Aficionados of soccer have felt that this year's Women's World Cup in France could be a game-changer in global popularity and quality of play.
You've got the defending champion and top-ranked team in the world in the United States, a host team that plays some of the most entertaining soccer on the planet, a skilled, pacey striker from Australia who is a moving headache for defenders and goalkeepers, and as many as eight teams that can win it all.
The 24-team tournament kicks off June 7 and runs through July 7. The top two teams from each of the six groups will qualify for the Round of 16, as will the top four third-place sides.
In contrast to Canada 2015, which was played on artificial turf, France 2019 will use honest-to-goodness green grass.
The Lewis rankings
The eighth WWC boasts the most competitive field of all tournaments since it began in 1991. You can make a case for several teams to take the victory lap at Parc Olympique Lyonnais in Lyon on July 7.
1. The defending champion U.S., No. 1 in the FIFA rankings, is the team to beat.
2. As hosts, talented France faces pressure to go deep in the tournament and wants to emulate its men, who captured last year's World Cup in Russia.
3. Rio 2016 Olympic gold medalist Germany is always a threat, no matter what players it fields.
4. A solid Australia side is buoyed by the amazing Sam Kerr, who can change games in an instant.
5. Japan, the 2011 champs, traditionally fields a formidable side.
6. England hopes winning the 2019 SheBelieves Cup in the U.S. is a harbinger of things to come.
7. Canada, which underachieved with a quarterfinal elimination as 2015 hosts, has much to prove.
8. Brazil, behind the fabulous Marta (WWC-record 15 goals), can't be counted out because of its imposing individual talent, but historically falls short.
9. Sweden has been a thorn in the Americans' side, having eliminated them in the 2016 Rio quarterfinals.
10. Much-improved and darkhorse Spain should not be taken lightly.
Trying for a fourth
The U.S., winners of record three world championships (1991, 1999, 2015), tries to duplicate Germany’s feat as back-to-back champions (2003 and 2007). After their first two titles, the Americans were a disappointing third. While many teams would love to finish that high, anything less than a championship would be considered a failure. They want to prove what transpired at the 2016 Olympics was an aberration. It was the first time in 13 FIFA-sponsored competitions they failed to reach the semifinals. If history repeats itself in France, get ready for some fireworks.
Meet the mascot
Her name is ettie (with a lowercase "e") and FIFA says the yellow chicken is the daughter of Foolix, the blue and red rooster who was the mascot for the 2018 men's World Cup, also held in France. Ettie is a French baby name that means "keeper of the hearth; rules her household."
A team for the ages or for the aged?
In 2003, the Americans deployed a team that averaged 27 years and six months, finishing a disappointing third. In 2015, the U.S. had one of the oldest teams (28), yet won. The 2019 squad is the oldest of this year's tourney, averaging 29, compared to the average age of the 24 teams (26 years, six months). Brazil is second at 28 years and five months.
There's no Hope, but Naeher can be a savior
Alyssa Naeher has the unenviable task of succeeding the legendary Hope Solo in goal. Solo, fired from the team for her off-the-pitch headlines and critical comments, was one of the best women's goalkeepers ever, winning one WWC and two Olympic gold medals. While Naeher has looked solid, she never has been battle-tested on the biggest stage in the world. Can Naeher make the big save as Solo did so many times? If she can, the U.S. can go far.
The LI connection
Three players who honed their skills in the Long Island Junior Soccer League will make their WWC debuts. Left back Crystal Dunn (Rockville Centre), a highly versatile player, and midfielder Allie Long (Northport), who can give the team flexibility by playing in the back, will try to help the U.S. defend its crown. Dunn gives the USA a unique attacking option from the back, though she is not a polished defender. Long is trying to crack a talented midfield. Goalkeeper Nicole McClure, born in Jamaica, Queens, backstopped for the East Meadow Shooting Stars and Auburndale S.C. and hopes to see action for the Jamaicans.
Players to watch (USA)
Striker Alex Morgan, whose effectiveness in the 2015 WWC was hampered by a knee injury, is healthy. Megan Rapinoe, who turns 34 on July 5, has her brilliant moments. But can she be an impact player in seven games over 27 days (the USA's opener is the latest start date, June 11)? Forward Tobin Heath doesn't look imposing but is one tough cookie. Carli Lloyd, the 2015 Golden Boot winner, has been relegated to the bench as a super-sub (she's 36). She'll be out to prove coach Jill Ellis wrong and could become a lethal weapon down the stretch.
Players to watch (the rest of the world)
Aussie striker Sam Kerr is a human highlight reel and a delight to watch, turning ordinary plays into spectacular goals. Canada striker Christine Sinclair turns 36 on June 12, but she still has some magic left as she’s three goals shy of Abby Wambach's all-time international record (184). French captain Amandine Henry (no relation to Thierry Henry), and the 2015 Silver Ball winner, can do it all on both sides of the ball. Japan midfielder Saki Kumagai, who plays for French powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais, is revered in her home country for scoring the winning PK in the 2011 final. Defender Lucy Bronze, the backbone of England's 2015 third-place finish, was dubbed the best player in the world by coach Phil Neville.
Games to watch
England vs. Scotland (Group D) on June 9, Germany vs. Spain (Group B) on June 12, Australia vs. Brazil (Group C) on June 13 on June 19 and U.S. vs. Sweden (Group F) on June 20. If form holds, the game of the tournament could be the USA vs. France in the quarterfinals in Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris on June 28. It would be a shame to see one of those teams eliminated early, but you can blame FIFA for this scheduling anomaly.
Where fans are going to watch
Unlike the 1998 men's World Cup in which there were 15 matches in Paris, this tournament won't revolve around the capital. Paris will host seven games with other contests in Nice, Montpellier, Rennes, Le Havre, Valenciennes, Reims, Grenoble and Lyon, which will host only three matches (July 2 and 3 semifinals and July 7 final).
GROUP F SCHEDULE
- Chile vs. Sweden – June 11, noon
- United States vs. Thailand – June 11, 3 p.m.
- Sweden vs. Thailand – June 16, 9 a.m
- United States vs. Chile – June 16, 12 p.m.
- United States vs. Sweden – June 20, 3 p.m.
- Thailand vs. Chile – June 20 , 3 p.m.