[UNDER-20 WOMEN'S WORLD CUP]Ten days after the end of the hugely popular Olympic women's soccer tournament, international women's soccer returns to center stage with Sunday's start of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup in Japan. The USA, which begins play Monday against Ghana in Hiroshima, will be the favorite to wrest the crown away from Germany, but it will have to get past the defending champs in a rare meeting in the group stage. Other contenders in the super seven: host Japan, 2010 Under-17 Women's World Cup champion South Korea, North Korea with five starters from its Olympic team, Brazil and Nigeria, which knocked the USA out two years ago in the quarterfinals. For a look at the favorites ...
(Note:ESPNU and ESPN3 will be covering the tournament, beginning with two games each on Sunday and Monday, including the USA-Ghana game set to kick off at 2:50 a.m. ET.)
USA.Coach Steve Swanson's team enters the finals with a 12-1-0 record in 2012 and wins over eight teams that will be playing in Japan. (The U.S. U-20s split with the U-20 Women's World Cup hosts in June.) All but one player -- high school senior Stephanie Amack -- is taking time off from the start of the college season to represent the USA in Japan. The collegians include seven players named 2012 Soccer America Preseason All-Americans.
GERMANY.Germany romped to its second world title with a six-game sweep at the Under-20 Women's World Cup it hosted two years ago, and it has every reason to believe it will be a factor in Japan. It beat Norway, 8-1, in the final of the 2011 UEFA U-19 championship. Its stars are playmaker Ramona Petzelberger, considered Germany's top young player, and Dzsenifer Marozsan, the lone holdover from the 2010 U-20 championship team.
JAPAN.Japan's youth program with an emphasis on skills has been cited as an important factor in its rise as an international power. Current national team players Yukari Kinga, Shinobu Ohno, Saki Kumagai and Mana Iwabuchi all played in the Under-20 Women's World Cup. Midfielders Yoko Tanaka and Ayu Nakada, who aplay for defending Nadeshiko League champion INAC Kobe Leonessa, are already media darlings for their good looks and tipped as future national team stars. “They can be a major contributing force to Nadeshiko Japan,” says teammate Homare Sawa, the 2011 Women's World Cup MVP. Also in the Japan squad is Kumi Yokoyama, whose amazing goal at the 2010 Under-17 Women's World Cup earned her the nickname the female Maradona.
SOUTH KOREA.South Korea was not initially included in the 16-team field, but it replaced Uzbekistan when the former Soviet republic pulled out as host and Japan replaced it. South Korea was third at the 2010 Under-20 Women's World Cup in Germany and won the Under-17 Women's World Cup two years ago in Trinidad & Tobago, where Yeo Min-Ji won the adidas Golden Shoe with eight goals. She is with South Korea in Japan but has been slowed by a knee injury.
NORTH KOREA.North Korea will be very familiar to American women's soccer fans. Five of North Korea's starters in its 1-0 loss to the USA at the Olympics are in Japan with North Korea's U-20s: O Chang Ran; Kim Nam Hui, Pong Son Hwa, Jon Myong Hwaand Yun Hyon Hi. North Korea, which finished second to Japan at the 2011 Asian U-19 championships, is a perennial contender at the U-20 level. It won the world title in 2006, finished second to the USA in 2008 and fell to eventual champion Germany in the 2010 quarterfinals.
BRAZIL.Brazil has plenty of motivation after its first-round exit in Germany two years ago. Forward Thais Guedes, considered one of the greatest Brazilian talents to come along in recent years, and midfielder Beatriz already have experience at the senior level, having played in the 2011 Women's World Cup. Forward Ketlen will be playing in her third Under-20 Women's World Cup.
NIGERIA.The Falconets knocked out the USA two years ago in the quarterfinals on penalty kicks and advanced to final, where it lost to host Germany, 2-0. The stars of the 2010 team, strikers Ebere Ojiri and Desire Oparanozie, are both back.