The 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada begins on Saturday, and it is shaping up to be even more exciting than the thrilling 2011 edition in Germany. The field of contenders is larger than ever before, and there are a number of teams just below this level that could plausibly make runs deep into the tournament. Here are my predictions for the first round.
3. New Zealand
The hosts should have no problem winning this group as long as they don’t lose to China in the opening match of the tournament, and it is quite possible that they could replicate their third place finish from the 2012 Olympics (remember that, unlike on the men’s side, the women’s Olympic matches are full internationals) on the strength of their home field advantage. It will be interesting to see how China does. They were a world power in the 1990s, but have fallen off in recent years. It would not be surprising to see them eliminated in the second round, but it would not be especially surprising to see them make a run into the semifinals, either.
3. Ivory Coast
Expect to see some high-scoring matches in this group as the two former champions beat up on the Ivoirians and Thais. I expect the third place team from this group to be eliminated because goal difference plays a major role in determining which third place teams advance (see the comments on Group D for more on the unusual “third place teams advancing” aspect of the tournament).
This is perhaps the most difficult group to predict (and thus should be one of the more exciting ones), as after the defending champions, Japan, it is wide open. I’m picking Ecuador second because they have the home hemisphere advantage and do not play Japan until the third match when the champions will have already clinched a spot in the second round.
This is the so-called “Group of Death” in the tournament, and it should produce some close, exciting matches. However, all of the people who are worried about whether the U.S. will be able to advance need to relax. The thing about a Group of Death is that it is difficult for all of the teams, which seems obvious, but is often forgotten by commentators. So yes, it will be a tough group for the U.S., but it will also be difficult for everyone else, and as the best team in the group, the U.S. should have no problem advancing, and will probably win the group. It also helps that the U.S. is playing on its own continent. The cities the U.S. will play in are close enough to the U.S.-Canada border that the team should enjoy a significant fan support advantage in each match.
The other important factor to remember Group of Death-wise is that for the first time, the tournament involves 24 teams instead of 16, and this means that four of the six third-place teams will advance to the second round (which is also new this year as a result of the enlarged field, rather than having the quarterfinals as the first knockout stage). So the Group of Death is actually much less deathly than Groups of Death usually are. (It is worth noting, though, that the Group of Deathiest Group of Death ever, Group E in the 1994 men’s World Cup, when all four teams earned four points in the group stage and had the same goal difference, and Norway was eliminated on goals scored, was part of a 24-team tournament.)
2. South Korea
4. Costa Rica
Brazil should win this group without a problem, but this is another group where the fight for second and third will be fierce. South Korea were very impressive against the U.S. in their final tune-up match this past Saturday—well-organized and unintimidated—and they will be difficult to beat. On paper, Costa Rica are weaker than Spain, but playing in their home confederation they could be a darkhorse team like the men were last year.
France are one of the favorites to win the tournament, and should have no problem topping another group where the battle for the other places will be hotly contested. England have been steadily getting better over the years and are my pick to be the biggest surprise of the tournament. France are good enough to blow out the two teams from the Americas, which will mean a first-round exit for the Mexicans, and that New Zealand, Switzerland, Australia, and Spain will be the top four third-place finishers.
While there are certain to be some lopsided scorelines during the first round as a result of the expanded field, overall the women’s game is as competitive as it has ever been, which should produce some classic matches in the knockout rounds. The field in the quarterfinals could possibly be the U.S., France, Germany, Japan, Brazil, Canada, Sweden, and England, which would produce several games worthy of at least a semifinal match, if not a final. Also, the first five teams on that list all have legitimate shots at the title, thus at least one serious contender will miss out on the semifinals (based on the draw it is likely that Japan and France will meet in the quarterfinals). Expect to see at least a few penalty shootouts decide some of these titanic clashes.
I will make my predictions for the knockout stages once the field for the second round has been determined, but I will go on the record now as predicting that the U.S. will win the tournament. Their depth, combined with the home-continent advantage and their desire to avenge their second place finish in 2011, will be too much for the other contenders to handle.