Women's World Cup, the biggest yet

Young standouts Sophia Smith (left) and Trinity Rodman (right) join Rose Lavelle, one of the stars of the 2019 World Cup, in the USWNT's bid for an unprecedented third straight world title. Photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos

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The 2023 Women's World Cup begins on Thursday in Australia and New Zealand.

It will be the biggest tournament ever with 32 teams, including eight making their debuts, and more prize money ($110 million).

The World Cup shapes up to be the most open yet with the two-time defending champion USA among at least half a dozen teams with legitimate shots at lifting the trophy when the final is played Aug. 20 in Sydney.
Differences in time zones between Australia and New Zealand and the United States — 12-16 hours ahead of Eastern time, depending on the city — make U.S. viewing audiences for the matches that will air on Fox, FS1, Telemundo, Universo and Peacock hard to predict — Thursday's kickoff times are 3 a.m. ET and 6 a.m. ET — but the 2023 Women's World Cup has received unprecedented buildup, reflecting the explosion of interest in women's soccer.

Here are some of the major storylines around the tournament:

1. Quest for three-peat. The USWNT will attempt to achieve what no team — men's or women's — has done, and that's win three straight World Cup titles.

Italy's Azzurri won the 1934 and 1938 World Cups but did not make it out of the group stage in 1950 when the World Cup resumed after World War II. In 1949, seven national team players perished in a plane crash that killed the entire Torino team.

Brazil was World Cup champion in 1958 and 1962 but did not make it out of the group stage in 1966. Pele was beaten up so badly in the two games he played against Bulgaria and Portugal that he thought of quitting. "Soccer stopped being an art," he later said.

On the women's side, Germany won in 2003 and 2007 but could not make it three in a row when it hosted in 2011. More than 17 million people — nearly a quarter of the German population — watched on television as the hosts fell, 1-0, in overtime to Japan, which went on to win the title. Left on the German bench was Birgit Prinz, the Women’s World Cup’s then-career-leading scorer with 14 goals.

The USA beat Japan, 5-2, in the 2015 final and the Netherlands, 2-0 to repeat as world champion four years later. It hasn't lost a World Cup match in more than 12 years, but will face its toughest challenge this summer.

The USA struggled at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago, settling for the bronze medal after losses to Sweden (3-0) in their opener and Canada (1-0) in the semifinals. Last fall, it lost three games in a row for the first time since 1993 when it fell to England, Spain and Germany.

Those losses to five different teams underscore the increasing competition in the women's game.

"The competition’s not going to be any easier than the previous ones and maybe even harder,” says U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski. “And we keep hearing that how the competition is getting closer and how it’s getting tougher. I actually think the competition started getting tougher 25 years ago."

The post-2019 problems also underscore just how hard it is to keep a team together. Just three starters from the 2015 and 2019 championship games are still with the USA: Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan.

Ertz just returned to the team, so her role in the team — in midfield or at center back — is unclear. Rapinoe will be a reserve, while Morgan, if healthy, is the only one of the three veterans guaranteed to start.

2. Matilda fever. At least half a dozen teams have a shot at dethroning the USA. The hot pick is co-host Australia, which drew a record crowd of 50,629 fans in Melbourne — the largest ever on home soil for the Australian women's team — for Friday night's 1-0 tune-up win over France.

The Matildas' opening match on Thursday against Ireland at 80,000-seat Stadium Australia in Sydney is sold out. (FIFA originally planned on playing the game at the Sydney Football Stadium, but its capacity — 42,500 seats — was too low to meet the demand for tickets.)

Australia is coached by Tony Gustavsson, an assistant on the USA's 2015 and 2019 World Cup championship teams. It has taken several years for the Swede to build up the Matildas, losers to the USA in the bronze-medal game at the Tokyo Olympics.

But in the last year, Australia has beaten seven teams that will be in the World Cup, including Sweden, England, France and Spain, ranked 3-6 in the world in the latest FIFA rankings.

"Tonight represented the final step in that process and that journey in preparing for the World Cup," Gustavsson said after Friday night's win over France. "We have five wins in a row against European opposition now; four top-10-ranked teams in a row, including three clean sheets against Sweden, England and France. We've kept a clean sheet in six of the last eight games. We know we can score against anyone.

3. Young stars. That the USA will even be a contender is due to its long pipeline of young talent.

It lost its two most dangerous attackers when Catarina Macario and Mallory Swanson both suffered knee injuries.

No problem.

The U.S. attack will be led by 22-year-old Sophia Smith, the 2022 NWSL MVP with the champion Portland Thorns, and supported by 21-year-old Trinity Rodman, the 2021 NWSL Rookie of the Year with the champion Washington Spirit, and 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who was playing on a boys team as recently as last year.

Smith and Thompson started on the wings in the USA's send-off match against Wales, and Rodman came on for Morgan after the break and scored both goals in the 2-0 win, suggesting that even Morgan's spot in the lineup is no sure thing.

Smith, Rodman and Thompson are among 14 U.S. players playing in their first World Cup, marking the greatest turnover from one tournament to the next in the USWNT's history.

Youngsters will play major roles on both title contenders and long-shots.

One year ago, Germany finished second to host England at the Euros, and a big reason was the play of Lena Oberdorf (below). Few players have dominated a midfield like the 21-year-old Wolfsburg player does. At the World Cup, she'll be joined by 20-year-old winger Jule Brand, her Wolves teammate who was one of the most outstanding players of last season's UEFA Champions League.

At 16, Mary Fowler did not get off the bench when Australia fell in the round of 16 at the 2019 Women's World Cup in France. Four years later, she will be one of the go-to players along with superstar Sam Kerr for the co-host Matildas.

Fowler was still 16 when she signed a contract with French club Montpellier and now plays for Manchester City. Many of the young players to watch at the 2023 World Cup were snapped up by European clubs at young ages and have benefited from the competition in Europe's top leagues.

American fans will probably remember Melchie Dumornay from her dazzling play for Haiti at the 2022 Concacaf W Championship. The 19-year-old midfielder spent the last two seasons with French club Reims and will join French champion Lyon next season. She is among 14 Haitians who play in France.

Linda Caicedo, 18, moved to Real Madrid in January after a having season to remember for Colombia in 2022, winning the best player award at the Copa América Femenina, where Las Cafeteras finished second and helping Colombia reach the quarterfinals of the U-20 World Cup in August and the final of U-17 World Cup two months later.
4. U.S. connection (players). According to a league release, the NWSL will have 60 players represented at the World Cup. Sixteen national teams will have NWSL players, including the USA with 22 players — all but co-captain Lindsey Horan, who plays for Lyon — Brazil with seven and Canada with six.

American representation goes all the way back to the WPS, where Christine Sinclair and Marta, who will both be playing in the sixth World Cups, were teammates on back-to-back championship teams, FC Gold Pride in 2010 and the Western New York Flash in 2011.

The 2011 Flash is one of the greatest teams ever assembled. Five alumnae — New Zealand star Ali Riley, Swedish veteran Caroline Seger, Morgan, Sinclair and Marta — will be competing at the 2023 World Cup.

FIFA lists World Cup players having current affiliations with 17 different U.S. colleges, ranging from Florida State with players on three different teams — Jody Brown (Jamaica), Onyi Echegini (Nigeria) and Heather Payne (Ireland) — to Jones County College, a Mississippi junior college with Panama's Hilary Jaen (a 2023 transfer from South Alabama).

The youngest player at the World Cup will be New Jersey resident Casey Phair, who turned 16 on June 29.  She was born a Korean mother and American father and plays for PDA. She was called up to the U.S. WYNT U-15s in 2022, but chose to play for South Korea, becoming the first mixed-race player of any gender to represent South Korea.

More than three teams worth of players at the World Cup — 76 in all — were born in the United States. That includes all 23 USWNT players, 18 players on the Philippines team and 11 Jamaican players.

5. U.S. connection (coaches). Besides Andonovski, eight other World Cup head coaches have ties to the United States.

The head coaches of both co-hosts — New Zealand's Jitka Klimkova and Gustavsson — worked in the U.S. women's national team program. Klimkova, the former U.S. U-20 WYNT coach, is coaching Football Ferns with the help of Tracey Leone (who coached the USA to the 2002 Under-19 Women’s World Cup title) and Keri Sarver (Internationals SC girls director).

Brazil's Pia Sundhage coached the USA to gold medals at the Olympics in 2008 and 2012. Norway's Hege Riise joined her coaching staff in 2009.

Nigeria's Randy Waldrum also serves at the women's coach at Pitt. He won two NCAA women's titles with Notre Dame (2004 and 2010) and was the first college head coach to move the NWSL with the Houston Dash for its launch. Ireland's Vera Pauw succeeded Waldrum at the Dash.

Jamaica's Lorne Donaldson is the executive director at Real Colorado, where he coached Smith and Swanson, the young U.S. stars.

England's Sarina Wiegman spent one season as a player at North Carolina, where she won the 1989 NCAA title playing alongside Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Carla Overbeck and Shannon Higgins-Cirovski.

6. New prize money. Cries of "Equal pay! Equal pay!" rang out from fans inside Lyon's Groupama Stadium as the USA celebrated its 2019 victory over the Netherlands.

The USWNT players had months earlier filed their gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer. They lost the equal-pay portion of the suit in Federal court, but the federation later settled with the players for a total of $24 million.

That settlement was conditional on USWNT and USMNT players reaching an agreement with the federation on a new collective bargaining agreement equalizing pay for both national teams. It resulted in an historic agreement making the USWNT the first and only women's national team in the world to pool FIFA prize money earned from men's and women's World Cups with its men's counterpart and share the money equally (10 percent is retained by the federation).

Recently, FIFA agreed to pay prize money directly to players — ranging from $30,000 per player on the 16 teams that are knocked out after the first round to $270,000 for the winners — as part of the $110 million pool of money on the 2023 Women's World Cup.

That's more than three times the $30 million FIFA paid out at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France but still only a fraction of the $440 million awarded at the 2022 men's tournament in Qatar.

“FIFA will still only offer women one-quarter as much prize money as men for the same achievement,” Australia's Matildas said in a video released on Monday to protest to discrepancy.

7. Federations under fire. Unequal pay is just one of the many issues players have been fighting.

FIFA subsidizes training opportunities for teams that have qualified for the Women's World Cup, but some federations can't get their act together to organize camps and matches during FIFA windows.

In a statement issued last month, Jamaica's Reggae Girlz called out their federation: “On multiple occasions, we have sat down with the federation to respectfully address concerns resulting from sub-par planning, transportation, accommodations, training conditions, compensation, communication, nutrition, and accessibility to proper resources."

Last fall, 15 Spanish players asked not to be selected for La Roja to protest working conditions and the treatment they received from Coach Jorge Vilda. Three of the players have returned to the team for the World Cup, including Barcelona's Aitana Bonmatí, one of the favorites for the 2023 Ballon d'Or.

French coach Corinne Diacre was fired in March after a player revolt led by captain Wendie Renard threatened the participation of many players at the World Cup. Diacre was replaced by Herve Renard (no relation), who coached Saudi Arania at the Qatar World Cup.

He says the spirit in the Bleues' camp is now perfect. Back with them is Amel Majri and 9-month-old daughter, Maryam, marking the first time a French player has brought her child to the World Cup.

Waldrum, the Pitt women's coach in charge of Nigeria's Super Falcons, went so far as to criticize his own federation for the lack of preparations and interference in the selection process that cost him assistant Lauren Gregg, another longtime veteran of the USWNT coaching staff.

He complained to Pittsburgh's Sounding off on Soccer podcast that he had "less days than a college preseason" to get the Super Falcons ready for the World Cup. "It blows my mind," he said, "because we’ve known this since last year that we had qualified."

Ademola Olajire, a spokesperson for the Nigeria Football Federation, responded to Waldrum by calling him an “incompetent loudmouth” and “Mr. Blabbermouth Waldrum.”

Rapinoe, who led the public fight with U.S. Soccer, acknowledged improvements have been made but there was still lots of work to do.

“It’s infuriating,” she said at U.S. Soccer's Media Day. “It just like doesn’t have to be like this."

Oberdorf Photo: Photo by A2M Sport/DPPI/Icon Sportswire

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