to making the offense go. Ecuador’s going into battle with a fairly young squad, with just one player aged over twenty-nine and four teenagers in the squad. However, with all but Saint John’s (NY) player Mariela Jacome plying their trade domestically, Ecuador is largely a mystery to the women’s soccer world.
The draw was difficult but not impossible for Ecuador. Japan and Switzerland are likely to prove too formidable, but there is a chance for a point or points against Cameroon. Even so, goal differential could work against the South American side in their pursuit of an unlikely berth in the knockout stages, and an early exit looks most likely.
22. Costa Rica (4th in Group E)
In October, a changing of the guard of sorts seemed to be happening in CONCACAF. At least beyond the big two. When Costa Rica upset Mexico in the opening match of the group stage of WWC qualifying, it seemingly signaled the Central American nation’s ascension to the role of being the #3 team in the region. They would wobble a bit going forward in qualifiers, needing penalties to dispatch Trinidad and Tobago in the semi-finals, but that triumph netted the nation its first Women’s World Cup bid.
Unfortunately, it’s been all downhill from there. Anyone dreaming of a big upset in the qualifying tournament final was rudely brought back to Earth by a punishing 6-0 loss to the U.S. That defeat didn’t seem to hurt them in the short-term, as they reeled off three straight wins in the Central American and Caribbean Games before losing to Mexico in the final. A trip out of Central America was long awaited as Costa Rica were participants in the Spring’s Istria Cup, but results were disappointing. After topping Bosnia-Herzegovina in the opener, there was a draw with a France ‘B’ team and defeats to Wales and Ireland, teams of a much lower calibre than that which will line up against Costa Rica in June. Two May friendly defeats to Mexico seemingly indicated that order had been restored in CONCACAF and that October’s surprise may be in troubled waters come the start of the WWC proper.
It’s tough to identify the source of the downturn, but one wonders if the January managerial switch from Carlos Avedissian to Amelia Valverde has taken a toll. The former resigned for personal reasons earlier in the year, and though Valverde is well versed with Costa Rica as a youth international coach and assistant to Avedissian, the jury is still out on whether she’ll be able to lead her side to an upset in June. Early returns have been less than encouraging to say the least.
If there’s reason for optimism, it’s that Costa Rica has something many of their fellow minnows don’t: a true superstar. Shirley Cruz has been strutting her stuff in France for Lyon and PSG since 2006 and will be looking to add a cherry on top of her already groundbreaking career by leading her nation to the knockout stages. A playmaker at club level, Cruz may have to take a lot of the scoring burden on her shoulders to lift her less experienced teammates. The likes of Raquel “Rocky” Rodriguez and Wendy Acosta should be familiar to college soccer devotees, while those in that boat may want to keep an eye on Gloriana Villalobos, the youngest player at this competition at fifteen and one who has already impressed in her twelve caps thus far.
But it’s hard to ignore the warning signs that have cropped up after Costa Rica sealed qualification against Trinidad & Tobago. The match against the U.S. revealed the problems the defense still has against top teams (especially in the air), and the draw was not kind in that respect, with all three opponents boasting some of the world’s best attacking talent in their ranks. The CONCACAF side will hope that an upset over South Korea will be enough to reach the last sixteen, but their form under Valverde has been unconvincing, meaning it’s likely going to be three and out in Canada.
21. Cote d’Ivoire (3rd in Group B)
However it ends for Cote d’Ivoire in June, few will have enjoyed the ride to the WWC as much as the African debutants. Much like the men’s national team for so many years, the potential has always been there for so much more, but also like the men up to the turn of the century, it’s been a chore in taking that final step. Up until this cycle, the team had previously qualified for only one single African Women’s Championship as compared to nine or ten berths for the continent’s powerhouses.
They so nearly didn’t make it this time either. Given a tough draw against last WWC’s qualifiers, Equatorial Guinea, Cote d’Ivoire went into the second leg of a preliminary round after a 1-1 draw in Abidjan looking like underdogs to go through. But a late goal from Ange N’Guessan sent them through on away goals. With Nigeria, Cameroon, South Africa, and Ghana all also qualifying for the final tournament, few could’ve anticipated Cote d’Ivoire emerging from the final qualifying tournament. In the easier group, a win over Namibia and draw against Zambia sent them through to the semi-finals, where a win over Cameroon would have sealed qualification. But an extra time defeat after conceding at 118’ dragged them into a last chance playoff against fancied South Africa, leading to what will go down as the biggest result in the history of the WNT when Ida Guehai’s late goal gave Cote d’Ivoire a 1-0 win and a spot in Canada.
The draw was a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, Cote d’Ivoire will fancy their chances of beating Thailand, with three points potentially being enough to guide them through to a historic knockout stage appearance. On the other hand, those three points might still not be enough if they get beaten down by the group’s other two sides, Germany and Norway. To put it bluntly, the run up to Canada hasn’t exactly been reassuring. The main worry has been the lack of activity from Cote d’Ivoire leading up to the tournament. The team has had a grand total of one recognized match since the African qualifying tournament last year, a 3-2 loss to Cameroon. The feeling perhaps was that Olympic qualifying would be able to serve as a warmup, but with withdrawals, Cote d’Ivoire has been left high and dry.
That’s all the more worrying since most of the team’s players still ply their trade in the relative obscurity of the Ivorian domestic league. The scoring duo of Josee Nahi and Ines Nrehy are plying their trade in the Russian league, while Guehai is currently on the books for Kristianstads in Sweden, but the hope has to be that this tournament will offer up some more chances for exposure and the possibility of more Ivorian stars moving abroad. Ten of the squad are still aged twenty-one or under, so a respectable display could serve as a building block for the future.
That future probably has the 2016 Summer Olympics circled, where Cote d’Ivoire has as good a chance as anyone seemingly in claiming the one of the two African qualifying berths that won’t go to likely qualifiers Nigeria. But it’s really hard to judge how well they’ll perform in Canada with so little evidence beforehand. The defense wasn’t exactly a brick wall in WWC qualifying though, and that could be a big problem considering the European opponents in their group. While three points are likely, goal differential ultimately could see the debutants come undone in their effort to make the last sixteen.
20. China (4th in Group A)
It’s not hard to pinpoint when rock bottom was for the Chinese WNT. On May 30, 2010, a little less than eleven years after they had come so close to being crowned world champions, China would be eliminated in World Cup qualifying by Japan, marking the first time the nation had failed to qualify for women’s soccer’s showpiece. There would be little joy a year later during Olympic qualifying, as China would win just one of their five group stage matches, relegating them to a fourth place finish in the group and the failure to qualify for another major tournament.
While the Olympics still figure to be a battle in terms of qualification every four years, it’s highly unlikely China will ever fail to qualify for a Women’s World Cup again, with the field expansion and still top heavy Asian region playing right into the hands of the former finalists. Indeed, it was all a bit of a breeze for China in qualifiers this time out, with big wins over Thailand and Myanmar in the final group stage enough to seal a spot in Canada. They would also push Japan close in the semi-finals of the tournament, so nearly taking the world champions to penalties before falling on a last gasp goal in the semi-finals.
The question now is if the improving Chinese side can make any kind of sustained impact in Canada this Summer. The draw was a mixed blessing in that China isn’t facing any true heavyweights but also won’t benefit from any sure things in their three group stage matches. Of greater concern might be the style clash between China and their opponents. Canada and New Zealand look on paper to be the type of physical, rough and tumble teams China won’t relish facing, while Holland has the type of athleticism to trouble them as well. The Steel Roses aren’t totally a soft touch, but it’s hard to believe that they’ll be on the winning end of a protracted physical battle with their group rivals, meaning it might be a matter of asserting their technical skill on the opposition if they want to make it to the last sixteen.
Getting to that last sixteen isn’t going to be easy, and that task likely got much tougher when it was confirmed that Yang Li, joint leading scorer at the 2014 Asian Cup, would not be on the final roster. There are just three players on China’s final roster with ten goals or more at international level, with none of those three particularly having a cap/goal ratio worth shouting about. China used Gu Yasha and Zhao Rong up top in a 4-4-2 against Germany at the Algarve Cup, but the two have combined for just ten goals in over a hundred international appearances.
Big things will be expected of midfielder Wang Shuang, the youngster a previous nominee for AFC Youth Player of the Year, though her scoring rate hasn’t quite been as prolific at senior international level. Support out wide should come from Li Ying and Ren Guixin, who started the Germany match out wide, Han Peng and Tan Ruyin started as central midfielders against the Germans, but neither has really established themselves as offensive threats thus far in their international careers.
The lack of proven offense is probably going to put pressure on the defense to deliver the goods. Goalkeeper Wang Fei has a European pedigree having played for German side Turbine Potsdam, though she’s far from certain to be first choice here, with Zhang Yue having earned the bulk of the caps in goal over the past handful of years. Otherwise, captain Wu Haiyan will be looking to ensure that China stays organized and composed in defense. The right-back will likely be partnered on the opposite flank by Liu Shanshan, and the full-back duo are experienced with eighty-three caps between them despite neither being older than twenty-three. Center-backs Li Dongna and Wang Shanshan are also capable in midfield, and it’ll be interesting to see how Hao Wei mixes and matches his squad depending on opponents in a very open group.
Experience may be the biggest hurdle for China progressing in this tournament. They haven’t qualified for a major tournament since 2008’s Summer Olympics (which they qualified for automatically), and nobody on the squad is over twenty-six years old. That may bode well for the future, but it hardly portends well for a long run here. China hasn’t shied away from challenges since sealing their qualification, but results have been dismal since a 6-0 mauling of Argentina in December. The Steel Roses haven’t won in ten recorded matches, with draws against Argentina and Mexico and a loss to South Korea raising worries.
The group makes advancement a possibility, but even so, a win in the knockout stage looks beyond them. In my eyes though, I think the lack of experience and proven mettle in front of goal will equal an early exit.
19. Mexico (4th in Group F)
A little more than four years ago, it was hard to imagine the future being any brighter for Mexico. They had just shocked the United States in World Cup qualifying and put in a creditable performance at the Women’s World Cup, including a draw with European stalwart England. Seasoned college players like Teresa Noyola and Alina Garciamendez were casting their lot with Mexico, while the domestic developmental system was producing promising prospects like Cecilia Santiago and Nayeli Rangel. And young diaspora such as Sofia Huerta and Tanya Samarzich were on the brink of making an impact for the rising Mexico program.
Four years on, and it’s safe to say that the Mexican WNT has not quite developed as expected. Players like Noyola and Garciamendez have gone from prized professional prospects to players struggling to get appreciable minutes. The development of Santiago and Rangel has been stunted by unsatisfying stints in the NWSL. And one of the biggest blows of all came when Huerta, who had impressed with the U20 team in the U20 World Cup decided to cast her lot back with the U.S. in a hope of breaking back into their senior international team. It was a bitter departure, especially considering Huerta’s fast start in the NWSL.
Samarzich’s star-crossed career took another fateful turn as well, as injury will keep her out of the WWC, another blow for a side that has been looking for fresh young talent to replenish a core that’s been hit by the loss of veterans like Maribel Dominguez. Dominguez was just one of many options tried out by Leo Cuellar in a turbulent WWC qualifying campaign that nearly ended in disaster after a shock defeat to Costa Rica in the group stage. They’d just about get the job done though, avoiding what would have been a blow that likely would have set Mexican women’s football back years.
At least through those struggles, a new source of goals has emerged. One-time Mexican wunderkind Charlyn Corral has reemerged to become her side’s top source for scoring by some distance. Oddly frozen out for a period of time when she was playing in college for Louisville, Corral has made the most of her opportunities since being restored to the team and is by far the most dangerous player for Mexican offensively, capable of some spectacular goals despite not being the most explosive forward. If Corral is bottled up, Mexico is likely in trouble. The other two big threats on goal are Monica Ocampo and Renae Cuellar. Anyone familiar with the NWSL will probably be able to testify as to the perils of depending on the duo for consistency.
The midfield has largely been about potential not fulfilled, with Teresa Noyola and Nayeli Rangel likely to feature. Noyola has always struggled with the pace and power of the pro game, while Rangel has never really been able to put it together despite showing glimpses of real potential for Mexico at youth international level. Veronica Perez may be asked to do more offensively despite playing more of a destroyer role in the pros. Depth isn’t quite to the level of many of their rivals though, which could be said about much of the team as a whole.
Defensively, it’s going to be real touch and go for Mexico. Garciamendez was once thought to be a potentially elite center-back in the long-term but struggled to find playing time in Germany and has begun dental school. A lack of consistent first-team football at club level is a really worry in her case, and in the case of many of her teammates. Christina Murillo looks a likely center-back partner and is solid but also didn’t play club ball last year after taking the season at collegiate side Michigan off. Ari Romero and Bianca Sierra have both impressed in stretches in the NWSL but have been exposed by top opposition at international level. The likes of Kenti Robles may be called upon despite a lack of top flight experience, and they may have to impress for Mexico to progress.
Santiago is a talented last line of defense who nonetheless lost her starting job to veteran Pamela Tajonar earlier in the cycle. Back as the team’s #1, Santiago will need to be at her best in a group with no shortage of offensive talent.
Mexico has stayed busy since their close shave in the qualifiers, winning the Central American and Caribbean Games by beating Group F rivals Colombia. A bad patch at the beginning of 2015 was largely forgotten after a shocking third place finish at the Cyprus Cup, including a 3-2 win over Italy in their final match, one of the best results in program history. Any delusions of grandeur were quickly dissolved by a punishing 5-1 loss to the U.S. in a friendly that could have been worse if not for some poor finishing and great goalkeeping. The defeat underlined many of the weaknesses of Mexico, namely an inability to stop top attacking talent and lackluster conditioning. That doesn’t bode well in a group featuring England and France. Where goal differential could be key, some late goals conceded might be the difference between the knockout stages and a plane ride home. In any event, I don’t think Mexico will get that close even, losing to the European sides and drawing with Colombia, with the CONCACAF side finishing bottom on goal differential.
18. Colombia (3rd in Group F)
A punch. Perversely, it’s what comes to mind for most casual followers of the women’s game when you bring up the subject of Colombia. That moment of madness came from Lady Andrade, whose haymaker on Abby Wambach in 2012 resulted in a two-match ban and salacious headlines in the media. Dig a little deeper and you might bring up the name of Yoreli Rincon, dubbed as The Next Big Thing in women’s soccer, a player who has yet to really fulfill that potential at senior international level and who has butted heads with management in the past.
Sadly, there have been few positive headlines on the pitch for Colombia when in major competition, though many would note that they are still relatively new to this stage. The highlight to this point was probably a relatively lifeless 0-0 draw with North Korea in 2011, and results after the 2012 Summer Olympics had eroded to the point that Colombia was by no means a lock to make it to Canada. In the end though, it ended up being a bit of a stroll. Colombia won all four games in the first group stage of qualifiers before finishing second in the final group stage with draws against Argentina and Brazil and a win over Ecuador. The result not only locked up a World Cup bid but a trip to next year’s Summer Olympics.
Unsurprisingly, it was Rincon who took the Colombians upon her back and led them to glory once again. Odds are, it’ll be up to Rincon again if the South American nation is to break more barriers down and reach the knockout stage. Still just twenty-one years old, Rincon has taken on the role of a footballing nomad since her first big breakthrough on the international stage. After the not-so-glamorous stage of the W-League last year, Rincon’s popped back up at Italian side Torres Calcio. Bigger stages yet will be in Rincon’s future if she finally lives up to the hype in Canada in June.
Rincon will have to star considering her supporting cast isn’t exactly flush with proven talent at international level. 2012’s pantomime villain Andrade is back, as are players like captain Natalia Gaitan, who have been instrumental to Colombia’s rise to being South America’s #2 team. But for all the talent of Rincon, that supporting cast raises more questions than answers. The likes of Orianica Velasquez, Ingrid Vidal, and Tatiana Ariza have plied their trade in American collegiate soccer and have often done very well at that but haven’t really had many opportunities to develop their game at professional level since. Others like Melissa Ortiz haven’t been able to make the grade when those opportunities have come up. It’s also still worth noting that this roster is still very young, with just three players above the age of twenty-five. Qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympics may have been just as crucial as qualifying for Canada in the long run, though advancing to the knockout stage in June would have to be seen as a massive signpost in the development of the program.
Form since qualifying has been solid, with a runner-up performance in the Central American and Caribbean Games preceding five straight friendly wins as of the writing of this. Crucially though, the South Americans failed to beat Mexico twice in those CAC Games, potentially hinting trouble in Group F. In the end though, I think the Colombian defense may have a little more success in stifling France and England, which may give them a leg up in goal differential. I’m calling for a draw between Colombia and Mexico in their matchup, with the South Americans pipping Mexico to third on goal differential but being one of the two third-place finishers to go home.
17. Australia (4th in Group D)
It’s been a chaotic year for the Matildas, who have seen just about everything that can go wrong do just that in a drama filled twelve months. Qualification for the festivities in Canada was easy enough, but just about everything else since the beginning of 2014 has been the stuff of tabloids. The main point of contention was the player mutiny over the dictatorial management of Hesterine de Reus, which stood in stark contrast to that of her predecessor, Tom Sermanni. de Reus’ ouster was feared to have thrown the club into turmoil, but her replacement, Alen Stajcic has calmed the waters. Somewhat. Australia didn’t exactly stand in any danger of missing out on the World Cup considering how weak the Asian confederation is beyond the top handful of teams.
The hand wringing has grown significantly more pointed since the end of last year. Samantha Kerr, arguably the team’s top attacking talent and one of the most potent players in the World Cup, suffered a serious knee injury that had her in a race to make it back into the picture for Canada. While Kerr does appear to have won her battle for health and fitness, one wonders how sharp she’ll be after such a long layoff. Kerr’s injury was hardly the only one to strike Australia in the run-up to the cup, as young goalkeeper Casey Dumont was ruled out of the competition through injury, while projected #1 Lydia Williams is just recovering from an ACL injury suffered in NWSL action last year. Where injuries haven’t struck, eye-raising selection decisions have cropped up. The country’s leading scorer, Kate Gill, was excluded, as was teenager Brianna Davey, who had done so well in goal for Australia when given the opportunity.
With Davey out, the goalkeeping will likely fall to either Williams or veteran Melissa Hudson (nee Barbieri). Williams will likely be first choice if healthy, but her recovery from an ACL injury hasn’t been as smooth as totally hoped, opening the door for Hudson, a solid but aging and vertically challenged netminder. The dark horse is young Mackenzie Arnold, who has won rave reviews in her short career thus far but who may ultimately be seen as a more viable option in future competitions.
As ever, defense is the big worry for the Matildas, whose thrilling attacking approach has come with the cost of being picked apart defensively at times. While the emergence of Alanna Kennedy could portend to big things in the future, the likes of veteran Claire Polkinghorne and Servet Uzunlar could give Australian supporters heartburn in central defense against some of the group’s better attacking talent. Either Stephanie Catley or Elise Kellond-Knight figure to hold down a spot at left-back, but both are so talented that the one who doesn’t will find a spot on the pitch somewhere, potentially at right-back considering Caitlin Foord, once thought of as a solution at right-back, may be thrown further forward.
Polkinghorne could also be an option as a midfield anchor, certainly a nice line of defense with the likes of Caroline Seger and Carli Lloyd roaming in midfield in this group. The creativity may ultimately lie with Katrina Gorry, a deep-lying playmaker who stands at a generous 5’0”. While there’s no doubting Gorry’s pure talent and ability, her stature means Australia will have to protect her in midfield with Polkinghorne, Emily Van Egmond, and maybe Laura Alleway options to give the spine of the Matildas a little boost.
If Australia can keep things tight at the back, they could flourish going the other way, as Stajcic is spoilt for choice in attack. Kerr, if healthy, is the no-brainer in attack and flourished in the NWSL last year with the WNY Flash, coupling her explosive pace with a cutting edge in front of goal. She’s much more dangerous than her five goal to thirty-six cap ratio would indicate. The other spots on the frontline are up for grabs. Lisa De Vanna has always been a controversial figure for Australia and has looked jaded at club level in recent years but still possesses the kind of burst that drives defenses crazy. How much she has left in the tank could well dictate how far Australia goes in Canada. The other spot in attack might come down to either Foord, who could be used as a flying full-back, or Kyah Simon, remembered fondly by Boston Breakers fans for a short stint with the club a few years back. There are no shortage of fresh legged youngsters in attack to come off the bench, meaning Australia should be a threat for goals from whistle to whistle.
Of course, they may be likely to be a threat to concede goals from whistle to whistle as well if the questions about their defense turn into full fledged liabilities. Results have been uneven since qualification was sealed last year. Wins over New Zealand and Holland were positive developments, but the Matildas’ form has been more patchy in the past few months. A 3-0 loss in the Cyprus Cup was a humbling wake-up call, but one that may not have been totally heeded if a loss to Austria and draw with Scotland are to be taken at face value. Shipping three to England and two to Austria and the Czech Republic (in a 6-2 win) don’t exactly provide much optimism that the Matildas will be able to keep their Group D opponents in check. The cruel fact is that Australia would likely advance through any other group with reasonable ease. But a potential winner takes all showdown with Nigeria looms large, and I think the African champions may have a tad more firepower in the tank, enough to send the unfortunate Australians home much earlier than many may anticipate.