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And Then There Were Four

By Lord Castleton | TV | August 14, 2023 |

By Lord Castleton | TV | August 14, 2023 |


Now we’re in the endgame.

The 2023 Women’s World Cup has entered the semifinals, with only four countries: Spain, Sweden, Australia and England, still vying for the championship. This year’s tournament had all the trappings of a grand ball, but ended up more like a Red Wedding. The group stage featured more than half the underdogs winning matches while two storied programs, #2 ranked Germany and #8 ranked Brazil, both expected to make deep runs toward the title, never even got out of the driveway.

So, how did we get here? Let’s take a look at the quarterfinals.

Spain defeated The Netherlands

I’ve been trumpeting the quality of the Spanish players since the opening whistle of their knockout round match against the USA in the last World Cup. Back then almost every American fan was looking past them to a much-touted clash of the titans against the imposing 2019 France squad, but when the tournament was over, it was Spain’s La Roja, and not France’s Les Bleues (or the Orange Lionesses of Holland in the Final) that gave the USWNT their tightest match.

Between Spain and The Netherlands it was a tale of programs headed in different directions. I’ve written about the internal strife of the Spanish team but even with some of their best players outright skipping the World Cup, the amount of skill coming up is undeniable. I used to think that the USA’s substitutes could beat most national teams but I’m starting to think that Spain’s subs might just be able to. That’s the current depth of their program.

It’s not quite fair to suggest the Dutch program is in decline, but you can’t avoid a dip when you lose Viv Miedema, a player some consider the greatest women’s player of all time, to injury, and watch long-time Dutch fixtures like Lieke Martens, Daniella Van De Donk and stalwart captain Sherida Spitse approach the end of their careers. The Dutch will always be solid, but will the next generation of Dutch players completely fill the void left by the departing ones? That remains to be seen.

In their match, the Spanish barrage was intense, but they couldn’t seem to find the twine until defender Stefanie Van der Gragt had a ball hit her outstretched arm, leading to a successful penalty kick from beloved Spanish forward Maria Francisca Caldentey Oliver.

Once they were down, a brilliant coaching adjustment by Dutch coach Andreis Jonker put the 5’10” center back Van der Gragt in the 9 position as a center forward and she managed to get ahead of the Spanish defense and knot the game at 1-1 after a strike that was full of power and naked redemption. The game went into extra time when, in the 110th minute, 19 year old, budding Spanish superstar Salma Paralluelo blasted the game winner off the far post to get Spain into the Semis.

Sweden bodied Japan

Vosa will be the first to tell you how I root for Sweden, especially after they managed to oust the USA, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the joy and delight that this Japanese women’s side brought to the tournament.

In my heart of hearts, I know that Japan should be hoisting the trophy this year. They were the best side in the tournament and Futoshi Ikeda was the best coach. They won their group in dominant fashion and made a laughing stock out of a Spanish team that many (like me) consider to be the best in the world, dismantling them 4-0. Four to nil is a thumping. It’s a wake up call. It’s a score that made every single person who follows women’s soccer sit up and say HOLY SHIT, JAPAN IS FOR REAL.

So why were the Japanese so good? First because they’ve been together for a while. Ikeda has honed and nurtured this squad for years, winning the 2018 U-20 World Cup with this group of players and then unleashing them en masse against the best squads in the world. Before the tournament, most of us only knew Jun Endo, who plays for Los Angeles’ Angel City FC. But now? Names like Yui Hasegawa, Hinata Miyazawa, Riko Ueki and Mina Tanaka have become household names synonymous with football excellence.

The Japanese women were the most technically superior team at the tournament. When people in the football world say ‘technical,’ they’re talking about the actual skill of the players. How they pass, how they trap, how they shoot, how they make runs, how they keep their shape, and how they kick through balls or long balls. Japan was unrivaled in this area. They made such instinctive, beautiful runs with perfectly placed, perfectly struck, perfectly timed through-balls right to the foot of the on-side runner that your jaw would drop to witness it. It was a thing of absolute beauty.

As an example of their technical prowess and efficiency, Spain dominated control of the ball in their match. Japan only had five scoring chances, which they turned into four goals. That type of precision is insane.

So why aren’t they in the semis? For the first time in the tournament, the Japanese came out flatfooted, their ranging 3-4-3 looking utterly stymied by the hard-charging press from Sweden’s 4-2-3-1. This attacking press is quintessential Sweden, and was reminiscent of the match in the last Olympics where they stomped a stunned US team into submission to the tune of 3-0.

The physical power of the Swedish press confounded Japan, who had to keep moving their line to account for the offensive push from Sweden, and that only meant that Sweden had more room to operate. By the time Japan re-seized the initiative in the second half it was too little too late. Crossbars and posts saved Sweden over and over again before Japan was able to score in the 84th minute, but that was the only tally for Japan, and they ended up losing 2-1.

As a lover of the sport, the Japanese team provided us all with the finest soccer in the whole tournament and without a single player over 30, they’re primed to be an international force for a long time to come. Next time, I’m guessing, they’ll have an answer for the more physical nature of taller, harder teams like Sweden who pride themselves on their height advantage on set pieces.

As for Sweden? Well, I’m nuts about them, and have been for years and years. I adore captain Kosovare Asllani (more about her and how great she is in my final World Cup piece), and I’m thrilled that I’ll have an entire nation of Japanese citizens joining me in waking up from nightmares about trying to stop Stina Blackstenius and Sophia Jakobsson from scoring. I’m so charmed that human ray of sunshine Amanda Ilestedt, a 5’10” defender, is in the race for the Golden Boot award as the tournament’s top scorer. How is a defender in the running? Well, she trots up in front of the opponent’s goal on corner kicks and outjumps everyone, heading goals into the net in a way that almost looks easy. She always looks kind of stunned that it worked and her smile lights up the place.

There’s a tremendous amount to like about this Swedish side, from the unlikely heroes to the wily veterans like Magdalena Eriksson to the goaltending of Zećira Mušović, to the empowering coaching of Peter Gerhardsson. Sweden keeps finding different ways to win every match and teams like that are dangerous as hell, especially when they believe that they can always find a way. Knocking off an ascending powerhouse like Japan will only bolster their confidence going forward.

Australia outshot France in PK’s

One of the difficulties about loving Women’s Soccer is that you tend to love all the teams. You love everyone from Angel City to Wolfsburg and everyone in between. The sport doesn’t feel like other sports where you only have the bandwidth to like one player or one team. Women’s soccer feels sprawling and inclusive.

Yes, I love the USWNT. They were the gateway drug. But now I can wax poetic about England’s Lionesses while talking about the Barca developmental program and the inclusion of 16-year-old Italian sensation Giulia Dragoni. I can talk about how bummed I am that Canada’s legendary goal-scorer Christine Sinclair wasn’t able to score in this world cup to make her the first person to score in six world cups while also talking about the enduring footwork of Argentina’s Estefania Banini and the roster makeup of the Portland Thorns, the NWSL team I’ve always rooted for.

Part of it is that the game still feels small enough to absorb everything (and I mean EVERYTHING - I can tell you who’s dating who and lament the breakup of long-term couple Katie McCabe and Ruesha Littlejohn) but I suspect that with women’s soccer’s exponential growth, those days might be coming to an end.

The reason I bring this up is because it felt nearly impossible to root for a side in France vs Australia. Each team is peppered with players I admire and I’ve been a long time fan of France in both men’s and women’s soccer.

Australia’s Matildas, on the other hand, have broken my heart several times when I’ve started to believe in them. They just always find a way to lose, even as the quality of their players grows and their program keeps closing in on some of the best countries on the planet. So I sat back and just tried to enjoy this match.

It was, as they say, a corker. Each side played great football, and the roar of the crowd was a sight to behold when Australian superstar Sam Kerr finally entered the tournament for the first time in the 54th minute. I get chills just thinking of it. In fact, the two biggest ovations of the tournament were this one and also when all-time Brazilian legend Marta entered her first game this World Cup. The fact that fans from every nation cheered in unison for the groundbreaking forward as she entered her final World Cup says everything you need to know about who she is, what’s she’s done for the sport, and the average soccer I.Q. of your typical Women’s Soccer fan.

The game was tied 0-0 at the end of extra time and so began the longest penalty kick shootout in the history of the Women’s World Cup. Like everyone else, I hate that PK’s are what determines which country advances and which goes home, but you can’t argue with the tension and drama it creates. Everything is balanced on a razor’s edge as the best shooters in the world step up into the spotlight to do something they’ve practiced for decades and still manage to miss. It’s as powerful as it is excruciating and each side had a chance to send the other packing before Australia finally got off the schneid.

I can’t take anything away from France, who played with passion, but in the end, it was a unique treat for the record number of Australian fans to see the Tildas take a step forward in their quest to become world champions.

England survives Colombia

The 2022 European champions were coming off of a bit of a debacle when striker Lauren James, greatly raising her game in the group stage to the tune of three goals, lost her cool and stepped on downed Nigerian defender Michelle Alozie. For the foul she was awarded a red card and a two game suspension. It was stupid, to be sure, but Lauren James has had to put up with so much racist bullshit over the years that I understand her frustration. Still, that’s not the headline I want to focus on. James was dumb and she was hammered with a suspension. My money says she won’t ever do anything like that again, and I don’t think it’s at all indicative of her character. Let’s not judge players by their worst moments.

Let’s focus, instead, on the awesomeness of the player who got cleated: Michelle Alozie.


Alozie plays for Nigeria, but she’s not one of those top-tier players that get all of the accolades and have a million people following her on social media. But she should be. I’ve known Alozie for a while because my daughter is a big Houston Dash fan and that’s Alozie’s professional club team. She is, and has always been, a solid player. She makes the right plays. She has a great instinct for long balls and trying to send forwards. She hits a mean set piece and corner and she’s always hustling to get back and play defense. In short, Michelle Alozie is exactly the kind of player you want on your team.

What you probably don’t know about Michelle Alozie is that the second people started to pile on England’s Lauren James, Alozie was the first person to jump to her defense.

What else don’t you know about Michelle Alozie? Well, she’s a Yale grad who tore her ACL as a senior and ruined what would have been an important season for her. She went undrafted and fought her way onto the Houston Dash with nothing but a will to succeed, an unbeatable work ethic, and a tiny bit of experience she received for briefly playing soccer for the professional league in Kazakhstan. In 2022 the Dash signed her to a two year extension.

We talk a lot about equal pay and the realistic life-cycle of professional athletes, both male and female, so you have to be mindful about the limitations of your athletic prospects. Did I mention that Alozie graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biology? When she’s not playing professionally for the Dash, Alozie works part time as a cancer research technician at the Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.

Let’s celebrate that. Let’s celebrate the tenacity and fight of a Californian-born Nigerian-American who loves soccer so much that she’ll play anywhere in the world. Let’s celebrate the awareness and understanding to model forgiveness and inclusion when you’re the wronged party. Let’s celebrate the intelligence and fortitude and character of Michelle Alozie, a tremendous human being.

As far as England vs Colombia? Well it was a war of attrition. 25th ranked Colombia was the lowest seed in the Quarterfinals, ekeing past a deceptively good Jamaican squad 1-0.

Haters will try to reduce the Colombian team to thug status but the fact is they play as tough as the officials let them. England came out firing, but when 32 year old Colombian defender Caroline Arias took a point-blank shot in the head from England’s Alessia Russo in the opening minutes of the first half of their quarterfinal, she was subbed out for 18 year old defender Ana Guzmán, who proceeded to throw her full body into England’s players within the first few minutes of her playing time.

Fans were shocked but that’s the nature of the current interaction of the game, and despite the slo-mo videos of the Lionesses she sent tumbling, you can’t fault Guzmán for testing where the lines are. People mocked Guzman for her neck tats, but those are BUTTERFLIES, people. Take a deep breath.

Colombia managed to hang with the European champions and only missed advancing by a goal. I can’t say enough about how remarkable 18 year old striker Linda Caicedo is, as well as 24 year old Mayra Ramirez. What an absolute tandem they are. They’re going to eat up other nations for years to come. Colombia is an up and coming program and if they manage to secure proper funding and take their player development and coaching seriously, they’ll be a menace in the next World Cup.

What can I say about England? The team has the best social media of any women’s team and so the players feel like family. I’ll write more about this in my final world cup roundup, but these women are so easy to root for and that’s without hysterical troublemaker Beth Mead and international heartthrob and captain Leah Williamson.

Remember a few years back when people thought George Clooney was the biggest catch on the planet and then Amal Alamuddin married him and we realized that she was actually the biggest catch on the planet? Well, I submit Leah Williamson to inherit the void she’s left behind. She’s effortlessly likable, a natural leader and beloved by friend and opponent alike.

If this video doesn’t make you adore Leah Williamson then I don’t understand you.

Here are the highlights from the game:

So this is it. Spain, Sweden, Australia and England.

I’d be thrilled for any of them to win, with the caveat that no Women’s Soccer fan wants to see nepotism and intractability rewarded in the form of Spanish coach Jorge Vilda.

Here’s none of the players celebrating with Jorge Vilda.

That said, I’m the biggest Aitana Bonmati fan and I want to see her raise the World Cup trophy. (Depending on where you’re watching you might have to actually click and watch on YouTube)

If that doesn’t charm the pants off of you, I don’t know what will.

I’d be thrilled to see Sweden win because they’re a brilliant side and I love Koso Asllani. There’s an outstanding article in The Athletic about her. She’s been a daunting adversary to the USWNT for the last 15 years and I’d love to see her get some hardware.

I’d be thrilled to see England win because they’re great and Sarina Wiegman is an amazing coach (and the only woman coach left standing in this year’s tourney). She coached The Netherlands at the last World Cup only to lose in the final to the Americans. How poetic would it be for her to take a different country back to the final, but this time they win it all? Of the teams left in contention, England is the only one with the prestigious 2022 European Championship trophy in their trophy case, so some people may think they’ve seen enough success.

That said, the last team they lost to, 30 matches ago, was a fluky loss to….you guessed it…Australia. In that game they wore their blue away kits, which have now acquired legendary “cursed” status. Unfortunately for the Lionesses, they’ll once again be in the cursed blue kits for the semifinal against Australia.

That just leaves the lowly Matildas. The Australian side is the lowest ranked team left in the tournament. Sweden is #3. England is #4. Spain is #6. Australia is alllllllll the way down in double digits at #10. Not a ranking for a slouchy team, to be sure, but Australia has never been counted among the elite in Women’s Soccer. Truly, when I read some very respected soccer pundits suggesting that Australia would win it all before the tournament started I though they had lost their damn minds. But here we are, and if you squint enough…you can almost see it.

And wouldn’t that be amazing?

Their best player and captain gets injured in practice the day before the group stage opens. They look like they might not even make it to the knockout round, but grit and determination get them through. Then they dominate 13th ranked Denmark and grind out a miracle against world #5 France. Can anyone truly root against them?

I don’t know how it’s all going to shake out. I could see any of the four winning it all, but let’s just kick back and get ready for two incredible semifinal matches. Spain vs Sweden at 3 am eastern on Tuesday morning and Australia vs England the same time the following day. Four teams will enter and two will emerge, setting the stage for a tremendous final at 6am (thank goodness) on Sunday August 20th.

It’s been a memorable World Cup and something tells me some great moments are yet to come. Thanks for enjoying them with me and be sure to come back for my wrap up piece once the whole shebang is in the books.