There are four big favorites in the World Cup, but this is a pretty wide-open field. Here are the other teams that have an excellent shot of lifting the trophy.
Prior to 2011, Japan had managed to get itself out of the group stage just once, a lone quarterfinal appearance coming in 1995, where they were promptly bounced by the United States. But in Germany in 2011, with Japan still reeling from the effects of a devastating earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster, Norio Sasaki's Nadeshiko put in their best-ever performance, losing just once in the group stage before knocking off the hosts in extra time in the quarterfinal, then Sweden in the semis en route to a meeting with the United States in the final. There, as the story goes, Sasaki's side found two late goals, one to force extra time and another to force penalties. Japan made three, while the U.S. could manage only a single goal, bringing the Nadeshiko to a confetti-showered first-ever title.
In the four years since, Homare Sawa, Japan's captain and leading scorer, retired, then un-retired. At 36, Sawa will appear in her sixth World Cup this summer. The winner of both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot in the 2011 tournament, Sawa has scored eight goals in World Cup play, including the 117th-minute tying goal that sent the aforementioned final to penalty kicks. Alongside Sawa and her 82 international goals is Aya Miyama, who's scored 36 times for Japan. Miyama, who spent time playing professionally in the the ill-fated WPS, is especially dangerous on set pieces -- the 5'2" midfielder is one the best free-kick takers in the women's game. Japan also brings plenty of defensive experience to Canada, particularly in goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori, who backstopped the team in the 2011 tournament, and defenders Saki Kumagai, Aya Sameshima, Azusa Iwashimizu and Yukari Kinga. Iwashumizu and Kinga have a combined 205 caps for Japan.
Japan, currently fourth in the FIFA rankings and qualifying as winners of the AFC Women's Asian Cup, will have a relatively easy trip to the knockout rounds after being drawn into Group C with Switzerland, Cameroon and Ecuador, all countries appearing in their first-ever World Cup. As group C winners, Japan would face the third-best team from either Group A, B or F in the Round of 16.
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Remember Lotta Schelin from the 2011 World Cup? Well, she's in absolutely terrifying form at the moment. She led France's Division 1 Féminine with 34 goals this season, won the golden boot at Euro 2013, scored 12 goals in 10 World Cup qualifying games and leads Sweden with six goals in 2015. She's the hottest goal-scorer on the planet (or perhaps hottest not named Célia Šašić), and if Sweden makes a run at the World Cup, it's probably going to have a lot to do with her.
But Sweden aren't playing terrific soccer at the moment, which is pretty bad news considering they're in the undisputed group of death. They've done OK, splitting their two recent games with Germany, but have losses against Switzerland and Brazil, and drew Denmark 3-3 in their most recent game. Sweden's defenders have a lot of experience -- their goalkeeper and a couple of their center backs have over 100 caps -- so it's concerning that their defense looks so poor.
The attacking combination of Schelin, captain Caroline Seger and the slew of other attacking talents Sweden has makes them dangerous going forward, but they've yet to prove they can actually stop anyone. And whenever they've come up against elite competition over the last couple of years, they've struggled.
Sweden's nightmare scenario is second place in Group D, which would set up a potential Round of 16 match against Brazil and potential quarterfinal against Japan. The draw actually looks a tad easier for the third-placed team out of Group D, while the winner could have a cakewalk to the semifinal. If Sweden beats Nigeria in their opener, then loses to the USWNT, they might be better off losing to Australia than beating them, providing they don't lose so badly they miss out on the Round of 16 entirely.
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England sometimes seem like that team that should be much better than they are. They've struggled throughout the years to perform commensurate with their top-10 ranking, but recent changes in the structure of women's soccer in England could pay dividends.
The FA has been investing in the Women's Super League, which now has two tiers and promotion/relegation. Some of the clubs with affiliations to men's Premiership teams have started to capture more money and more resources, like Manchester City. Many players still have day jobs, but those closer to the national team pool at least have a stable environment and somewhat steady income.
There were a few surprises in the squad, although the biggest surprise might have occurred before the official selection when Kelly Smith announced she would retire from international soccer. Many people thought she would last through one more big tournament; she was coming back to full strength with Arsenal Ladies and seemed like she had enough left in the tank to try for the ultimate in silverware one last time. But Smith knows her body best and England will be without perhaps one of the most visionary No. 10s to ever play the game.
Who England will have are a pool of mostly expected players with a couple of eyebrow-raisers. Liverpool's Gemma Bonner could have been a real asset to the defense, perhaps instead of the gently-aged Laura Bassett. Arsenal's Dani Carter could have been a good inclusion as well instead of City's Toni Duggan, who is hit-or-miss for England.
Coach Mark Sampson's starting XI will probably be comprised of mostly veterans, with a few new faces mixed in, although getting out of their group in first place may not be a priority, allowing him to take a few more risks. Karen Bardsley is looking like his starting goalkeeper, but her form has waxed and waned, while Sio Chamberlain has been working hard to close the gap. England have several good scoring options, among them Lianne Sanderson, Ellen White, Fran Kirby, and Jodie Taylor if she can get and stay healthy. Sanderson is listed as a forward but is capable of dropping behind the front line and playmaking as a 10. White has also had a recent run of form with her club, Notts County, and is capable of scoring a worldy here and there.
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Six World Cups, six times falling short, six disappointments. Every four years since 1991, Brazil's headed to the World Cup as a contender, high hopes and high skill wrapped in yellow and blue and green. But for all the fancy footwork, big theatrics and the world's best player, something always keeps them from hoisting the trophy. Some way it ends badly, in something cruel or uglier, in heartbreak. Brazil has qualified for every Women's World Cup, but has made it to the final just once, in 2007, where they lost 2-0 to Germany. They wear shirts with five stars above the crest, but those stars do not belong to them, instead serving as some strange embroidered symbol of what could have been, and what's always, somehow, slipped away.
This year, they have high hopes again. Brazil heads to Canada as CONMEBOL's top team, running through qualifying without a loss -- and without Marta. But 2015 also brings something different. -- previous World Cups saw Brazil cobbled together seemingly last minute, but the CBF and head coach Vadão have taken a different approach for this year's tournament, keeping the team mostly together for much of the year in a residency-like program.
Brazil, of course, also has Marta. Widely regarded as the world's best player, with 79 goals in 91 appearances for her country, the 29-year-old is playing in her fourth World Cup this year. Winner of five FIFA World Player of the Year awards, 14 of Marta's 70 goals have come in World Cup matches. Fellow striker Cristiane will also make her fourth World Cup appearance in 2015, and is behind only Marta in goals scored, netting 74 in 106 appearances, including seven in World Cup play.
Drawn into Group E with South Korea, Spain and Costa Rica, Brazil will have a relatively easy route out of the group, but that's something that was never really in doubt. Where Vadão's team could run into trouble is where Brazil has historically slipped up, in the knockout rounds. And thanks to the World Cup expanding from 16 to 24 teams for 2015, there's a Round of 16 for the first time this year, or an extra knockout round Brazil has to figure out how to navigate.
As likely winners of Group E, Brazil will face the runner-up from Group D, which just so happens to be the group that the U.S. was drawn into. Does anyone remember 2011? That stretcher thing is still not a great strategy.
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Australia were once a very young team who appeared to be one or two development cycles away from being true contenders. Those cycles are over and the time has come for their investment in young players to start paying big dividends. Readers might remember the name Tom Sermanni; he was the coach behind an incredible amount of development in the Australian women's game and it was a blow when the United States poached him away (let's not dwell on how that ultimately ended).
Now many of the young talents he helped nurture are coming into their own, already seasoned with one World Cup and prepared for the rigors of another. Players like Elise Kellond-Knight, Emily van Egmond, Tameka Butt, Sam Kerr, Kyah Simon and Caitlin Foord are all younger than 25, but were in Germany in 2011. The youngest of them, Foord, was only 16 then. The average age of that squad was younger than 22, while this squad's average is just under 24. It's an important jump in age because it represents an entire cycle of learning and growth. Even the older veterans should have more to contribute now, like Lisa De Vanna, who was named co-captain with Clare Polkinghorne.
The mercurial De Vanna is oft-noted for both her abilities as a goalscorer and her need for a coach with a strong guiding hand. Sermanni once dismissed De Vanna from the Matildas in 2011, essentially sending her home until she got her head screwed on straight. Under the right coach she flourishes; under the wrong one she can be disruptive. As co-captain, De Vanna might have finally arrived at a point of maturity and discipline that enables her to be a leader, which could be a huge asset to the team. When De Vanna is on her game, she's almost unstoppable.
Australia aren't the most technical team. Like the United States, they're an athletic bunch with a decent bit of speed, although unlike the U.S. you can't always count on their fitness to carry them through when all else fails. They'll be looking to connect through midfielder Katrina Gorry, who comes in at a whopping 4'8" but plays like she's 6-foot. Any combination of their forwards could be dangerous if they can find their finishing -- a legitimate question on any given day despite the combined firepower of players like De Vanna, Kerr and Michelle Heyman.
Goalkeeping presents a bit of question, with veteran Melissa Barbieri returning and expected squad member Brianna Davey out. And in a surprising move, all-time record goalscorer Kate Gill, who did well in the most recent Australian W-League season, was left out.
In order to win the World Cup, Australia will have to get fairly lucky. For most of the high-ranked teams, getting out of group is a foregone conclusion, but in Group-D-for-Death, the United States, Sweden, and Nigeria could scupper their chances early on. Anything short of winning the group sees them probably facing tough opponents in the Round of 16. That's not to say it can't be done -- just see their efforts against Japan in the 2014 AFC Asian Cup. But it'll take immense effort and quite a bit of luck.