The Women’s World Cup soccer tournament kicks off Friday in France, where the defending champion and top-ranked United States team headlines one of the most balanced fields in tournament history.
The tournament features four nations making their World Cup debut — Scotland, Jamaica, Chile, and South Africa — and seven teams that have played in all seven World Cups since the event began in 1991 — US, Sweden, Nigeria, Norway, Japan, Brazil, and Germany.
The “group of death” likely is Group B, from which Germany, China, and Spain are all likely to advance to the elimination rounds ahead of South Africa.
Japan, the 2011 champion and 2015 runner-up, drew England, Argentina, and Scotland in Group D. It sets up a rematch of the 2015 semifinal with England June 19 in a match that could decide the group.
The US drew Sweden in the group stage for the fifth straight tournament and sixth time overall. The two are favored to finish atop Group F ahead of Thailand and Chile. The US is 3-1-1 against Sweden in group play, including a 0-0 draw in 2015 and a 2-1 defeat in 2011.
Here’s everything you need to know about this year’s tournament.
(Matches will be televised on Fox, FS1, and FS2.)
Group matches one and two will be played at alternating times on either the same or consecutive days. The last group matches for each group will be played simultaneously to ensure no team has an advantage with knockout-round placement on the line.
Match Day 1 — June 7-11. Match Day 2 — June 12-16. Match Day 3 — June 17-20.
US group play schedule
Tuesday, June 11, vs. Thailand at Reims, 3 p.m. (Fox). Sunday, June 16, vs. Chile at Paris, noon (Fox). Thursday, June 20, vs. Sweden at Le Havre, 3 p.m. (Fox)
The top two teams in each group advance to the knockout rounds along with the top four third-place finishers. All fourth-place teams are eliminated.
Round of 16 — June 22-24. Quarterfinals — June 27-29. Semifinals — July 2-3 (Lyon). Third place — July 6 (Nice). Final — July 7 (Lyon).
About Team USA
After dominating in the 2015 tournament, the US team retained its No. 1 status despite significant roster changes.
For the first time, someone other than Brianna Scurry or Hope Solo will be the US goalkeeper in the World Cup. Alyssa Naeher has 47 international appearances, but the World Cup will be her biggest stage.
In front of Naeher is a talented and tested defense anchored by Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelly O’Hara, both in their third World Cup, along with fullback Crystal Dunn, who could play defense or midfield.
In the midfield, Julie Ertz will be the field general with a supporting cast featuring Samantha Mewis, Morgan Brian, and Lindsay Horan. Ertz, who is married to NFL tight end Zach Ertz, won the Golden Ball at the 2018 Women’s CONCACAF Championship and has scored 18 times in her international career.
Up top, the US is loaded with talent, from the dangerous Carli Lloyd to playmaker Megan Rapinoe and clinical wizard Alex Morgan. Christen Press, Mallory Pugh, and Tobin Heath also serve as attacking options.
Offensively, the US is among the best in the world.
Questions must be answered defensively, however, especially with a keeper making her World Cup debut and a relatively fresh defense. Naeher does have 25 international shutouts to her name, and with Sauerbrunn’s experience, the US can piece together a competitive backline.
If the US finishes atop Group F, it will have a date with the Group B runner-up in the Round of 16 and could face France as early as the quarterfinals. A second-place finish would pit the US against the Group E runner-up, which could translate into a matchup with either Canada or the Netherlands followed by a likely meeting with Germany in the quarterfinals.
England – Arguably the best defensive team in the tournament, the third-ranked team in the world won the 2019 SheBelieves Cup, allowing only three goals in as many games. During World Cup qualifying, England’s defense reached its peak, as the Lionesses went 7-0-1 and outscored opponents, 28-1.
With one of the world’s top fullbacks, Lucy Bronze, and captain Steph Houghton anchoring the back line, England is paced up front by goal-scorers Nikita Parris and Toni Duggan. A knee injury to vice captain and midfield magician Jordan Nobbs may hinder England in the later rounds.
Germany — After failing to capture a seventh straight European Championship in 2017, the Germans are as motivated as ever to capture the World Cup. After having one of the toughest tuneup schedules among the 24-team field, the Germans will have one of the easiest paths to the semifinals should they win Group B.
Still adjusting to new coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg will be the biggest challenge for the world’s second-ranked team. But with attacking weapons Dzsenifer Maroszan and Alexandra Popp leading the charge, the high-powered Germans will be a tough out.
Japan — With consecutive finals appearances, including a victory in 2011, Japan can never be counted out.
Mizuho Sakaguchi, appearing in her third World Cup at age 31, has 29 goals and 124 international appearances; she will be the field general. Defenders Saki Kumagai, Rumi Utsugi, and Aya Sameshima all have more than 100 games of international experience.
France — The host team is looking to shake off consecutive disappointing finishes in the World Cup, most recently a fifth place in 2015.
With Eugenie Le Sommer’s goal-scoring pedigree, along with Kadidiatou Diani’s mix of speed and clinical ability, France will be among the most dangerous attacking squads. France’s mix of experience, athleticism, and precision could bring its first World Cup title.
Brazil — Simply having a player like Marta, widely considered the best to ever play the women’s game, is an advantage itself. She holds the record of 15 World Cup goals and has been named World Player of the Year six times.
Despite an unbeaten record in World Cup qualifying and outscoring opponents, 31-2, the Brazilians were winless at the SheBelieves Cup against world powers Japan, England, and the US. However, Brazil’s thorough approach makes it a contender in any tournament.
Netherlands — The reigning European champion qualified for only its second World Cup, after progressing to the Round of 16 in 2015. But the last four years have been monumental for the Dutch, securing a European Championship for the first time as well as a joint championship with Sweden at the 2018 Algarve Cup.
Most of the Dutch scoring comes from Vivianne Miedema and Lieke Martens. Miedema has 57 goals in 74 international appearances, including a pair in the 2017 UEFA Euro final. Martens also shined at the Euro, winning Player of the Tournament and Bronze Boot honors.
Australia — This is arguably Australia’s best team ever. The Matildas were seeded for the first time at the draw and are among the favorites to advance to the quarterfinal round. Sam Kerr is the leader, scoring 31 times in 76 games. She is in peak form, having won the last two NWSL Golden Boot awards.
Canada — Coming out of CONCACAF is never easy, given the US’s firm grip on the region. But the Canadians boast some of the best young talent in the world, including forward Jessie Fleming and defender Kadeisha Buchanan. Coupled with the experience of all-time leading scorer Christine Sinclair, Canada is probably the best choice for a tournament sleeper.
Dan Shulman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.