Up north and on top of the world: FIFA 2015 Women’s World Cup preview
Sepp Blatter’s international nightmare is just beginning, and we couldn’t be happier. If there’s one thing that irks Blatter more than being exposed as an incorrigible paragon of corruption, it’s being compelled to pay attention to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, an event that he has treated derisively and dismissively. As the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) prepares for its opening match against Australia this evening, the rest of us are eager to embrace the biggest event in the history of women’s sports.
The expansion of the Women’s World Cup to 24 teams (up from 16 in years past) and the advancement of the women’s game on a global scale ensure the literal and figurative growth of this event. Also, given the devastating Blatter-induced tumult surrounding FIFA, the tournament can serve as the perfect antidote for soccer’s global ills. Moreover, because Canada is the host country, the American TV-watching audience will be rewarded with multiple prime time and happy hour viewing experiences.
Team USA is, surprisingly, seeking its first Women’s World Cup victory since Brandi Chastain’s sports-bra-seen-’round-the-world moment catapulted them to the title on American soil. We have new stars, new story lines, and, naturally (this is soccer, after all), some new controversies. With that in mind, here’s a primer for everything you need to know between now and the July 5 championship match.
The Canadian Curiosity and Controversy:
The Canadians have not been a traditional power in women’s soccer, but they earned a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics and have developed a feisty rivalry with the USWNT. The crowd support should be raucous in the seven host cities.
Curiously, Toronto is not one of those cities, ceding the spotlight to Vancouver which will host the championship match. Even more interesting is that every match will be played on artificial turf rather than natural grass. This marks the first time that any World Cup match will be played on a non-natural surface, a shocking allowance by FIFA.
Citing increased risk of injury, the Americans, particularly the team superstar Abby Wambach, were outraged at this decision and lobbied vociferously — to no avail — for FIFA to install natural grass at all venues.
Top USWNT Story lines:
The failure to capture a World Cup title since 1999 is the elephant in the room for all involved with Team USA, especially the older players who comprise the first post-Mia Hamm generation of American women’s soccer. This includes brilliant, accomplished leaders, such as Wambach and Carli Lloyd, many of whom have provided scintillating, championship-winning moments at the Olympics. Unfortunately, none of those moments captured FIFA hardware.
The USWNT’s younger players will need to seize the opportunity and leadership mantle from the more established stars. Alex Morgan is the obvious heir to this throne, but she is suffering from severe ankle injuries, jeopardizing her status for the tournament. Canadian-born Sydney Leroux is a frenetic ball of injury who will likely endure some jeers from the home crowd. The player most likely to earn your admiration is sniper Megan Rapinoe, who is as tough as she is charismatic and who will find a multitude of creative ways to find the back of the net.
It has been a troubling and polarizing period for the USMNT’s most well-known player, goalkeeper Hope Solo. Seemingly a magnet for comparatively trivial on-field issues, Hope has now crossed the more serious morality line due to a domestic violence arrest and subsequent legal transgressions.
Like their counterparts on the Men’s side in last year’s World Cup, the USWNT find themselves in the proverbial Group of Death. Thankfully, the Women’s World Cup format allows for four third-place group finishers to advance to the knock-out stage, so Team USA will somehow successfully emerge from the opening stage.
If not us, then who:
If the US team is the favorite, it is only by a slight margin. Expect Canada to receive a noticeable bounce from their boisterous fans, and their enthusiasm would only increase if they were to face the Americans. France is the most formidable team on paper, and they appear to be the top threat to the USWNT. The last two nations to knock the United States out of the World Cup, Japan and Brazil, will challenge for the title once again. Germany rounds out that top tier and will bring pressure with a buzzing front line.
Words of Wisdom:
Enjoy it. If Team USA makes a deep run, do your best to attend and/or create a viewing party with your friends. We still remember where we were when Chastain clinched the 1999 championship. We’re due for another magical moment.
How do you think the USWNT will fare in the Women’s World Cup? Discuss here or on Twitter @endbadly.