The United States and France are big favorites to win the World Cup, with Germany and England not far behind. But none of those four teams are without serious holes in their game. And more than ever, the teams right behind them look capable of pulling off upsets.
Here’s what every team in the top eight of the FIFA world rankings needs to happen in order for them to become real World Cup contenders.
United States — Alyssa Naeher getting better off her line
The USWNT hasn’t had consistent performances from its goalkeepers since Hope Solo. Alyssa Naeher certainly hasn’t been poor, but she isn’t always confident stepping up to clear balls that get behind the defense, and that has led to preventable one-on-one scoring chances.
Naeher’s club, Chicago Red Stars, plays with a dedicated defensive midfielder and a fairly deep defensive line, so Naeher doesn’t have to make those types of decisions on a weekly basis. But the USWNT plays with a very aggressive defense, and Naeher hasn’t adjusted. That has to change in France.
Germany — Answers in central defense
The Germans have world class players at every position but central defense, where they’ve been rotating relatively inexperienced players in an attempt to find the right pair. Marina Hegering and Sara Doorsoun started Germany’s most recent game, and they, despite being 29 and 27 years old, respectively, have only recently broken into the first team. Hegering has no major tournament experience, while Doorsoun played just one game at Euro 2017 — in midfield, in a loss, and she was hauled off at halftime. Johanna Elsig also has no major tournament experience, while the more experienced Verena Schweers has looked fourth choice recently.
Germany’s attack and midfield are going to be good enough to keep pressure off its defense. Goalkeeper Almuth Schult is one of the best in the world. But when a central defender makes a bad error, there’s only so much the other players can do.
England — Fran Kirby showing up
There’s no doubt Fran Kirby is England’s best player when she’s on form, but she’s had an average 2019 for both the Three Lions and Chelsea. Phil Neville has another great attacking midfielder in reserve behind her in Georgia Stanway, but he appears committed to Kirby, whether she’s at her best or not.
England’s attack has looked lifeless in recent matches. It’s only going to get better if Kirby starts scoring and assisting.
France — Avoid mom’s spaghetti
There are no holes to poke in the France lineup. There is no soccer reason to bet against them. Les Bleus have won 13 of their last 14 matches and have a world class player at every position. But they’ve been this good for a decade, but they don’t have major tournament success to show for it. They always have a game where they make uncharacteristic errors and miss scoring chances. They just choke.
France has to stop choking, it’s that simple.
Canada — Someone else to step up with Christine Sinclair
The legendary Christine Sinclair can’t create her own scoring chances very often anymore, but the Reds’ all-time leading scorer has morphed into one of the world’s best advanced playmakers. And if Canada is going to make a deep run, she needs one of her attack partners to start scoring more goals.
Nichelle Prince, Janine Beckie, and Jordyn Huitema have rotated in the striker role for Canada, and none have yet to lock it down. They’re all talented players, but extremely inconsistent finishers. Of the three, Beckie is the safest option, Huitema has the highest ceiling, and Prince is a compromise between the two.
Australia — Sam Kerr winning the golden boot
Australia’s defense is not a question mark. It just isn’t very good. It is highly unlikely that it will magically become good. Australia is going to need to outscore opponents in shootouts, so it’s fortunate that the Matildas have arguably the best goal-scorer in the entire world.
Sam Kerr’s stats appear on a few other recent posts on this website, but I’m going to keep typing them in case anyone has missed them, and because they never get old. She’s scored 23 goals in her last 26 Australia appearances, and 79 goals in 83 club games over the same time period. She will need to keep up that scoring rate if Australia is going to win the World Cup.
Japan — A youngster to step up
Four members of the Japan squad have more than 100 caps, and three more have at least 60. But after that, there’s a massive dropoff in experience. Japan knows what they’re going to get out of established stars like Saki Kumagai, Emi Nakajima, and Kumi Yokoyama, but they’ll need youngsters to announce themselves as stars to have a chance at making a third straight World Cup final.
Central midfielder Hina Sugita, 22, looks like a good candidate to step into the spotlight at her first major tournament, but one of the three under-21 forwards on Japan’s bench will need to step up. Nineteen-year-old Jun Endo, who starred in Japan’s Under-20 World Cup victory, could be that player.
Netherlands — Star attackers contributing some defense
The reigning European champions have the best attacking line in the tournament, and there’s a solid midfield and defense behind them. But where the Oranje occasionally stumble is getting caught off guard by runs from deep by defensive players.
Lieke Martens, Shanice van de Sanden, and Danielle van de Donk can’t just put together pretty attacking moves; they have to work hard defensively as well. Don’t be shocked if the Netherlands concede a couple goals from a cross by an opposing fullback who was completely unmarked.