It speaks to the exploding growth of women’s soccer around the world that this list is as long as it is.
At the last Women’s World Cup in France in 2019, maybe five teams had a realistic shot at stopping the United States from repeating as champions. And while the top-ranked USWNT heads into the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand as the clear favorite to win another title (and become the first men’s or women’s team to three-peat in the process) the Americans can expect significantly more resistance than ever at this edition of the tournament, the first to include 32 nations.
Here are some of the countries that could prevent the U.S. from making history this summer.
USA vs. The World: What will it take to stop the USWNT at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup?
Even without injured star striker Vivianne Miedema, the Dutch have more than enough firepower to make a deep run with former UEFA player of the year Lieke Martens spearheading the attack. There’s no doubt the Oranje will be motivated: they’d love nothing more than to pay the U.S. back for beating them in the 2019 final — a chance they’ll get on July 26 in Wellington, New Zealand (9 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).
The USWNT and Netherlands will meet in both sides’ second Group E game. Favorites often slip up in group play; at the men’s World Cup last year, Argentina dropped its opener to Saudi Arabia before going on to win it all. But a Dutch upset Down Under could dent the Americans title hopes in several ways, as it would almost certainly relegate them to a second-place group finish and a likely matchup against No. 3-ranked Sweden (more on the Swedes below) in the round of 16.
2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Netherlands team preview with Alexi Lalas
Even if they don’t meet until the quarters or semis, the U.S. will probably eventually have to go through Sweden — a foe that has given them nightmares repeatedly on the global stage.
The Swedes tied the U.S. at the 2015 World Cup, then famously knocked the Americans out of the 2016 Olympics. The most recent meeting came in 2021 at the Summer Games in Tokyo, when the Blue and Yellow embarrassed the USWNT 3-0 in the group phase.
Stocked with players employed by some of Europe’s biggest clubs, Sweden doesn’t fear the U.S. The underdog role suits them well, and they’ll look to play spoiler again.
The hardest match for the USWNT at the 2019 World Cup in France wasn’t the finale. It wasn’t the extra time win over England in the semis or even that unforgettable quarterfinal triumph over the hosts in Paris at a jam-packed Parc des Princes.
No, the trickiest game came in the round of 16 against Spain, which on a scorching day in Reims outplayed the Americans for long stretches of the match before Megan Rapinoe won it with a 75th minute penalty kick.
The message was sent, though. La Roja was a team on the come-up. Four years later Spain is a legit contender, which they proved last October when a squad missing injured Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas and more than a dozen other regulars mired in a dispute with the Spanish Football Federation beat the U.S. 2-0 in a friendly.
With the Spaniards on the same side of the knockout bracket and Putellas and most of the others back on the roster, they’d relish another opportunity to prevent the Americans from even reaching the final.
2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Spain team preview with Alexi Lalas
While that epic 2019 encounter between Les Bleus and Stars and Stripes was worthy of the World Cup final, the schedule-makers didn’t see it that way. Not so this year, as the only way France and the U.S. can face off is in the Aug. 20 championship match at Stadium Australia in Sydney.
Led by its towering center back and captain, Wendie Renard, France isn’t quite as potent as it was then. It won’t have home field advantage this time.
But Les Bleus have a standout coach in recently hired manager Hervé Renard (no relation) and a deep, talented and experienced roster that is capable of winning a one-off match against anyone.
Even before and certainly after England won the 2022 Euros, the Lionesses have been seen as perhaps the greatest threat to the Americans hopes of claiming a third straight title — a sentiment that was only reinforced by the USWNT’s 2-1 defeat in a friendly in London last fall.
The feeling has lessened considerably since England lost three key contributors — playmaker Fran Kirby, forward Beth Mead and defender/midfelder Leah Williamson — to injures that will prevent them from participating in this World Cup. But the Lionesses still have Lucy Bronze, captain Millie Bright and most of the rest of the roster that won the country’s only trophy, men’s or women’s, in more than half a century.
England’s lack of championship swagger was noticeable in 2019, but the U.S. still needed an Alyssa Naeher penalty save in extra time to eliminate England in the semis. Should they meet in the decisive match Down Under, it won’t be.
How have England, France & company caught up to USWNT?
The Norwegians aren’t the powerhouse they were when they won the 1995 World Cup or stunned the U.S. in the final of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
But 12th ranked Norway will have Ada Hegerberg, the former Ballon d’Or winner who didn’t participate at France 2019 because of an equal dispute with the county’s governing body, at this World Cup. And the supporting cast around Hegerberg is good enough that it could cause the U.S. problems if the Americans run into them in the knockout stage.
The Matildas are ranked just 10th in the world by FIFA, but don’t discount the power of playing on home soil. Australia will be serenaded in raucous stadiums packed with partisan supporters throughout the tournament — an advantage that would be most pronounced at the final in Sydney, when more than 83,000 fans are expected.
And in star goalscorer Sam Kerr, the Aussies have one of the best players on the planet, a striker who can win a match by herself. Though other teams might be more talented from top to bottom, the USWNT would be forgiven for preferring any other opponent should they reach the title game. Should both the U.S. and Matildas make it that far, the Americans will be up against not just the 11 Australians on the field, but the entire country of almost 27 million.
2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup: Australia team preview with Alexi Lalas
It remains curious that the nation that sits right behind the No. 1 Americans in the FIFA ranking isn’t getting talked up nearly as much as the likes of England or France. Not that Germany will care.
Fronted by all-world striker Alexandra Popp, the Germans aren’t flashy. But what they lack in style they make up for in substance with a roster filled with women who are as technical, physical and experienced as any in the 32-nation field.
Germany also has a point to prove after losing to England in the final of last summer’s European Championship — an event it has won more than every other country on the continent combined. Adding a third World Cup title next month in Australia would more than make up for it.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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