The United States enters this tournament with a growing list of doubters despite winning a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Americans haven’t won the World Cup since their seminal victory in 1999, needed to win a two-match playoff against Italy to even qualify for this year’s competition and have surprising losses to Mexico, Sweden and England over the past year. The Americans could face Brazil in the quarterfinals if they don’t win their group — which also includes North Korea, Columbia and Sweden — but if striker Abby Wambach (above), 21-year-old newcomer Alex Morgan and goalie Hope Solo are at the top of their games in Coach Pia Sundhage’s new possession-oriented system, there’s no reason the U.S. team can’t win the whole tournament.
The two-time defending World Cup champions and host of this year’s tournament are the prohibitive favorite. Boasting a back line that didn’t allow a single goal en route to the 2007 World Cup title, the Germans feature the deepest lineup in the world thanks to a developmental system that has produced stars such as forwards Inka Grings and Birgit Prinz (above) and midfielder Kim Kulig. But since February 2009, Germany has lost all three of its matches against the United States, a potential semifinal opponent.
The Brazilians unceremoniously eliminated the United States from the 2007 World Cup with a 4-0 thrashing in the semifinals, but the country known for “the beautiful game” is still looking for its first World Cup title in women’s soccer. But 25-year-old Marta (above), the five-time defending FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year, says she’s ready to win a major team competition and Brazil hasn’t lost a match in more than two years.
The Japanese are currently ranked No. 4 in the FIFA women’s world rankings, but have never advanced past the quarterfinals of the World Cup. They’re hoping teenage striker Mana Iwabuchi (above) can burst on the international scene like she did at the 2008 under-17 women’s World Cup, when she won the Golden Ball award as the tournament’s best player. The key for Japan will be to win its group over England, because the second-place finisher would likely face Germany in the quarterfinals.
Christine Sinclair, above, and the Canadians enter the World Cup with their highest ranking (No. 6) after winning the CONCACAF qualifying round for the first time — a fact that made the Americans’’ road to this tournament more treacherous. Canada must succeed in this year’s “Group of Death” — which features Germany, France and Nigeria — if it hopes to advance to the quarterfinals for just the second time in its history. But recent friendly wins over Sweden and England suggest the Canadians could be poised for a breakout tournament.
Players to watch
Known as “Pele in a skirt” to some fans, this elusive 5-foot-4 striker is the women’s version of Lionel Messi with her prodigious ability when the ball is at her feet. In 2007, she was awarded the Golden Ball when she scored a tournament-best seven goals.
Her 14 World Cup goals are the most any player has ever scored, and the 33-year-old Prinz will try to make Germany the first country in tournament history to win three straight titles. The forward suffered an ankle injury two weeks ago but is expected to be healthy enough to play in her fifth World Cup.
Smith had four goals in her first World Cup appearance four years ago and left some wondering if she, not Marta, was the best player in the tournament. Now, after a quarterfinal loss to the United States in 2007, Smith hopes to add to her 43 career goals for England in what will likely be her final World Cup.
The leader in goals and assists amongst WPS players this season, Sinclair is the main reason Canada has joined the world’s elite. Already with 116 goals in international competition, the 28-year-old striker has a chance to elevate her status within the game if Canada can advance to the semifinals for the first time ever.
United States, goalie
Solo is seeking redemption this year after a 2007 World Cup that saw her benched for the Americans’ semifinal loss to Brazil. Solo complained publicly about the decision but has backed up her outspokenness by becoming the world’s best goalkeeper in recent years. In the 2008 Olympics, she led the United States to a 1-0 shutout of Brazil in the gold medal game.
United States, striker
With 118 goals in international competition, Wambach ranks third all-time in scoring for the United States, behind only Mia Hamm and Christine Lilly. But the 31-year-old has never won a World Cup during her illustrious career. A physical force offensively, Wambach excels in the air when she can unleash one of the game’s best headers.
GROUP A SCHEDULE
Nigeria vs. France, Sunday 9 a.m. (ESPN2)
Germany vs. Canada, Sunday noon (ESPN)
Canada vs. France, Thursday noon (ESPN)
Germany vs. Nigeria, Thursday 2:45 p.m. (ESPN)
France vs. Germany, July 5 2:45 p.m. (ESPN)
Canada vs. Nigeria, July 5 2:45 p.m. (ESPN2)
GROUP B SCHEDULE
Japan vs. New Zealand, Monday 9 a.m. (ESPN)
Mexico vs. England, Monday noon (ESPN)
Japan vs. Mexico, Friday 9 a.m. (ESPN)
New Zealand vs. England, Friday 12:15 p.m. (ESPN)
England vs. Japan, July 5 12:15 p.m. (ESPN)
New Zealand vs. Mexico, July 5 12:15 p.m. (ESPN2)
GROUP C SCHEDULE
Colombia vs. Sweden, Tuesday 9 a.m. (ESPN)
United States vs. North Korea, Tuesday 12:15 p.m. (ESPN)
North Korea vs. Sweden, Saturday 8 a.m. (ESPN2)
United States vs. Colombia, Saturday noon (ESPN)
Sweden vs. United States, July 6 2:45 p.m. (ESPN)
North Korea vs. Colombia, July 6 2:45 p.m. (ESPN2)
GROUP D SCHEDULE
Norway vs. Equitorial Guinea, Wednesday 9 a.m. (ESPN)
Brazil vs. Australia, Wednesday 12:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Australia vs. Equitorial Guinea, July 3 8 a.m. (ESPN2)
Brazil vs. Norway, July 3 12:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Equitorial Guinea, vs. Brazil July 6 noon (ESPN)
Australia vs. Norway, July 6 noon (ESPN2)