Kevin Baxter writes about soccer and other things for the Los Angeles Times, where he has worked for 27 years. He has covered seven World Cups, four Olympic Games, six World Series and a Super Bowl and has contributed to three Pulitzer Prize-winning series at The Times and Miami Herald. An essay he wrote in fifth grade was voted best in the class. He has a cool dog.
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — When FIFA decided to expand the Women’s World Cup to a record 32 teams and 64 games this year, the expectation was many qualifiers would arrive in New Zealand and Australia unable to compete at this level. The reality has been exactly the opposite: The group stage of this tournament was the most competitive, exciting and well-played in history.
The most surprising too.
Second-ranked Germany is out of the tournament and the top-ranked U.S. is on the ropes. Two other top-10 teams — No. 7 Canada and No. 8 Brazil — also have gone home while No. 72 Morocco, a World Cup debutante, No. 54 South Africa and No. 40 Nigeria play on.
Jamaica, ranked 43rd in the world, needed a GoFundMe campaign to support its World Cup preparations, then did not give up a goal in group play to become the first Caribbean nation to advance while Portugal, the penultimate team to qualify, came within the width of a goalpost of eliminating the two-time defending champion U.S.
With the tournament moving on to the round of 16 this weekend, here’s a look back at what the first 2½ weeks have wrought:
Germany lost to Colombia, its first group-play loss in 28 years, then couldn’t beat South Korea, going out short of the quarterfinals for the first time. But don’t blame captain Alexandra Popp. Her four goals tie Japan’s Hinata Miyazawa for the tournament scoring lead.
Morocco, which has won twice in its first World Cup, will go on to the round of 16 in Germany’s place. Remember Morocco’s surprising run to the semifinals in the men’s tournament last fall? We may see something similar here.
Colombia, which entered play with one World Cup win in its history, won twice behind teenager Linda Caicedo, while Jamaica did almost as well, shutting out two top-10 teams in No. 5 France and No. 8 Brazil. South Africa also is making its first visit to the knockout rounds after beating Italy, a World Cup quarterfinalist four years ago, on a goal in stoppage time.
Germany, a two-time champion, is out despite a plus-five goal differential, the best ever for a team eliminated in the first round.
The U.S., meanwhile, has been listless and uninspired, playing without the joy and swagger that defined previous teams. But the Americans are unbeaten, did advance to the round of 16 and have given up just one shot on goal.
So you’re saying they have a chance? Yes, they have a chance. But they start the elimination stages with third-ranked Sweden, which has lost just once in its last five Olympic and World Cup games with the U.S.
Canada became the first reigning Olympic champion to be ousted in the group stage, meaning Christine Sinclair, the most prolific goal-scorer in international soccer history, will retire without a World Cup title. Ditto Brazil’s incomparable Marta, arguably the great women’s player of all time. Her team went home after losing to France and failing to score against Jamaica.
Favorite entering the knockout stage
Germany’s absence opened things up for France, which faces Morocco in its first knockout game. Japan, Spain and England also have reasons to be optimistic.
Japan leads the tournament with 11 goals and 28 shots on target and is one of three teams yet to concede a score, however it faces a challenging run through the knockout stages. Spain has one of the deepest rosters, but after rolling to easy wins in its first two games, it was routed by Japan. It will need to regroup in its first knockout-round game with Switzerland and if it advances, a rematch with Japan in the semifinals is a possibility.
England, the reigning European champion, entered the tournament missing three key players to injury but found its stride, routing China 6-1 in its last game. It will face Nigeria and the winner of Colombia-Jamaica in its first two knockout games.
And don’t sleep on Australia, Sweden or the Netherlands.
Underdog most likely to win it all
That depends on your definition of underdog. If you’re talking about teams that weren’t among the pre-tournament favorites, certainly Sweden — ranked third in the world and yet somehow still overlooked — belongs in that category. But the Swedes, whose captain, Caroline Seger, is the most experienced player in the round of 16 with 237 caps, have the toughest path through to the final, needing to beat the U.S., the Japan-Norway winner and likely Spain or the Netherlands to reach the final.
Jamaica and Colombia both surprised by making it this far. But one is about to go home since they meet in the first knockout game. The survivor may not last much longer since they likely will face England in the second game.
And don’t sleep on Morocco, which beat Colombia and South Korea behind shutouts from goalkeeper Khadija Er-Rmichi.
There are multiple candidates for this prize.
Colombia’s Caicedo arguably has been the most exciting player, scoring in each of her team’s first two wins and producing a breathtaking moment in Colombia’s 2-1 upset of Germany. Three days after collapsing in training, Caicedo, already a cancer survivor at 18, scored the goal of the tournament by dribbling away from three defenders and curling a right-footed shot into the far corner from a tough angle.
Jamaica, one of just three teams that didn’t give up a goal in the group stage, advanced to the round of 16 for the first time behind 17 saves and three clean sheets from goalkeeper Rebecca Spencer. With three goals and three assists, Lauren James has had a hand in six of England’s eight goals. And South Africa advanced for the first time behind Racing Louisville FC forward Thembi Kgatlana, whose stoppage-time goal in the group-play finale eliminated Italy.
Racing Louisville has proven to be the most important NWSL team in this World Cup. It sent six players to the tournament, and they’ve combined for eight goals. Four of them will be playing in the round of 16.
Eight nations — Haiti, Morocco, Panama, the Philippines, Portugal, Ireland, Vietnam and Zambia — made their Women’s World Cup debuts, combining to go 5-17-2. But the record tells only part of the story.
Not only did Morocco move on, but also Haiti held No. 4 England to a penalty-kick goal in a 1-0 loss and gave up just four goals in the tournament. Portugal, playing in a group that included the U.S. and the Netherlands, the 2019 World Cup finalists, gave up just one goal in three games — none in its final 257 minutes — and the Philippines upset New Zealand, blocking the co-hosts from moving on.
All defied expectations by proving they belonged.