That USA soccer jersey that has been in mothballs since last fall can come out of the closet now, because a scant eight months after the Men’s World Cup, the Women’s World Cup is coming to a TV set near you from Australia and New Zealand. Once again, we’re coming to you with a Q&A session to get you ready for the big show.
What’s different this year?
We now have 32 countries competing in the tournament instead of the 24 we had four years ago. This means a bunch of nations who have made the World Cup for the first time — hello, Ireland! Only two teams from each group will advance, which will make the final day of the group stage easier to compute. Since the tournament is taking place in the southern hemisphere, the players won’t have to deal with summer heat, so we should expect the top teams to have a little more spring in their step. Also, we won’t have to ask questions about slave labor and stadium workers being killed like we did in Qatar.
Expect to hear the referees’ voices this year. FIFA is experimenting with having the officials explain their video-replay rulings over the PA system the way NFL and college football refs do. Soccer fans have long been fascinated by this aspect of American football and wondered why they can’t have it in their sport, and now they’re getting their wish — permanently if it goes well. Of course, the fans in Australia and New Zealand are already accustomed to it, since rugby referees are always mic’d up.
What are USA’s chances of winning?
They’re still the favorites, but they’ve taken a hit with injuries. The striker duo of Catarina Macario and Mallory (Pugh) Swanson was playing so well that they forced Alex Morgan to the bench, but Macario tore her ACL and Swanson tore her patella tendon, so Morgan gets her starting spot back by default. Two-time World Cup winner Christen Press will also miss the tournament with her own torn ACL. Of possibly greater concern is USA’s backline, where Becky Sauerbrunn’s foot injury means she misses the tournament. She probably wouldn’t have cracked the starting lineup, but her absence means that if either of the defensive pairing of Alana Cook or Naomi Girma get hurt or spit the bit under World Cup pressure, the team will be thin with other options.
New coach Vlatko Andonovski puzzlingly left Tierna Davidson off the team when the erstwhile left-back has experience as a central defender. In a pinch, the team could move defensive linchpin Julie Ertz to the backline, where she played during World Cup 2015. That, though, would create a hole in the defensive midfielder position, where backup Andi Sullivan does not offer the same range of passing nor the same physical intimidation. USA is very fortunate that in the run-up to the tourney, Ertz has looked like her old self despite almost two years of not playing at all due to pregnancy and her own injury problems.
If USA loses its crown, who can take it?
You’ve got to start with England, as the Lionesses finally snagged a major trophy when they won the Euro tournament last year. They’ve had their eye on USA since then, and they would be the favorites if they had their full complement of players (more on that in a moment). As it is, Lucy Bronze remains a terror from the right-back position, while Rachel Daly has made the rarely seen conversion from left-back to goal-scoring center forward and the duo of Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh will boss the midfield. If not them, Sam Kerr of Australia will be playing in the World Cup in front of her own fans, and she has a Messi-like ability to turn games by herself. Also, France is now united after — stop me if you’ve heard this before — their top players went on strike to oust Coach Corinne Diacre. In fairness, Diacre seems to have gone out of her way to alienate all her subordinates, so she’s gone and the striking players are back. Lastly, Canada won the 2020 Olympic gold medal and beat the Americans along the way. That had to be satisfying. Kadeisha Buchanan looks back to being one of the world’s best defenders, which spells trouble for anybody facing Canada.
But is USA in danger of losing their crown?
The good news is that all the other top contenders are dealing with their own injury problems. The 2019 runners-up, Netherlands, are missing all-time leading scorer Vivianne Miedema due to an ACL tear. England star winger (and Miedema’s girlfriend) Beth Mead also tore her ACL, as did the Lionesses’ defensive rock Leah Williamson. Same goes for Germany’s Giulia Gwinn, New Zealand’s Katie Rood, and Canada’s Janine Beckie. France will miss both Delphine Cascarino and Marie-Antoinette Katoto who both (say it with me) tore their ACLs.
Good heavens. Why the rash of knee injuries?
There’s some science to back up the idea that women are simply more prone to ACL tears than men. However, Sam Fels at Deadspin pinpoints a more specific cause, saying that the manufacturers of soccer gear haven’t gotten the memo that women’s bodies are different from men’s. It appears that women’s cleats are basically men’s cleats made in smaller sizes, and now The Guardian reports that more than 80% of women players have reported feeling pain because of their cleats. If we can cure COVID, surely we can make shoes that better fit soccer’s demands than Barbie’s stiletto heels.
What about the newcomers?
After Morocco was the surprise package of the men’s World Cup, their women take their bow at the big dance. Most of the Muslim countries don’t support their women’s teams (surprise, surprise), so Southeast Asia reaps the benefits, with both the Philippines and Vietnam making their World Cup debuts as well. Regarding the former, Frisco high-school student Isabella Pasion already has five caps for the Filipinas and is with the team Down Under, though as a reserve, she won’t see action barring injury. As for Ireland, the soccer will not be attractive, but their fans always inject life into a World Cup. Panama might have the steepest learning curve, being in a group with France and Brazil. Then there’s Haiti, which has dealt with myriad corruption scandals, a massive earthquake in their country two years ago, and a federation president found guilty of being a serial child rapist. He’s still in power, by the way. Spare a thought for Les Grenadières.
Yeesh. That’s such a downer.
I’ve got better news. This World Cup will be the last hurrah on the world stage for Megan Rapinoe, who has announced she will retire at the end of the NWSL’s regular season in October. Like David Beckham, she’s a creative winger who overcame her lack of natural footspeed with sheer vision and technique. Also like Beckham, her legacy goes well beyond her deeds on the pitch. (She just made headlines again for defending the rights of trans athletes to compete.) Let’s see if she has one more magical assist or free-kick goal for us before she goes.