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Womens World Cup 2015 Preview

Tim Grainey previews the Womens World Cup ahead of the tournament kicking off in Canada.

  This week we begin our two part preview of the 24 teams in this summer's Women's World Cup in Canada, along with projections for each team will finish the tournament.

With eight more teams participating than in past editions, along with the top two finishers in each group advancing out of the first round, four of the six best-placed third place teams will now advance to the knockout phase. Thus, teams who made the quarterfinals in the past directly from the first round will have to navigate an extra match in the Round of 16.

The expansion of the Finals was much needed and a boost to the global women's game, but one hopes that all Group and Round of 16 matches are competitive-without a wide gulf in scoring as in the past (i.e. Germany 11-0 over Argentina in 2007, Norway 7-2 over Ghana in 2007, Norway 7-1 over Korea Republic in 2003 and Germany 7-1 over Russia in the quarterfinals in 2003), which was a primary reason why FIFA previously held off expanding the tournament.

We could see similar blowout scores in the first round, such as when Germany faces overmatched Thailand or defending World Champion Japan plays Ecuador. This week we preview Groups A, B and C and next week will finish with Groups D, E and F. This column will report regularly on the lead-up to the Women's World Cup as well as from Canada this summer.

GROUP A-Canada, China PR, New Zealand and the Netherlands

CANADA

Canada's draw last month was not easy and does not guarantee the host with a walkover into the knockout phase, having to face China, New Zealand and the Netherlands. The Maple Leafs should still advance however, likely as Group winners. Canada's spine is strong, led by two experienced goalkeepers in Karina LeBlanc (Chicago Red Stars) and Erin McLeod (Houston Dash), top midfielders Sophie Schmidt (Sky Blue FC) and Desiree Scott (Notts County) and forward Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns). The pressure will be massive on the host but Sinclair, McLeod and winger Brittany Baxter (Timko) played in the first U-20 FIFA World Cup in 2002 that Canada hosted; that tournament--which began as very low-key--ended up being a massive boost to the domestic game, with almost 50,000 coming to their 2-1 overtime defeat to the U.S. in the final in Edmonton. The next year, the core of that team powered the full national team to a fourth place finish in the 2003 WWC under Even Pellerud's direction, now head coach of his native Norway.

Current Canadian head coach John Herdman-a native of Newcastle--has changed their traditional Route 1 game since he arrived from New Zealand's Women's National Team after the 2011 World Cup, but Canada can be overwhelmed at times by possession-oriented teams. A win and a tie over Sweden last November in California were very positive results but the key issue is to bring others into the goal scoring frame, so that teams cannot key on Sinclair, as happened in the 2011 World Cup first round in Germany, when she played with a mask to protect a broken nose and Canada finished last among the 16 teams.

CHINA PR

The Steel Roses were a powerhouse in the late 1990's but had slipped in the past few years and did not even qualify for the 2011 World Cup. They return in 2015 with a younger side; this may be a consolidation tournament for them, but their speed and ball control can cause opponents problems, particularly New Zealand and potentially Canada. Yang Li was a goal scoring force in the Asian Cup qualifiers, with six goals in five games for the Hao Wei coached side.

NEW ZEALAND

Canada head coach John Herdman guided New Zealand to World Cup berths in 2007 and 2011 and the Ferns have since gone on to the quarterfinals at the 2012 London Olympics. The Ferns are a solid squad with talented exports abroad like defenders Ria Percival (FF USV Jena in Germany), captain Abby Ercig (FF USV Jena and Chicago Red Stars in 2014, who received her 100th cap in the Oceania Cup), American-raised defender Ali Riley (Rosengard in Sweden), midfielder Katie Hoyle (Notts County) and forwards Sara Gregorius (AS Elfen Saitama in Japan) and Amber Hearn (FF USV Jena and ex-Arsenal and Doncaster Rovers Belles). Their problem traditionally has been a lack of depth and that they can chase the game for long periods with little possession. Head coach Tony Readings (a native of England who played with Wimbledon AFC before immigrating to New Zealand) was promoted from the Women's U-20 side when Herdman left. New Zealand is a good bet to make the Round of 16 as one of the four best third place sides.

NETHERLANDS

Star striker Manon Melis (Kopparbergs/Gothenburg of Sweden) finally has a world stage to display her talents. This Dutch squad could go far, building from a stable local league begun in 2007, that then integrated with Belgium's top women clubs from 2012-13 to form a cross border league (BeNe League), that has driven development for the national teams program. Melis will receive strong support from Vivianne Miedema, who scored all three goals when the Netherlands defeated Italy (3-2) in the two legs UEFA final for the last playoff spot among the four highest placed second place teams in the seven qualification groups. Miedema led UEFA qualifying with 16 goals overall in 13 matches and scored 41 times for SC Heerenveen in the BeNe League last season and has since joined Bayern Munich in Germany.

Group A Projection:

Canada and Netherlands should advance to the Round of 16. New Zealand could capture a third place spot over China and move onto the knockout phase. Canada will have strong support in their first round games (two in Edmonton and one in Montreal). Anything less than a final four appearance for the current Olympic Bronze Medalists would be a disappointment. The key match of the group is Canada versus the Netherlands on June 15 in Montreal's Olympic Stadium. The Netherlands definitely has the talent to make the quarterfinals.

GROUP B- Cote d'Ivoire, Germany, Norway and Thailand

COTE d'IVOIRE

Cote d'Ivoire captured the third World Cup spot allocated to Africa by defeating 2012 Olympic Games participant South Africa 1-0 in the third place match of the 2014 African Championships in Namibia. Les Elephantes passage was secured by a late goal (84th minute) scored by 20-year old Rebecca Guehai Ida, who plays at Juventus De Yopougon in Cote d'Ivoire. This team is primarily domestic-based but a few have done well in Eastern Europe, including dynamic forward Jose Nahi of Zvezda 2005 Perm in Russia and Tia Ines N'Rehy of ZFK Spartak Subotica of Serbia. Cote d'Ivoire should finish third in this group with a win over Thailand but probably won't pull any points off the Europeans and thus will miss a Round of 16 berth.

GERMANY

Germany faces as much pressure at home as the U.S. does, in that nothing short of a World Cup Final victory-mirroring Germany's U-20 team's triumph at the World Cup last summer in Montreal-will be welcomed by fans or federation officials.

The Germans were World Cup winners in 2003 and 2007 but surprisingly fell to Japan in the quarterfinals at home four years ago. Former FIFA World Player of the Year and goalkeeper Nadine Angerer has played in Portland and Brisbane in 2014 while still backstopping the national team. Anja Mittag-who led all Damallsvenskan scorers with 21 for Swedish champions Rosengard in 2014-is key to a strong attack. FIFA's top ranked team, Germany will be one of the more interesting teams to watch this summer, with attacking skills and a strong defense.

NORWAY

Head Coach Even Pellerud-who I once called the "Pied Piper of Women's Soccer"-returns to the country that he galvanized in his eight years in charge of the women's program. Pellerud took Canada to their first Olympics in 2008, a World Cup fourth place finish in 2003 and still has many admirers there. Pellerud went back to coaching Norway-with whom he won the second Women's World Cup in 2005--after a short spell in Trinidad and Tobago. Midfielder and captain Ingvild Stensland (Staback of Norway and formerly with Kopparbergs-Gothenberg and Olympique Lyon) brings experience (33 years) to a young side. Two 19-year-old forwards will power the front line: Caroline Hansen is now with two time UEFA Champions League winners Wolfsburg of Germany after a spell with Tyreso in Sweden and Ada Hegerberg has 19 goals in 14 matches for Olympique Lyon in France so far in the 2014/15 season, previously was with Turbine Potsdam of Germany.

THAILAND

Though this author has long been a proponent of expanding the WWC to 24 teams, Thailand could become a victim of ugly blow-outs by opponents. Thailand defeated host Vietnam 2-1 to take 5th place in the 2014 Asian Championships and the final AFC World Cup berth; they ended the tournament with two wins (the other was a 2-1 group victory over Myanmar) and with a 4-13 goals for/goals against record, after heavy losses to China P.R and the Korea Republic. Forward Kanjana Sung-Ngoen scored three of those four goals. The gap in quality from the other Asian qualifiers--Japan, Korea, China and Australia--is kilometers wide. Thai coach Nuengrutai Srathongvian will find two of the best teams in the world too much to handle and Cote d'Ivoire should overpower them as well. Thailand needs to score more than once every solar eclipse to avoid a huge embarrassment.

Group B Projection:

Germany and Norway should have a clear run to the Round of 16 against overmatched Cote d'Ivoire and Thailand. Germany is a strong favorite to make the final game. Norway and Even Pellerud will be well supported by Canadian fans and have the talent to make the semifinals. For Cote d'Ivoire, Jose Nahi should be a revelation and a solid performance should see her playing club ball in Western Europe or NWSL by 2016.

GROUP C-Cameroon, Ecuador, Japan and Switzerland

CAMEROON

Cameroon finished second to Nigeria in the African Championships, during which Gaelle Enganamouit was tied with third overall among tournament goal scorers with three. Enganamouit (who spent the 2014 season with Eskilstuna United in Sweden after playing for Serbian power Spartak Subotica) was Eskilstuna's leading scorer with 5 goals. Thirty year old Cameroon defender and captain Christine Manie (Olimpia Universitatea of Romania) is a goal scoring threat on corners and free kicks. Cameroon did qualify for the Olympics in 2012 where they fell to Great Britain, Brazil and New Zealand and only scored 1 goal while allowing 11. Cameroon should finish third in this group but that may not be enough to make the Round of 16. This tournament is important for Cameroon's progress to rival Nigeria in the African game and build a strong platform for future success, putting their players in the shop window for professional/semiprofessional club sides.

ECUADOR

Ecuador hosted the CONMEBOL Championships at 6,000 feet Quito and finished a surprising third over Argentina. They bucked the odds against CONCACAF's Trinidad & Tobago (0-0 in Quito and 1-0 in Port-au-Spain) with their winning (and only) goal in 180 minutes coming in the final minute of the Intercontinental play-in from Monica Quinteros. Ecuador is wholly home-bred but could find reinforcements through diaspora in North or South America. The head coach is 25-year-old Vanessa Arauz, who was appointed only last April and had been in charge of their U-17 side.

Arauz explained at a Ecuadorian federation event celebrating the team achieving their first Women's World Cup berth: "One of the most important and yet most difficult steps in my life was to make the decision to get involved in football, saying important is understandable, but why difficult? Maybe most of my colleagues who played and continue to play football, when they decided to do it, no one said to them: 'Hey this sport is not for men', but in my case many times I did hear: 'Hey this sport is not for women.' This has been a very hard road but also the best of all….knowing people with dreams, wanting to do the best they can and be able to see other people say 'we really can do women's football' in our country. Something that I value and respect as the law of life is teamwork and that is the main key to achieving significant victories; thanks for the support of the technical staff of the national team, and federation staff."

Canada will be a learning trip for Ecuador but their surprising qualification does help CONMEBOL in future WWC slot allocations and should spur more development at home.

JAPAN

The reigning World Champions went to Canada last fall and won two games over this summer's World Cup host. A good half of Japan's roster should come from European or NWSL-based players including: Aya Sameshima (Houston Dash) and Nahomi Kawasumi (Seattle Reign FC), the latter who was such a revelation for the NWSL Finalists in 2014. Three likely squad members have recent FA WSL experience, with two players hoping to play in their third Women's World Cup: defender Yukari Kinga and forward Shinobu Ohno (who both were with Arsenal in 2014 and returned to Japan to play with INAC Kobe Leonessa this season) and forward Yuki Ogimi of Chelsea, who recently left the club to join Wolfsburg in Germany. Nahomi Kawasumi will be instrumental in midfield along with Kozue Ando with Frankfurt. The team has a nice mix of youth and experience and should make a strong challenge to defend their crown.

SWITZERLAND

Another European debutant along with the Netherlands in Group A and Spain in Group E, Switzerland could be a good bet to make the quarterfinals in their World Cup debut. Their coach is former Germany international Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, who played in three Women's World Cups in the 1990's and won over 100 caps. A solid half of the regular squad play in the Frauen-Bundesliga, led by forward Ana Maria Crnogorcevic (FFC Frankfurt) and midfielder Vanessa Burki (Bayern Munich). Other key players with foreign clubs include: Ramona Bachmann (who played with Atlanta Beat in WPS and now plays with reigning Swedish champions FC Rosengard), Lara Dickenmann (who played collegiately at Ohio State University in the States and has been a long time mainstay at former UEFA champions Olympique Lyon) and midfielder Sandy Maendly (now with top Italian side Hellas Verona).

Group C Projection:

Japan should romp in this unique group with three World Cup debutants. Expect Japan to advance to the semifinals at least, unless they come unglued like defending men's champion Spain did in the Brazil World Cup last summer, which is highly unlikely. Switzerland at times can show their nerves and may be tested by Cameroon but the Swiss should still advance to the round of 16. Ecuador will struggle to score and will battle with Group B's Thailand for the worst goal differential in the tournament and last place overall.

 Tim Grainey is a contributor to Tribal Football. His latest book Beyond Bend it Like Beckham on the global game of women's football. Get your copy today.

Follow Tim on Twitter: @TimGrainey


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