Women's World Cup preview: Group-by-group matchups

Kevin Baxter takes a capsule look at the Women's World Cup field, with 24 nations in six groups

WOMEN'S WORLD CUP FIELD

GROUP A

CANADA

World ranking: 8.

How qualified: Host country.

Last World Cup: 2011, 4th in group.

Best World Cup finish: 4th, 2003.

Key players: F Christine Sinclair, GK Erin McLeod, MF Desiree Scott.

Outlook: Canada hasn't advanced out of the group stage in a World Cup since 2003, the last time the tournament was played in North America. But the host team will be helped here by the home-field — in this case, artificial turf — advantage. Sinclair's 153 goals through Friday are the third-most in international soccer history, male or female, behind Americans Abby Wambach and Mia Hamm. And Canada is still smarting from a controversial overtime loss to the Americans in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics. Sinclair had a hat trick in that game.

CHINA

World ranking: 16.

How qualified: Finished 3rd in AFC Asian Cup.

Last World Cup: 2007, quarterfinalist.

Best World Cup finish: Runner-up, 1999.

Key players: F Ying Li, GK Zhang Yue, MF Ma Jun.

Outlook: China made it at least as far as the quarterfinals in the first five women's World Cups before failing to qualify four years ago. That has led to a rebuilding under young Coach Hao Wei, whose team has only six players born before 1990. Not everything has gone smoothly in the transition, though, with China getting shut out three times in this year's Algarve Cup. Against lesser competition in the 2014 AFC Asian Cup — the World Cup qualifying tournament — Zhang Yue gave up no goals in pool play.

NETHERLANDS

World ranking: 12.

How qualified: UEFA playoff winner.

Last World Cup: Never previously qualified.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

Key players: F Vivianne Miedema, F/MF Lieke Martens, F Manon Melis.

Outlook: Although the Dutch played in the first FIFA-sanctioned women's international game in 1971, this summer's tournament in Canada will mark their first appearance in a World Cup. And they made it by the narrowest of margins, beating Scotland and Italy in the UEFA playoffs to qualify. In their previous major European appearance, at the 2013 women's Euro, the Dutch finished last in their group and did not score a goal. Melis, daughter of former Dutch professional Harry Melis, is the most experienced field player and the team's highest scorer. She is also among the fastest players in women's soccer.

NEW ZEALAND

World ranking: 17.

How qualified: OFC Nations Cup winner.

Last World Cup: 2011, 4th in group.

Best World Cup finish: 4th in group three times.

Key players: D/MF Ali Riley, F Rosie White, F Amber Hearn.

Outlook: New Zealand has played in three World Cups but has yet to win a game. But this year the Kiwis have one of the most experienced teams in their group, one led by former Harvard-Westlake High captain Riley and UCLA senior White, both of whom are playing in this tournament for a second time. A quarterfinalist in the 2012 Olympics, New Zealand routed inferior competition in its qualifying tournament, winning its three games by a combined score of 30-0. But in the last year it also played Brazil to draws twice, tied Norway and lost to powerhouse France by one goal.

Group A Schedule:

June 6 (Edmonton): Canada vs. China. New Zealand vs. Netherlands.

June 11 (Edmonton): China vs. Netherlands, Canada vs. New Zealand.

June 15 (Montreal): Netherlands vs. Canada.

June 15 (Winnipeg): China vs. New Zealand.

GROUP B

GERMANY

World ranking: 1.

How qualified: Won UEFA qualifying group.

Last World Cup: 2011, quarterfinalist.

Best World Cup finish: Champions, 2003, 2007.

Key players: GK Nadine Angerer, F Anja Mittag, MF Dzsenifer Marozsan.

Outlook: Germany is the only country with two world players of the year, but it's likely only one — goalkeeper Angerer, who also plays with the NWSL's Portland Thorns — will take the field in Canada. Reigning player of the year Nadine Kessler is expected to miss the tournament after undergoing knee surgery for the ninth time in 10 years in March. Also out is midfielder Luisa Wensing, who broke her leg in March's Algarve Cup. If any country has the depth to overcome those injuries it's top-ranked Germany, which has reached the quarterfinals of all six women's World Cups.

IVORY COAST

World ranking: 67.

How qualified: 3rd place, African Championships.

Last World Cup: Never previously qualified.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

Key players: F Jose Nahi, F Koko N'Guessan, MF Ida Guehai.

Outlook: Playing in only its second African Nations Championship, Ivory Coast stunned the field by advancing out of group play, then earning its first invitation to a World Cup with a 1-0 victory over South Africa in the third-place game. Ivory Coast figures to have one of the youngest teams in Canada; its African Championship roster of mostly domestic-based players featured four teenagers and nine others under the age of 25. But that inexperience could also prove costly for the athletic and unpredictable Elephants, whose coach, Clementine Toure, led Equatorial Guinea to the African Championship in 2008.

NORWAY

World ranking: 11.

How qualified: Won UEFA qualifying group.

Last World Cup: 2011, 3rd in group.

Best World Cup finish: Champion, 1995.

Key players: GK Ingrid Hjelmseth, F Isabell Herlovsen, MF Maren Mjelde.

Outlook: Norway's biggest strength will be its experience, especially in the technical area, because Coach Even Pellerud has taken teams to five World Cups, winning with Norway in 1995 and leading Canada to a fourth-place finish in 2003. And in March's Algarve Cup, Norway's roster boasted six players with at least 72 international appearances. Norway was eliminated in the group stage four years ago, marking the only time it failed to reach the quarterfinals. But almost half that squad was brought back for the 2013 Euros, where Norway lost in the final to Germany.

THAILAND

World ranking: 29.

How qualified: Finished 5th in AFC Asian Cup.

Last World Cup: Never previously qualified.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

Key players: F Sung-Ngoen Kanjana, D Darut Changplook, F Nisa Romyen.

Outlook: Thailand got a tough draw for its World Cup debut after squeezing into the field by beating Vietnam in a playoff at last spring's Asian Cup. The Thais followed that by reaching the quarterfinals of September's Asian Games, where Romyen led the tournament in scoring with eight goals. Coach Nuengruethai Sathongwien, who took over last year, is the first woman to lead the national team, which she had previously served as an assistant. Despite being shut out of the World Cup before this year, Thailand has had some soccer success, winning the 2013 Southeast Asian Games and the 2011 and 2015 AFF titles — albeit against dismal competition.

Group B Schedule:

June 7 (Ottawa): Norway vs. Thailand, Germany vs. Ivory Coast.

June 11 (Ottawa): Germany vs. Norway, Ivory Coast vs. Thailand.

June 15 (Winnipeg): Thailand vs. Germany.

June 15 (Moncton): Ivory Coast vs. Norway.

GROUP C

CAMEROON

World ranking: 53.

How qualified: African Nations Championship runner-up.

Last World Cup: Never previously qualified.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

Key players: F Gaelle Enganamouit, GK Annette Ngo Ndom, F Madeleine Ngono Mani.

Outlook: Cameroon's biggest international stage prior to this tournament was the 2012 London Olympics, where it became one of three African teams to compete in women's soccer at the Summer Games. And though Cameroon is now making its first appearance in a World Cup, its young squad is exceptionally seasoned because the majority of its players compete for top European clubs. Coach Carl Enow Ngachua, a former player, is also experienced, having spent more than a decade working with the women's national program.

ECUADOR

World ranking: 48.

How qualified: Beat Trinidad and Tobago in a two-leg playoff.

Last World Cup: Never previously qualified.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

Key players: F Giannina Lattanzio, D Ligia Moreira, GK Shirley Berruz.

Outlook: Ecuador qualified by the narrowest of margins, beating Trinidad and Tobago in a two-leg playoff to win the final spot in the 24-team field. And the only goal in the two games was scored by Monica Quinteros in stoppage time of the second match. So Ecuador is not going to light up the scoreboard, but with Berruz in goal, it might not give up many scores either. But no matter the outcome, Coach Vanessa Arauz will make history: At 26, she is the youngest coach in the history of the women's World Cup.

JAPAN

World ranking: 4.

How qualified: AFC Asian Cup champion.

Last World Cup: 2011, champion.

Best World Cup finish: Champion, 2011.

Key players: MF Homare Sawa, MF Aya Miyama, F Yuki Ogimi.

Outlook: Only Germany and the U.S. match the pedigree of Japan, led by 36-year-old Sawa, a former world player of the year appearing in her sixth World Cup. Japan is the only team in its group to have played in a World Cup previously and it followed its 2011 title with a silver medal in the 2012 Olympics. Japan's roster is aging, featuring six players with 100-plus international caps. That age might have caught up with Japan in March's Algarve Cup, where it finished ninth. Miyama, a two-time Asian player of the year, is deadly on set pieces.

SWITZERLAND

World ranking: 19.

How qualified: Won UEFA qualifying group.

Last World Cup: Never previously qualified.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

Key players: F Ramona Bachmann, D Noelle Maritz, MF Lara Dickermann.

Outlook: Based on recent form and a fortunate draw, Switzerland could become a dark-horse contender in Canada after outscoring opponents 53-1 in qualifying. This is Switzerland's first World Cup, but that's misleading because it won its qualifying group easily in 2011, only to be eliminated in a playoff. Switzerland has been building toward this year, adding pieces — such as Newport Beach-born teenager Maritz — to a team that already included former Ohio State star Dickermann. Their coach knows something about the World Cup too: Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, one of Germany's all-time greats, played in three of them.

Group C Schedule:

June 8 (Vancouver): Cameroon vs. Ecuador, Japan vs. Switzerland.

June 12 (Vancouver): Switzerland vs. Ecuador, Japan vs. Cameroon.

June 16 (Winnipeg): Ecuador vs. Japan.

June 16 (Edmonton): Switzerland vs. Cameroon.

GROUP D

AUSTRALIA

World ranking: 10.

How qualified: AFC Asian Cup runner-up.

Last World Cup: 2011, quarterfinals.

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals, 2011 and 2007.

Key players: D Clare Polkinghorne, F Samantha Kerr, F Lisa De Vanna.

Outlook: Australia is making a push to join the soccer elite, having advanced to the quarterfinals of the last two World Cups before coming into this tournament with a top-10 global ranking. But after being drawn into the tournament's toughest group, its best hope of advancing beyond group play probably is as one of the four best third-place teams. Coach Alen Stajcic's final roster did not include two notable players: all-time leading scorer Kate Gill and veteran goalkeeper Brianna Davey.

NIGERIA

World ranking: 33.

How qualified: African Nations Championship winner.

Last World Cup: 2011, 3rd in group.

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinalist, 1999.

Key players: F Asisat Oshoala, D Desire Oparanozie, MF/F Evelyn Nwabuoku.

Outlook: A nine-time African champion, Nigeria is the only country from that continent to qualify for all seven women's World Cups. But the Super Falcons have advanced beyond group play only once and, given the group they've been drawn into, it will be a challenge to do that again in Canada. This will be the final World Cup for four-time African player of the year Perpetua Nkwocha, who is 38 and has begun passing the baton to a pair of 20-year-olds: Oshoala and Oparanozie. Oshoala is already being called the best young player to come out of Africa.

SWEDEN

World ranking: 5.

How qualified: Won UEFA qualifying group.

Last World Cup: 2011, 3rd place.

Best World Cup finish: Runner-up, 2003.

Key players: F Sofia Jakobsson, F Lotta Schelin, MF Caroline Seger.

Outlook: Sweden impressed with a win over Germany in the Algarve Cup, where Jakobsson led all scorers with four goals. But despite the presence of Jakobsson and Schelin, who had 12 goals in 10 games in UEFA qualifying, Sweden's biggest asset is on the sidelines with Coach Pia Sundhage. She led the U.S. to two Olympic titles and a runner-up finish in the 2011 World Cup before returning to her native country. Fun fact: Sweden is the only team that has beaten the U.S. in World Cup group play, winning 2-1 four years ago.

UNITED STATES

World ranking: 2.

How qualified: Won CONCACAF qualifying tournament.

Last World Cup: 2011, runner-up.

Best World Cup finish: Champions, 1999, 1991.

Key players: GK Hope Solo, MF Carli Lloyd, F Abby Wambach.

Outlook: The U.S. is the only country to reach the semifinals of every World Cup, but the Americans haven't won the tournament in 16 years. And this figures to be the last chance for a group that includes the most prolific international goal-scorer, male or female, in history in Wambach and arguably the world's best goalkeeper in Solo. As a concession to Wambach's age — she'll turn 35 this week — and Canada's artificial turf, she probably will be a part-time player here. The U.S. offense could sputter if Alex Morgan's knee injury slows her, but look for Christen Press to step up and become the revelation of this World Cup for the Americans.

Group D Schedule:

June 8 (Winnipeg): Sweden vs. Nigeria, U.S. vs. Australia.

June 12 (Winnipeg): Australia vs. Nigeria, U.S. vs. Sweden.

June 16 (Vancouver): U.S. vs. Nigeria.

June 16 (Edmonton): Australia vs. Sweden.

GROUP E

BRAZIL

World ranking: 7.

How qualified: Copa America champion.

Last World Cup: 2011, quarterfinals.

Best World Cup finish: Runner-up, 2007.

Key players: F Marta, F Cristiane, MF Formiga.

Outlook: Marta, 29, is a female Lionel Messi, a five-time world player of the year who lacks a significant global team award. But she has come close, placing second in the 2007 World Cup — where she scored a tournament-high seven goals — and twice finishing second in the Olympics. With a goal here she'll become the leading scorer in women's World Cup history with 15 goals. Brazil is in good form, beating the U.S. and Sweden since December. But it also lost twice to Germany by a combined 7-1. This will be the sixth World Cup for legendary midfielder Formiga, who is 37.

COSTA RICA

World ranking: 37.

How qualified: CONCACAF runner-up.

Last World Cup: Never previously qualified.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

Key players: MF Shirley Cruz, D Diana Saenz, MF Katherine Alvarado.

Outlook: Another soccer nation on the rise, Costa Rica beat Mexico in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament to earn its ticket to Canada. And though the Ticas' World Cup debut doesn't figure to be a long one, Costa Rica fields an interesting team, one that includes University of South Florida senior Saenz and 15-year-old midfielder Gloriana Villalobos. Despite her age, Villalobos already has a full resume, having played five games in the CONCACAF U-20 Championships and three more in the U-17 tournament last year. She made her debut with the senior team last May at age 14.

SOUTH KOREA

World ranking: 18.

How qualified: AFC Asian Cup, 4th place.

Last World Cup: 2003, 4th in group.

Best World Cup finish: 4th in group, 2003.

Key players: F/MF Ji Soyun, MF Jeon Gaeul, F Park Eunsun.

Outlook: South Korea did not win a game and was outscored 10-1 in its only previous World Cup appearance. But the country's soccer program has undergone a renaissance since then, with a victory in the U-17 World Cup in 2010 and a third-place finish in the U-20 tournament that year. Those teams have seen a number of players step up to assume important roles with the senior national team, among them U-20 playmaker Ji Soyun, a four-time Korean player of the year.

SPAIN

World ranking: 14.

How qualified: Won UEFA qualifying group.

Last World Cup: Never previously qualified.

Best World Cup finish: First appearance.

Key players: F Veronica Boquete, F Natalia Pablos, F Sonia Bermudez.

Outlook: Spain was unbeaten in qualifying, outscored opponents 42-2 behind forwards Pablos and Bermudez, who combined for 22 goals in 10 games. And the team has retained that good form, playing fellow World Cup qualifier New Zealand to two draws and beating Ireland and Belgium already this year. This is Spain's first World Cup and it comes during a period of rapid improvement for a national program that reached the quarterfinals of the most recent European Championships and finished second in the U-17 World Cup last year.

Group E Schedule:

June 9 (Montreal): Spain vs. Costa Rica, Brazil vs. South Korea.

June 13 (Montreal): Brazil vs. Spain, South Korea vs. Costa Rica.

June 17(Moncton): Costa Rica vs. Brazil.

June 17 (Ottawa): South Korea vs. Spain.

GROUP F

COLOMBIA

World ranking: 28.

How qualified: Copa America runner-up.

Last World Cup: 2011, 4th in group.

Best World Cup finish: 4th in group, 2011.

Key players: MF Yoreli Rincon, D Nataly Arias, D Natalia Gaitan.

Outlook: Colombia was the surprise of Copa America, going unbeaten and giving up only two goals in seven games while holding powerful Brazil scoreless in the final. But Colombia has never won on this stage, losing twice and drawing its third match in its only World Cup appearance four years ago. And a year after that it went winless — and scoreless — in the London Olympics. After the Olympic disaster, Fabian Taborda replaced Ricardo Rozo as coach and Colombia's fortunes have turned around. Midfield playmaker Rincon — the Colombian Marta — leads the offense.

ENGLAND

World ranking: 6.

How qualified: Won UEFA qualifying group.

Last World Cup: 2011, quarterfinals.

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals, 2011, 2007, 1995.

Key players: GK Karen Bardsley, F Eniola Aluko, F Lianne Sanderson.

Outlook: The January retirement of two-time World Cup goalkeeper Rachel Brown has opened a starting position for Cal State Fullerton product Bardsley. And if she seizes the job she'll be backstopping a team with high expectations after rolling through qualifying unbeaten, having outscored its opponents 52-1 in 10 games. Nigerian-born forward Aluko had 13 of England's scores and could be the team's main focus following the international retirement of Kelly Smith. Also working in England's favor is that the team has been able to train on artificial-turf fields similar to the ones that will be used in Canada.

FRANCE

World ranking: 3.

How qualified: Won UEFA qualifying group.

Last World Cup: 2011.

Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals, 2011.

Key players: D Wendie Renard, F Marie-Laure Delie, F Eugenie Le Sommer.

Outlook: France, which hosts the next women's World Cup in 2019, comes to Canada with one of the most experienced teams in this year's tournament, boasting a roster that includes six players with more than 100 international caps. One of those is 29-year-old forward Gaetane Thiney, who scored 14 goals in her team's unbeaten run through World Cup qualifying. France has continued that fine form this season, beating the U.S. 2-0 in February, then reaching the final of Algarve Cup in March, where it lost to the Americans by the same score.

MEXICO

World ranking: 25.

How qualified: 3rd in CONCACAF qualifying.

Last World Cup: 2011, 3rd in group.

Best World Cup finish: 3rd in group, 2011.

Key players: GK Cecilia Santiago, D Alina Garciamendez, F Monica Ocampo.

Outlook: The core of this team comes from the U.S, with California natives Veronica Perez (Washington), Bianca Sierra (Auburn) and Garciamendez (Stanford) having played for U.S. colleges and participated in U.S. age-group or Olympic Development Program training camps before casting their lots with Mexico. After stunning the U.S. in qualifying four years ago, Mexico stumbled this time, needing to beat Trinidad and Tobago in overtime to grab the region's final invitation to Canada. In two previous World Cup appearances and one trip to the Olympics, Mexico has yet to win a game, getting outscored 30-5.

Group F Schedule:

June 9 (Moncton): France vs. England, Colombia vs. Mexico.

June 13 (Moncton): France vs. Colombia, England vs. Mexico.

June 17(Ottawa): Mexico vs. France.

June 17 (Montreal): England vs. Colombia.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
71°