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The 2023 Women’s World Cup will kick off on Thursday, with 32 nations sending representative squads to Australia and New Zealand for the largest edition of the tournament yet. All indications point to this being the biggest women’s soccer event ever.
The two-time reigning champion and odds-on favorite United States is back in search of its fifth international coronation, but plenty of challengers circle to knock the Americans off their pedestal. England, Germany, Spain, France, Canada, and several more have a realistic shot at celebrating on August 20 and etching their names into history forever.
Before any team can think about the final, though, they all must escape the group stage. With 32 teams in this summer’s iteration of the event, third place will no longer be enough to potentially get you on to the knockout phase. Each group’s domineering duo will advance to the Round of 16 – the bottom two from each group will have four years to think about it.
With the games nearly upon us, there’s no time like the present to make picks for who will get through the Women’s World Cup group stage in 2023 and who won’t play more than three games Down Under this summer (or winter, if you prefer the local perspective).
2023 Women’s World Cup Group Stage Picks: Who Survives?
Teams: New Zealand (26), Norway (12), Philippines (46), Switzerland (20)
This is the sort of wide-open group to come to expect when a co-host is put in Pot 1 despite sitting outside of the top 25 in the international rankings.
That’s what makes this one of the more interesting groups. Norway is the only traditional stalwart of the four, having won the 1995 Women’s World Cup and reaching the tournament’s semifinals as well in 1999 and 2007. New Zealand has played in five Women’s World Cups, including the last four, but is yet to win a game in 15 tries, much less get out of a group. This is Switzerland’s second time ever in this event, and it’s an inaugural invitation for the Philippines.
It’s probable that the two sacred spots will come down to Norway, Switzerland, and New Zealand. The Norwegians will have the pressure on them after failing to perform well at the UEFA European Championships in 2022 that included an 8-0 thrashing at the hands of the English and a group stage dismissal. But with a new coach in Hege Riise who seems to have worked out at least some of the defensive woes that previously plagued the team, I think there’s enough talent among players like Caroline Graham Hansen, Guro Reiten, and Frida Maanum for Norway to finish in a top-two position in this group.
That leaves Switzerland and New Zealand for the final spot. I like the schedule for the Swiss better as they’ll get the Philippines to start as opposed to Norway like the New Zealanders, but I’m picking Switzerland to advance because of the attacking mindset of head coach Inka Grings. Her commitment to a front three offers tons of opportunities for Ana-Maria Crnogorčević to create on the wing, and it’s looking like Lia Wälti will be available after suffering an ankle injury in May. I’m not sure if New Zealand has a response for her in the middle of the pitch, so I’m leaning towards Switzerland.
To Advance: Norway (first) and Switzerland (second)
Teams: Australia (10), Canada (7), Nigeria (40), Republic of Ireland (22)
As the reigning Olympic gold medalists, the Canadians are one of the main contenders to win the whole thing this summer. But Canada has had to deal with a significant injury crisis in the months leading up to the Women’s World Cup – Janine Beckie is out after an ACL tear in March, and several key players are on the mend from severe injuries they incurred throughout this past season. Additionally, a long pay dispute between Canada Soccer and the players grew publicly ugly this year, and the on-going drama is still unsettled days before the World Cup begins.
Could this spell trouble for the favored Canadians?
Their competitors to get out of the group are most likely to be Australia and Ireland, with Nigeria experiencing an even worse internal turmoil than Canada – unpaid players and coaching staff is not normally a recipe for success.
The Australians are one of the two host nations, which is likely to provide a boost to an already talented team. That includes Sam Kerr, one of the current faces of women’s soccer and a must-see this summer. She has the most goals of any player in the Women’s Super League since the start of the 2020-21 season with 53 goals in 63 showings. Kerr is lethal in the box, and she will be central to any deep run Australia experiences.
The Irish are one of the stronger debutants appearing in the Women’s World Cup for the first time in 2023. The team conceded only four times in qualifying and boast Katie McCabe as its captain, who had the second-most minutes of any player in the WSL in 2022-23 (1,675). If Ireland is to pull off a shock result, it’ll probably be because McCabe controlled the game and kept the ball high up the pitch for her side.
Perhaps in an easier group, Ireland would have a better time getting out. But with Canada and Australia in the way, the dream debut is probably not on, especially with the Irish having their own looming clouds.
To Advance: Australia (first) and Canada (second)
Teams: Costa Rica (36), Japan (11), Spain (6), Zambia (77)
Spain is in the Women’s World Cup for the third time and has never advanced out of the group stage before. Last year, 15 of its players told the federation not to call them up to the national team because it was “greatly affecting (their) emotional state and therefore (their) health.” Now a year on, three of those 15 are on the roster, and Spain is viewed as a top contender to bring home the glory.
Drama could derail what is one of the most talented-laden teams in the field, as could one of the competitors in this group, namely Japan. The Japanese won the Women’s World Cup in 2011 and reached the final again in 2015, but 2019 ended in a disappointing Round of 16 exit. Much has changed since Japan played in the ultimate match – Saki Kumagai is the only player over the age of 30 on the roster, and head coach Futoshi Ikeda is leading the next generation. The possession-preferring Japanese have a loaded midfield, with players like Yui Hasegawa, Hina Sugita, and Jun Endō liable to maintain control in the middle of the pitch.
Costa Rica and Zambia round out the rest of the entrants. Costa Rica’s strength is also in the center, with Raquel Rodríguez and Melissa Hernandez teaming up to make a formidable scoring duo out of the midfield. At 21, Priscila Chinchilla has already scored 20 goals for Costa Rica and could break out onto the international scene in a major way this summer.
Meanwhile, Zambia is pretty new to competing on stages like this. For the Zambians to have any hope of reaching the knockout stage, they’ll need the best from attackers Barbra Banda, who nabbed a stunning game-winner in a wild friendly against Germany in the lead up to this World Cup, and Racheal Kundananji, whose 24 goals were second-best in Liga F in 2022-23. Really, their attack is solid. The issue is their defense has had a terrible habit of conceding goals left and right.
In a less top-heavy group, it might not take as much from Costa Rica or Zambia to pull off a major upset, but Spain and Japan are about as tough as they come. Even with off-the-field distractions, Spain is still stacked, with the likes of two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas (who now has some fitness questions, which is a big story to monitor moving forward), 2022-23 Liga F top scorer Alba Redondo (27 goals), excellent-assister Ona Batlle, and so many more waiting in the wings. I think Zambia might surprise some people with how many goals they’ll put up, but it won’t be enough to amass the necessary points needed to get out of the group.
To Advance: Japan (first) and Spain (second)
Teams: China (14), Denmark (13), England (4), Haiti (53)
England enters this World Cup with its eyes firmly set on its first-ever title after finishing third and fourth at the World Cups in 2015 and 2019, respectively. After conquering Europe last summer for the program’s initial major trophy, the English have plenty of expectations this summer, and for good reason. Head coach Sarina Wiegman has had England playing some of the best soccer in the world for more than a year at this point, and with prolific goal getters like Rachel Daly, Ellen White, and Alessia Russo available to her, Wiegman has no shortage of scoring options.
The English are favorites to win this group, let alone get out of it, while the second spot looks very up for grabs between China and Denmark. It’s been a long time since the Chinese were runners-up at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, and they have failed to advance beyond the quarterfinals since. But China has put more effort into women’s soccer in recent years, which translated to a championship at the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, the country’s first since 2006. But only a handful of its players play abroad, including Wang Shuang, who will be relied upon heavily to bag the team’s goals. There is reason to believe that China is better than it has been in a while, but there are still some big question marks surrounding this squad.
The Danes are at the Women’s World Cup for the first time since 2007 and have a roster capable of getting to the knockout phase. Captain Pernille Harder is the engine that makes Denmark go, and she will be necessary to any run the team makes. She was paramount to Chelsea’s WSL title in 2022-23, and in each of her seven completed professional seasons, her team has won its domestic league every time (four times with Wolfsburg from 2017 through 2020 and three times with Chelsea from 2021 through 2023). Denmark has a good number of players competing in high-level leagues across the globe with a healthy mix of experience and youth.
Haiti’s journey to its first Women’s World Cup has been nothing short of remarkable. Hailing from one of the most devasted states on the map is enough of a reason to miss out on the biggest stage, but add in a sexual abuse scandal spanning back years that led to FIFA banning top Haitian officials from the sport, and there is no reason why Haiti should be here. But it is, and now this team can possibly provide its home country with something positive to point to.
The Haitians will be outmatched on paper in all three of their group games. However, 19-year-old Melchie Dumornay is one of the most exciting young talents in the world and a must-watch who could make the other three in this group uncomfortable at times. But I can’t pick against this England team, and I feel more comfortable choosing the Danes given their players’ wide range of experiences at the top level compared to the Chinese.
To Advance: England (first) and Denmark (second)
Teams: Netherlands (9), Portugal (21), United States (1), Vietnam (32)
Immediately, the joining of the United States and the Netherlands in the same group is intriguing. When these two teams share a field in Wellington on July 27, it’ll be a rematch of the 2019 World Cup Final in which the Americans prevailed, 2-0. The Dutch will not have forgotten.
But this group is much bigger than that single match. Portugal and Vietnam are both making their first appearances in the Women’s World Cup, which is noteworthy in of itself. Portugal took a wild ride to get here, qualifying through an inter-continental playoff against Cameroon with a goal from a stoppage-time penalty. That doesn’t matter now, though; all that matters is that it happened. Francisca “Kika” Nazareth is one of the main headliners for the Portuguese – she’s been playing for the national team since she was 17, and in her four years on the international stage, Nazareth has already had 26 caps with six goals, three of which came in qualifying for this World Cup.
Vietnam will have to give the Americans at least a fight in its first game to have much hope of getting through the group stage, and if it does so, it’ll probably be because its all-time leading scorer Huynh Nhu. The forward became the first Vietnamese female to ever join a European club in 2022, and she’s been integral to the growth of the women’s national team over the years. It would take more than a single effort from Nhu for Vietnam to do the impossible, but she can’t be a passenger if the Vietnamese are to see success in 2023.
Ultimately, the Americans and Dutch will probably see it through. The United States is yet again stacked, with a combination of chiseled vets (like Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Rose Lavelle) and talented fresh faces (like Naomi Girma, Sophia Smith, and Alyssa Thompson) who could break out to define the next generation of American stars. The Netherlands won’t have Vivianne Miedema, who is still rehabbing an ACL tear from December 2022, but it has so many other weapons at its disposal. Lineth Beerensteyn has been scoring like crazy for the national team leading up to this World Cup, and Lieke Martens has been right behind her in production. Sherida Spitse was one of the best assisters at the 2019 Women’s World Cup and figures to be key for unlocking defenses for the Dutch.
There’s too much firepower among the Americans and Dutch for me to entertain the idea of Portugal or Vietnam getting by one of them – the U.S. and Netherlands will be in the Round of 16.
To Advance: United States (first) and Netherlands (second)
Teams: Brazil (8), France (5), Jamaica (43), Panama (52)
If sports were predictable, we wouldn’t watch them. So, maybe Jamaica and/or Panama will shock everybody and eliminate one or both of Brazil and France. Or, more likely, the Brazilians and French will go through the Jamaicans and Panamanians with relative ease to set themselves up for the knockout phase.
On paper, this certainly looks like one of the most lopsided groups. You have two of the main contenders to win the whole thing paired with two teams ranked outside of FIFA’s top 40. To assume the favorites will advance here is reasonable.
Still, you never know. Jamaica has Bunny Shaw, who has some outstanding stats for Manchester City in 2022-23. She nearly scored a goal per game (20 goals in 22 games), notched seven assists, and amassed 17.3 expected goals, all massive increases on her 2021-22 totals. Jamaica will have to effectively get the ball to Shaw to get the best out of her, but it’s never a bad thing to have an elite-level goal scorer in your roster. Meanwhile, Panama recently lost badly, 7-0, to Spain in a tune-up game, a result that suggests that it’s not quite ready for the big time. We shall see.
And the French and Brazilians aren’t without their questions. France is forever mired in drama – it fired former head coach Corinne Diacre in March after multiple top players refused to suit up for her, then hired Hervé Renard, who led Saudi Arabia to a huge upset of Argentina in the 2022 Men’s World Cup last November. Outside of the women’s national team, France itself has suffered from unrest in the last few weeks, and who knows how that could weigh on the team’s players Down Under.
Brazil doesn’t quite have circumstances like those, but it is undergoing a shift in generations on its national team. The ever-dependable Formiga has finally moved on, and this will be Marta’s last ride at the World Cup. There are some promising youngsters poised to break out, like Kerolin and Geyse, but there are always questions that need answers when any team in any sport is phasing from one cycle to the next.
I can’t pick against the two teams that have everything else going for them. It would be one of the major surprises of the entire tournament if anyone other than Brazil and France were the Group F teams in the Round of 16, even with the Brazilians undergoing a shift in generations and the French never being without problems. In the end, talent usually wins.
Regardless of how the group shakes out, keep the France-Brazil group game circled on your calendar; these two went to extra time in the Round of 16 in 2019, with France scoring in the 106th minute to grab an insurmountable lead, 2-1. Expect the Brazilians to be out for revenge.
To Advance: France (first) and Brazil (second)
Teams: Argentina (28), Italy (16), South Africa (54), Sweden (3)
Sweden comes into this tournament hungry to finally assert itself atop the sport’s peak. The Swedes have played in one final (2003) and achieved three bronze medals at the Women’s World Cup (1991, 2011, 2019), but they’re yet to put their stamp on the biggest prize. Maybe that changes in 2023 with players like Fridolina Rolfö, Stina Blackstenius, and Magdelena Eriksson all on the squad, though there are some serious questions that need to be addressed. For example, how will manager Peter Gerhardsson get the most out of Rolfö, an incredible talent who seems to produce better for Barcelona than for Sweden?
Italy is in its second-straight Women’s World Cup for the first time in its history, and it’ll hope to build on the run to the quarterfinals it experienced in 2019 and the outstanding display it showed in qualifying, dominating its group with nine wins in 10 tries. But the Italians will face a higher level of competition now that they’re in the real thing, and they also performed poorly in last summer’s Euros, failing to score and conceding seven goals in the process. Head coach Milena Bertolini is under pressure to avoid another outing like that, and she’ll need help from players such as Manuela Giugliano, Valetina Giacinti, and Christina Girelli to be successful.
South Africa appeared in its introductory Women’s World Cup in 2019, ending with three losses in three contests and a goal difference of -7. Perhaps 2023 will be better for Banyana Banyana, though it would come against the odds. Like with several other teams in this competition, money has been a problem for South Africa, and it has gotten so bad that some members of the team refused to play in a friendly versus Botswana earlier this month and the team had to call up a 13-year-old as Botswana battered its neighbors, 5-0. The protest worked, and shortly after a foundation put together by African soccer president and billionaire businessman Patrice Motsepe intervened and settled the conflict, guaranteeing the Banyana Banyana would go to the World Cup. Not a great look for a country that wants to host the 2027 Women’s World Cup, and also not a great sign for how the team will fare in Australia and New Zealand.
Argentina doesn’t have the off-field drama that many nations find themselves floundering in, but it does have a lot of pressure incidentally placed on it by its men’s team, which won the 2022 Men’s World Cup in November. The Argentine women don’t have the same history of success in this event that the men do, but that could change this summer if the team gets big-time performances from players like Yamila Rodríguez, Daiana Falfán, and Lorena Benítez. Argentina has never won a Women’s World Cup game, let alone been to the knockout stages, but this looks like as good of an opportunity as ever for the country to jump over one, maybe both of those hurdles.
To Advance: Sweden (first) and Argentina (second)
Teams: Colombia (25), Germany (2), South Korea (17), Morocco (72)
Germany is by far the favorite in Group H, ranking second in the world, according to FIFA. Germany is also one of four nations to ever win the Women’s World Cup, completing back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2007. The Germans have also reached the semifinals on two occasions (1991 and 2019).
But the team has been lackluster so far in 2023. It recently lost to Zambia in stoppage time and has only claimed victory in two of its five contests this year. Those were all friendlies, though, and it’s likely that Germany will look quite different when the games count. Lea Schüller and Alexandra Popp offer head coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg two amazing options up front, while a stable of bright, young players is looking to break through in a major way on the biggest stage. Including Schüller, Germany has six impact players all under the age of 26, which is also the squad’s average age. Questions around Germany’s defense remain, but you can’t deny the overall depth and talent here.
South Korea has trended up lately, reaching its first AFC Women’s Asian Cup Final in 2022 and now playing in its third-straight Women’s World Cup. Its all-time leading scorer Ji So-yun will be relied upon, along with Lee Geum-min, to generate most of the goals for South Korea, while head coach Collin Bell’s 3-4-2-1 will hopefully bolster the team’s defense enough to find positive results. An impact player for Chelsea in the WSL for years now, Ji is adept at playing incisive balls through the line while also finishing clinically herself. Opponents should be weary of conceding too many free kicks to South Korea, because Ji will punish you for your misdeeds.
Colombia will also be in the mix to advance out of the group after a good run of form that dates back to last summer’s Copa América, which ended in a loss in the final to Brazil, 1-0. Manuela Vanegas amassed the 13th-most progressive passes of anyone in Liga F in 2022-23, and her ability to move the ball up the pitch will be crucial to Colombia’s success. Meanwhile, Mayra Ramírez completed the fourth-most progressive carries of all players in Liga F last season, a testament to the forward’s ability with the ball at her feet. If that’s not enough, 18-year-old Linda Caicedo is primed to break out at this tournament after showing off her stuff at Real Madrid since moving there earlier this year. Colombia football is known for its flair and excitement, and you should see that from this team in Australia and New Zealand.
One of the lowest ranked teams to make the field, Morocco has an uphill battle to face in this group. That’s not going to stop this first-time Women’s World Cup competitor from trying, though. The Moroccans like to keep possession, but that’s probably not going to be an option against the likes of Colombia, South Korea, and Germany. Instead, Morocco will have to live without the ball, and Tottenham attacker Rosella Ayane will have to be clinical with the few chances she’ll be afforded. It’s a big ask, but hey, it’s sports.
But I’m not picking Morocco. Give me Germany and South Korea – the Germans for their talent superiority, and the South Koreans for their set pieces ability and disciplined style of play. Colombia is right there, but I’m betting on Ji to work enough of her magic for her team to have the edge.
To Advance: Germany (first) and South Korea (second)
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