Four years ago in France, the United States became the third team to successfully defend a World Cup since the second world war, joining Brazil’s men (in 1962) and Germany’s women (in 2007). And while Vlatko Andonovski’s squad have maintained their uninterrupted six-year perch atop the Fifa rankings and will begin as narrow favourites in Australia and New Zealand, the Americans’ pursuit of an unprecedented third successive world title has been anything but straightforward amid a sometimes tumultuous generational transition and a recent spate of injuries. The US were compelled to retool their roster after a lacklustre bronze-medal finish with a veteran-heavy squad at the Tokyo Olympics, where their once-swashbuckling attack struggled for ideas in the final third despite ample time on the ball, but it’s anything but a finished product as their “three-peat” bid draws near. While it’s true the 2015 and 2019 tournament-winners faced urgent questions during the run-up before peaking at the right time, those squads were all but set months in advance. Not this year.
The US shirt
Andonovski wound up choosing 14 first-time World Cup players, up from 11 debutantes in 2019. Questions over the fitness of mainstays Rose Lavelle, Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe are concerning enough, but the recent glut of injuries has ensured the newcomers will be pressed into action. Two of the long-intended attacking centrepieces are out of the picture: Chicago Red Stars forward Mallory Swanson, who was in the form of her life with goals in six straight international appearances when she suffered a torn patella tendon during an April friendly, along with Chelsea-bound forward Catarina Macario, who will not have recovered from a torn ACL in time. Also out are the captain Becky Sauerbrunn and veteran midfielder Sam Mewis. While the Americans do have the squad depth to absorb their absences, they will become far more dependent on youngsters Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and Alyssa Thompson, who at 18 is the second youngest player ever to be named to a US World Cup squad after current USWNT assistant coach Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak.
Andonovski, a longtime NWSL manager who favours a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation, has been a steady hand since he succeeded Jill Ellis as the US’s ninth coach in November 2019. But the 23-match unbeaten run to start his tenure was ended by Sweden in their first contest of a Tokyo Olympics that quickly went sideways as his game management came under criticism. Questions over his fitness for the role surfaced in November when the United States suffered their first three-game losing streak in nearly 30 years with friendly defeats to England, Spain and Germany, but his job has never been in any serious jeopardy. His selections have broadly reflected an emphasis on NSWL form. Consider the surprise pick of Savannah DeMelo, a 25-year-old midfielder enjoying a standout club season for Racing Louisville FC, who is the third player ever to make a US World Cup squad without having previously made an international appearance.
The pacy 22-year-old Sophia Smith made a convincing pitch as the next face of US women’s soccer with an extraordinary 2022 for club and country, becoming the youngest NWSL MVP in leading the Portland Thorns to a third league title while adding 11 international goals to become the youngest player to lead the USWNT in scoring in a calendar year since 1993. With Swanson and Macario both out of the World Cup, the US will rely on Smith even more for scoring punch. “She can stop pushing now, and she will still be a very good player, one of the best players this country has ever produced,” says Thorns coach Rhian Wilkinson. “And my job is to keep pushing her, and to make sure she is the best player this country has ever produced because she has that in her right now.”
The 22-year-old centre-back Naomi Girma, who has been capped 15 times since making her senior debut last year, has established herself in Andonovski’s team with her mature poise, vision, distribution and ability in a position where experience is typically valued. During a standout debut season with the San Diego Wave that saw her win NWSL Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year honours, the Californian has been equally rock-solid for country whether paired alongside Alana Cook or Sauerbrunn. “[She’s not just] making five-yard passes to the person next to her,” former US star Carli Lloyd said. “She’s threading balls through the centre of the park, picking out forwards’ feet.”
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Rose Lavelle, the breakout midfield star of the last World Cup whose left-footed strike in the final was hailed as an instant classic, has a 10-year-old English bulldog named Wilma Jean Wrinkles (who is closing in on 13,000 followers on Instagram) that she FaceTimes from the road.
Standing of women’s football in the US?
The 1972 passage of the federal legislation known as Title IX – the law that makes it illegal for government-funded institutions to discriminate on the basis of sex – mandated equal funding for women’s sports programs that gave the United States a crucial head start on the international scene and generated a player pool that remains the envy of the world even as the gap is narrowing. Additionally, soccer’s modest popularity in the United States among men’s sports has given the women’s game ample space to flourish.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
The US have won 4 World Cups and never finished worse than third in the tournament, adding 4 Olympic gold medals along the way. Anything short of a fifth would be a disappointment. But the historic feat of winning a third straight – so far from home, so compromised by injury, the once-yawning gap with their rivals never slimmer – promises their stiffest test to date.
Courtesy of the Guardian
Portugal booked their first appearance at a Women’s World Cup with the last breath of their 13th qualification game. No team played as many games en route to Australia and New Zealand. After 10 matches and a second place behind Germany in the group stage, followed by two victories in the European playoffs against Belgium and Iceland, Carole Costa’s penalty in the fourth minute of injury time in the intercontinental playoff with Cameroon sealed qualification. “It is the happiest day of our lives,” said the defender, one of the senior players in the team, remembering in her celebrations the previous generations of players “who fought for this moment”.
Qualification is the team’s highest point and the main sign of the evolution of Portuguese women’s football. That has led to the first appearances in the women’s Euros, in 2017 and 2022, and now this unprecedented trip to the biggest stage of all.
Portugal’s growth has been built around a core group of players who have made this journey together over many years: seven of the World Cup squad have 100 or more caps. They are joined by several others with international experience and also some new blood, with the talent of Kika Nazareth standing out. “This is a team with lots of ambition, with many players having an incredible journey with us,” said the coach, Francisco Neto. “We have in the squad 12 players who were at the 2017 European Championship and 19 who went to the last Euros. They are athletes who have grown up in adversity, but show that they are capable of responding. That’s why we are where we are.” With players who know each other, Portugal tend to play in a 4-4-2 (diamond) or 4-3-3 system and are eager to improve in competing at the highest level. The main strength of the team is cohesion, the group spirit that has led them to break down barriers.
Francisco Neto was 32 when he took over the women’s national team. In nine years, he has led Portugal to major competitions for the first time, capitalising on the momentum the sport has gained in recent times. Neto began his coaching journey at the age of 20, worked with younger teams and as technical coordinator, and ended his coaching training with one of the best grades on the course – ahead, for example, of Sérgio Conceição, now the coach of Porto. Neto has renewed his contract until 2027, but is concentrating on the World Cup, working on ways to deal with strong teams such as the USA and the Netherlands. “We know we will often be under pressure and it is impossible to spend 90 minutes just defending,” he said. “We want to be able to have the ball, dominate some parts of the game and grow at that moment. We’ve been working on it. We’re better, but we want to grow to be able to compete with these teams.”
“I have an individual prize here, but that is not important today, because we won everything: we won qualification for the World Cup.” The player of the match award for the playoff that took Portugal to the World Cup was another milestone in a great season for Tatiana Pinto, the 29-year-old midfielder who is experiencing the best phase of her career. Like many of her generation, Pinto played with boys until her teens as there were no female youth teams. After spells at Sand in Germany and Bristol City, she played five seasons at Sporting and in 2021 moved to Levante. Last season, the dynamic midfielder was one of the highlights of a team that finished third in the Spanish league, scoring 12 goals and making three assists.
Benfica’s Kika Nazareth is already more than just promising. At 20, she has phenomenal talent, creativity and everything necessary to be Portugal’s big star of the future. In the qualification campaign, she played 10 games and scored three goals. “We must look at ourselves and see the potential and talent we have, we must believe,” she said. “I am confident. If we make it through the group stage, the goal is to win everything.”
Did you know?
Ana Borges, Portugal’s most-capped player, played three seasons at Chelsea, where she won the WSL and the FA Cup before returning to Portugal to play at Sporting. José Mourinho was in London, during his second spell with the Blues, and gave her some advice. Borges told Maisfutebol: “My trainer said I was very good but I didn’t like the gym. He told me to tell her I didn’t need the gym, I needed to have the ball at my feet.”
Standing of women’s football in Portugal?
In March, a derby between Benfica and Sporting was watched by 27,211 in Estádio da Luz, shattering the record for a women’s game in Portugal. It would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. It is another milestone in the growth of women’s football, fuelled by the investment of the Portuguese FA and joined by some of the big clubs, such as Sporting, Benfica and Braga. A stronger domestic league, launched in 2016, led to the return of some of the best Portuguese players and to wider public attention, with games broadcast on the FA channel. Among more than 200,000 registered players, between football and futsal, only about 15,000 are women.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
“We want to reach the last group-stage game with the USA able to qualify for the next stage. If we arrive already qualified, even better.” This is how Neto defines the team’s goal. Portugal do not want to only stay in New Zealand in Group E, they want to go to Australia where the round of 16 will be played. But in such a strong group, that would represent an incredible feat for Portugal, 21st in the Fifa rankings. After finishing fourth in the group at the past two Euros, the most realistic aim is third place.
Courtesy of the Guardian
Making their Women’s World Cup debut, Vietnam are one of the least experienced teams in the tournament. The women’s national side was formed in 1990 and the team played their first official international match in 1997. Around this time, many of the mainstays of the current side were just being born. However, over the past 26 years, the team have made great strides, recently rising from 42nd to 32nd in the Fifa world rankings (and from eighth to fifth in Asia). Vietnamese women’s football has witnessed an advance at lightning speed in the past decade with the team being crowned South East Asian Games champions four times in a row. Their achievements in south-east Asia are a solid stepping stone for Vietnam to assert themselves on the wider international stage. They earned their place in the World Cup after an intense playoff series in the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, beating Thailand and Taiwan (Chinese Taipei).
The Vietnam shirt.
Although there is a lot to do regarding women’s football development, Vietnam is able to maintain a national championship with seven teams. We have also witnessed the first internationally exported players with Huynh Nhu going to Portugal and Tran Thi Hong Nhung to Thailand. The team’s appearance at the World Cup is expected to boost the growth of women’s football so that Vietnam can close the gap to the top Asian teams. “We don’t set high ambitions but during this tournament we can learn a lot,” the coach, Mai Duc Chung, told fifa.com. “It’s a chance for us to compete with very good opponents and we can learn from their experience, skills and techniques. We also have to be mentally strong. We will respect all the competitors, but we are not scared.”
Vietnam will play on the counterattack. The strength of this side is that they possess a pair of fast wingers in Tuyet Dung and Thanh Nha, and an agile striker who is also a good finisher, Huynh Nhu. This style of play helped them score against Germany during a friendly in Frankfurt in June.
The World Cup will be Mai Duc Chung’s last tournament as the head coach, closing the curtain on a glorious career with the women’s and men’s national teams. Various foreign coaches had been hired, but no one could make Vietnam’s World Cup dream come true until Chung. He is famous for being a “stuntman” (or emergency caretaker) as he has, far too many times, been temporarily placed in charge of Vietnam’s men’s and under-23 teams in times of crisis, until a new coach could be found.
Huynh Nhu, the only exported Vietnamese player in the squad, is the captain, the main striker and the entire team’s inspiration. She scored seven goals in her first season at Länk in Portugal. The five-times Vietnam Golden Ball winner has shown great adaptability to the European environment and is discussing a contract extension with Länk. Coincidentally, Portugal are Vietnam’s second opponents in the group stage. Huynh Nhu is a complete striker, she shoots well with either foot, is dangerous in the air and can dribble. She is also a threat from free-kicks, as she has shown during her time at Länk.
at 21 years old, Nguyen Thi Thanh Nha already has 27 caps for Vietnam, scoring seven goals. She has won two SEA Games gold medals, competed in the Asian Cup quarter-finals and will be key in this World Cup. A tricky and versatile attacker, Thanh Nha – already a star on Vietnamese social networks – is not an expert finisher but her speed is impressive. In the friendly Vietnam lost 2-1 in Germany, she showed quick feet before scoring against the team ranked second in the world.
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At a time when naturalisation has become common in every corner of the world, this side stands out as there are no naturalised or overseas players in the team. All of the squad has trained domestically and most of the players play for Vietnamese clubs. Huynh Nhu is the only one playing abroad.
Standing of women’s football in Vietnam?
Football is the most popular sport in Vietnam, but women’s football is not on an equal footing with the men’s game. With the exception of the national team getting considerable attention, most club-level matches attract only a few hundred to 1,000 fans. Vietnamese women’s football still has a long way to go to reach professionalisation, and better commercialisation, to receive more attention.
Realistic aim at the World Cup?
Being placed in Group E with the reigning world champions, the USA, and the 2019 runners-up, the Netherlands, Vietnam are not realistic candidates for one of the top two positions. Their most likely target is to limit the number of goals conceded and to try to look for something in the other match, against Portugal, who are fellow World Cup first-timers.
Courtesy of the Guardian