The 2019 Women’s World Cup finished up play in the opening round on Thursday and has left us with some amazing Knockout Round matches to ponder. Here’s how the current bracket looks:
And based on that, here are the games I’m excited about
But before we delve into what’s to come, let’s quickly look at how we got here.
HOW THE TOURNAMENT WORKS: (for the non-sportsballers)
Twenty Four teams enter the tournament, and are divided into four-team groups, each labeled with a letter. Bo-ring. A missed branding opportunity I think, but oh well. Inside of each group, the teams play a round-robin style three game mini tournament to decide which team wins the group. Three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss.
At the end of the opening round, known as the ‘group stage’ the sixteen teams with the highest point totals advance to the ‘knockout round.’ This next stage is single elimination. You lose and you’re out.
Tiebreakers for seeding usually come down to goal differential, which is the total number of goals your team has scored against opponents minus the total amount you’ve scored on them.
The opening round can be a bit of a painful watch in some cases. There is often a predator and prey dynamic at work inside of each group. The minute the groups come out, everyone who follows the sport generally has an idea what the group will look like and which nations’ squads are likely to advance. Not to put too fine a point on it, but here’s a video which shows the top ranked teams going back 16 years and you can see how the powerhouses keep churning out high caliber players.
That’s how you get a 13-0 score in the opening round, which is what happened when the USA side beat Thailand. The Thai team just doesn’t have the players, support, resources or national program to compete with the defending World Cup Champs. The US took some flak for refusing to pull back, but I would hope that it’s a rallying cry for countries like Thailand to really get their national teams the training and support to raise their programs to the next level. I hope some little Thai girl starts kicking a ball around thinking “someday I’m going to beat the US in the World Cup.” I rarely like the ‘take your foot off the gas’ approach in professional level sports. Rather, it should be a motivational tool for players the world across to up their game.
Even though that was the notable score, there were several other games where teams got trounced, and it was always the usual suspects. The woeful Thai side lost to Sweden 5-1. In the opening game of the tournament, France whipped South Korea 4-0. Italy crushed newcomer Jamaica 5 to nil and Germany trounced South Africa 4-0. While it’s a long road merely to qualify for the tournament, and a source of national pride, in many cases the starting squads are served up as lambs to the slaughter.
GROUP BY GROUP
Group A was always going to be about host country France and how they could be set up to play the United States in the quarterfinal. France is a powerhouse. Amandine Henry is on fire. They’re solid everywhere. They play as a team and look polished and came out of the gate looking ready to compete at the highest level. But after a promising 4-0 victory over South Korea in the opener, they seem to have stumbled a bit. Nothing major, but they lost a little of their luster in their second match, with star Wendie Renard scoring an own goal on France. Is it a big deal? No, not really. France was well in command of that match the whole way, but they ultimately needed a penalty kick to put them over the top. Likewise for their third match, where they had some trouble with Nigeria and needed two shots at the same penalty kick to overcome the Super Falcons. Teams that tend to succeed in the World Cup tend to get better as they go along. France, in that regard, has had some lucky bounces go their way. Are they getting better? I’m not sure. But I worry for them as Brazil’s Marta and Cristiane don’t seem like they’re in a hurry to stop scoring anytime soon.
Norway, a promising side, was dinged by the loss of one of the best strikers in the world and the reigning Ballon d’Or winner, Ada Hegerberg. She refused to play for the team citing personal differences which are said to involve a disparity between how them men’s and woman’s games are supported by the federation in Norway. It was a huge blow to a promising squad, and while many people choose to lash out at Hegerberg, I can’t find anything on either side to say that she’s wrong. She seems to have listed certain demands, and the national program seems to have ignored or disagreed with them. Thus, she takes her business elsewhere. Until I hear information to the contrary, I’m inclined to support her choice as the only leverage an athlete has. This team has played well, but they’d be a whole lot better with Hegerberg in their ranks. Decidedly, notably better.
The good news for Norway in the opening round was that they looked solid, if not great, and had no problem qualifying for the round of 16.
In third place, the Nigerian Super Falcons were nearly robbed of a knockout round berth by what appeared to be an unnecessarily stringent application of the updated VAR system, but they managed to land in the next round. The bad news is that they’re going to get thumped by Germany like a mole in a whack-a-mole game. Or like an entire whack-a-mole game dropped off a cliff.
The South Korean team was just outmatched for most of the tournament, but they played hard and never gave up, which is a good sign for the program. And their only goal, which came in the final match vs Norway, featured one of the best assists in the tournament.
This group was always going to be about Germany, and yet they seem to be flying under the radar. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a million times, be very very afraid of a tournament where no one is talking about Germany or Brazil. Germany has three wins so far and a streak of at least 15 in international play. They have yet to give up a goal in the tournament. They’re going to take a little hit from the broken toe suffered by Dzenifer Marozsán, but they’re deep and well schooled. I hate how they’re just coasting through the opening round with little to no attention.
In second place is Spain, who will meet the USA in the knockout round. If Nigeria is a team that will be dropped off a cliff by Germany, Spain is a team that will be dropped out of an airplane by the United States. The Spain women’s team is afflicted by the same passing and never shooting malady that infected the men’s team in the last World Cup. They don’t have the players to compete.
If Spain is boring, China is a nap. I have woven baskets with more personality than Team China. Their game outcomes were 0-1, 1-0 and 0-0. The fact that they frustrated Germany in the opener, holding them to one goal, is about the best thing I can say about that team. I’m not sure they have any business in the round of 16 but with a weaker field, this is what you get. I expect them to get smoked by a vibrant and imaginative Italian side.
The Republic of South Africa deserves praise for qualifying for their first World Cup, but the games were difficult for them. Defensive inefficiencies and subpar goaltending really hurt this side. While they were able to hang with China in a yawnfest, they were soundly dismantled by Germany in a game that could have been seven or eight to nothing.
Group C is one of the most interesting of the whole tournament. All eyes were on Brazilian superstar Marta as she returned from injury. But she gave an interview to a Swedish newspaper saying that this was the worst Brazilian team she’s ever been a part of. Nice! What a teammate! (Or was it subterfuge?) I saw a Brazilian team that plays with passion. While the level of play is uneven in various thirds, Brazil works the transition game with an opportunist’s flair. I’m still not sold on goalkeeper Barbara, but I have to admit that she at least has the position game down, and put herself in the right place at the right time to rob Italy of some key chances. Some people shrug them off, but Brazil still has the skill to hang with anyone, especially when things are clicking.
Ditto for an upstart Italian team, making a triumphant return to the World Cup stage after like twenty years. The Italian mens side missed the last World Cup, and you can really feel the excitement in the air for Le Azzurre. They didn’t disappoint. Like Brazil, they’re creative and dangerous. Also like Brazil, they’re dangerous to themselves. But you can’t help but root for players like Cristiana Girelli, who netted a hat trick against Jamaica. Italy plays aggressive but is often messy and undisciplined,so it remains to be seen how they will fare in a knockout round match against the much more disciplined automatons of Team China.
I came in to the tournament with Australia as one of my two dark horses. I love the Matildas, but some lapses in concentration have really hurt them. Italy’s Barbara Bonasera seemed to single-handedly rout them in the opener. Bonasera had a goal taken away before scoring again, and tallying another in stoppage time to steal an exciting win for Italy in Group C. Australia, meanwhile, had lots of question marks around superstar Sam Kerr and if she was enough to carry the team to victory. She had a penalty shot saved against Italy (she scored on the rebound) but one had to wonder if her mojo was working. She shut the door on naysayers in her third game, when she scored four times — you read that right — against Jamaica. But the real story of Australia in this tournament was the fact that they came back from a 2-nil deficit to beat Brazil 3-2. That’s crazy. That’s the kind of thing where you see it and wonder if this team doesn’t have something special. Losing that heartbreaker to Italy may have left them in better shape, on the whole. Rather than facing France in the round of 16, they’ll have Norway. A solid side to be sure, but one the Matildas should be able to beat.
Jamaica found tough sledding in this world cup, and was here thanks to the private funding of Bob Marley’s family. They have a long way to go to compete at this level, but they played their hearts out. One great moment was when they got their first ever (and only) goal of the tournament versus Australia in the final match.
Group D was also a competitive division, if only because of the relative weaknesses of three of the teams. England has been looking to establish themselves in or adjacent to the top squads of US, France and Germany, but I have my doubts about the Lionesses. They needed a super iffy VAR handball call for a penalty kick to prevail over Scotland. Argentine goalie Vanina Correa played out of her mind against them, only allowing one goal, but it was enough to see England get the win, 1-0. Their 2-0 victory over Japan felt like a get-right kind of game, but something feels off with this England side to me. Teams that go deep in the World Cup tend to improve as they go, and so English fans are hoping the sweetheart cakewalk matchup vs Cameroon in the Knockout Round is a sign of things to come. They should win easily.
What’s up with Japan? For a team that has felt so solid over the last decade or so, they really seem out of sync. They have shooters. They have good skills and solid tactics, but there seems to be sort of an institutional malaise at work with this team. They had trouble with an okay but not great Argentina team in the opener, settling for a nil nil draw. Then they needed a questionable VAR call which gave them a penalty kick to defeat a decent Scotland team, and finished up losing 0-2 to England. Japan has reached two consecutive finals but does this team even have the juice to make it past the Netherlands in the knockout round? I’m thinking no.
Argentina was better than expected in this tournament and took from the Australia side the badge of best comeback. Down by three goals in the 73rd minute, they came back to tie Scotland. I feel crazy even typing that. It’s barely believable except that it actually happened. Argentina’s goalie Vanina Correa was on fire through the opening round, keeping Argentina in it over and over and saving 89% of the balls that came at her. It’s sad to see her go. Only Chile’s Christiane Endler was more impressive in goal — to my eye, at least.
Scotland was a much better side than the match final results indicated. In their first World Cup, the Scottish team seemed to run into a buzzsaw in a division where other teams seemed to get the breaks against them. Still, they held their own against both England and Japan, teams who were slated to crush them, and were up 3-0 in the 73rd minute against Argentina. They would have advanced! But in those last 16 minutes they just folded, somehow. I can’t say why. I watched the game and it’s not like they weren’t trying but somehow Argentina came back to tie them and in doing so, delivered the most crushing elimination I can remember. It was hard to watch.
The first Argentine goal was decent. The second — I mean, look at this. There are seven players between Argentina’s Florencia Bonsegundo and the goal and she just tees it up and bangs it home off the crossbar.
A missed opportunity for Scotland goalkeeper Lee Alexander, who just seemed to misplay it. Alexander redeems herself in the 85th minute when she saves a penalty kick, but VAR rears its head to redo it when it showed Alexander left the line early. Bonsegundo just blasts the do-over right down the middle in another ball Alexander might have had to give Argentina the unlikely evener.
I mean, credit to Argentina for not giving up, but seeing those players on Scotland crying after the game was brutal. Still, a promising tournament for a Scottish side that did more and played better than expected.
I liked every team in Group E coming into the tournament, and only one of them seemed to be half baked.
The Netherlands feels like a team on the rise to me. Smart, talented and advantageous, they have the feel of a contender. The first match they were getting their bearings, and New Zealand was playing up to them. It took a great goal in stoppage time to nose them ahead of the Kiwis 1-0. At that point it was like: is this a good team?
Then the Netherlands handled a very solid Cameroon team 3-1 followed by a game vs Canada that, but for a botched read by usually excellent Canadian goalie Stephanie Labbé, would have ended in a 1-1 draw. Because of that botch, Netherlands was able to prevail, 2-1.
I’m not sure what the reigning European champions are at this point, but they have every piece you want, every skill set and they feel like a team on the move. If they beat Japan on Tuesday, which I expect them to do, it’ll go a long way to announcing that they might just be ready to make a deep run.
I unabashedly love Team Canada and root for them like crazy. They’re my second dark horse team, and one of three teams (with Germany and the US) who haven’t given up a goal yet. I’m nuts about players like Janie Beckie (who was born in the US and played in their U18 and U20 programs before being released. Canada swooped in to grab her due to her dual citizenship).
Jordyn Huitema and Ashley Lawrence are awesome.
My whole family loves the wide eyed concentration of 5’5” Jessie Fleming
and the hustle and playmaking of Nichelle Prince (pictured in the header image).
I mean, I could probably list another half dozen players I love on this team, but they’d all pale in comparison to the scorer that is Christine Sinclair. She’s now just two goals away from tying the all time international goal record. So why didn’t this team take the group? It’s hard to say. They have all the skill in the world. Great playmaking. Patience. Talent on all levels. But Sinclair seemed not quite right in their opener against Cameroon, but they still won 1-0. Sinclair hit a few posts in the second game and still wasn’t quite right, but luckily Nichelle Prince was all over the pitch and Canada beat New Zealand 2-0. Sinclair finally came to life with a gorgeous hustling goal vs Netherlands in a game that looked headed to a draw, but the Netherlands managed to pull out 2-1. Janine Beckie seemed off in that game, shanking multiple balls. I think this team feels like a stacked side. They feel to me like a team that could shock the world, but I don’t think we’ve seen them all playing at the top of their game at the same time and that worries me three games in. Now they have a huge challenge against Sweden on Monday and that’s a team that won’t let them have an off day. If Canada plays up to their ability? As a team? There’s no side they can’t hang with. But it remains to be seen if they’re ready to do that.
Cameroon is a fun team to root for. They punched their ticket to the round of sixteen back in 2015 so the question was: could they do it again? I loved what I saw in terms of offensive creativity and individual effort, but less so when it came to defensive structure and team cohesiveness. The highlight moment for Cameroon came in stoppage time when Ajara Nchout weaved into the box with some great fakes and sent a zinger into the far corner to get Cameroon the win over a broken New Zealand team and a date with England’s Lionesses on Sunday.
New Zealand was always a longshot, but they were a bit of a disappointment to me in this tournament, if only because I expected a bit more fight. They lost their opener to the Netherlands in stoppage time and I felt like that really broke their spirit for the rest of the tournament. The were on their heels against Canada, falling 0-2 and then just being manhandled by Cameroon 1-2, with their only goal in the final being an own goal on Cameroon. And then they lost in stoppage time AGAIN. There just wasn’t much to be excited about and at times you felt for goalkeeper Erin Naylor who got hung out to dry several times by her own team when they let opponents pepper her with uncontested rebound after rebound.
This is a scary division and you have to feel for poor Thailand getting stuck with Sweden, Chile and the United States.
Thailand: well, we barely knew ye. Despite a couple victories in the qualifiers over teams like Malaysia and Cambodia by double digit totals, it was they who were embarrassed by the Americans in the opener. And then everyone else schooled them too. It showed spirit just to be there, considering it required the patronage of a wealthy Thai family just to get them this far. But yet, despite all that hardship, they still managed to get a goal in the game vs Sweden, when captain Kanjana Sung-Ngoen scored on a beautiful shot past Hedvig Lidahl.
Chile had the best goalkeeper in the tournament in Christiane Engler. Her game against the US alone featured an insane amount of highlight reel level saves. But this whole team deserves all the respect in the world just for being here. A few years ago, there was no Chilean women’s team, but through tenacity and force of character, they willed themselves back onto the field and magically into the World Cup. The scores for Chile may not have been ideal, but this is a win for the country in every sense of the word except, y’know, soccer. And they played with heart and drive and enthusiasm. I hope they get more support at home and continue to improve. They were a blast to watch.
Sweden, ranked ninth or so in the world, is a tough side. They do just about everything really well, and have been the bane of the US soccer program for a while. Littered with skill all over the pitch and at every level, this is a team that has the ability to make some noise. Kosse Asllani has been dangerous as hell. Ditto Madelen Janogy. Janogy did something against Chile that I feel like should be a blueprint for every team in the tournament: carry the ball and press. From what I’ve noticed this tournament, nothing causes a team’s defense to buckle and adjust more than an opposing player driving toward goal to draw the doubleteam and then dishing off. I see it everywhere. Sweden is great at it. They crushed Thailand 5-1 and then dropped a tough one to the US 0-2. But that was a wake up call kind of game because it could have easily been 5-0. If Sweden wants to compete with the titans of the sport, they’re going to have to ramp up their game a solid tier, beginning with a fiery and dangerous Canada team on Tuesday in what promises to be an amazing match.
Now we have the United States side, at long last. I’m going to sound jingoistic, but to my eye there’s the US team and one full tier down is Germany with France nipping at their heels and then there’s everyone else. This US team is spectacularly deep. Shockingly deep. Like, the subs might be able to beat any other team. They crushed Thailand and Chile. But the big bully of Sweden was on the horizon. That was the telltale game and they absolutely dominated. Everyone looks great. Everyone is working together. Everything is working and effective. The passing is crisp. The transitions are terrifyingly fast. Everything but the goalkeeping is rock solid — and that may well be too, we just haven’t seen enough shots to know yet.
When Carli Lloyd can’t get on the field? I mean, jesus. Tobin Heath is playing at the top of her game. Watching her press the attack gets me so excited. Christen Press is my favorite and she can’t get on the field either.
Megan Rapinoe does everything so well it’s like watching ballet. She has such a command of the ball and the flow of the game. And how she times everything, sometimes waiting a beat for things to develop, sometimes grabbing a throw in and hurling it in to catch the opponent off guard? It’s astounding. I mean Mallory Pugh can’t get on the field. Ali Krieger can’t break the starting lineup. Julie Ertz is amazing at set pieces. Lindsay Horan is playing her best soccer ever. Rose Lavalle is 5’4” man! And she’s dominant at the midfield position. You go down the list and tick off names and it’s unfair. There’s just so much talent everywhere. The only person that scares me is defender Kelley O’Hara. She just looks nervous to me out there and if I were an opponent, that’s who I’d attack. Everyone else looks confident and composed.
The US will open against Spain on Monday and one hopes they’ll have superstar striker Alex Morgan when they do. She was subbed out of the match vs Sweden after she got shaken up by a collision. No word anywhere yet if she’ll be in the starting lineup vs. Spain.
BEST GOALS SO FAR
Honorable mention, Christen Press. Look how she volleys this out of the air. What a cannon. If this wasn’t the best goalie of the tournament in net, she might have scored.
This pill on a turnover from Japan by Scotland’s Lana Clelland.
Cameroon’s Ajara Nchout singlehandedly slays New Zealand and puts Cameroon in the knockout round.
Thailand’s captain Kanjana Sung-Ngoen blows a scorcher past Swedish goalie Hedvig Lindahl who’s trying to bait her to shoot for the wide side.
This is when the real World Cup starts. This is life and death. I want to say that most of this will go as planned, but there are always upsets.
Here are the great games to watch again:
And here’s how I think it’s likely to go:
I think if there’s any upset it will likely occur on Germany’s side. Maybe Canada makes a run and it looks like this:
Maybe The Netherlands makes a run and it looks like this:
But is there realistically anyone on that side of the bracket good enough to beat the US? I just don’t know, but based on what I’ve seen, I don’t think so.
If there’s a huge US upset anywhere, it would most likely look like this:
But no matter how you cut it, it’s always tough for the home team to win out. Everyone is sooooooo looking forward to the USA vs France quarterfinal that I worry that France won’t take Brazil seriously and get shocked. Trap game, anyone?
But that’s why they play the matches!
I’ll leave you with a great montage of some of the best saves from the first round. It’s been a really interesting tournament thus far, and one hopes that the current implementation of the rules surrounding VAR won’t affect the outcomes more than they already have. One also hopes that pundits will stop talking about the stupid Gold Cup Men’s Tournament when we’re tuning in for the woman’s World Cup. It’s so irritating.
See you in a few days after we clip some wings. Should be a hell of a round!
Here’s the best article I’ve read about the Women’s World Cup:
Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, Sports Illustrated