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Womens World Cup 2015 Preview (Part II)

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

This week we conclude our two part preview of the 24 teams in this summer's Women's World Cup in Canada by examining Groups D, E and F, along with projections for each team. This column will report regularly on the lead-up to the Women's World Cup as well as from the tournament this summer in Canada.

Group D-Australia, Nigeria, Sweden, United States

AUSTRALIA Australia has consistently qualified for the quarterfinals at the last two World Cups. They could make it three in a row but it will not be an easy route, as they would likely advance as a third place qualifier, after being drawn in "The Group of Death." The Matildas are much more settled than last year, when player turmoil ahead of the Asian Cup last year forced the federation to dismiss Dutch coach Hesterine de Reus, whose brusque style offended some players. Sydney FC coach Alen Stajcic, who won two W-League Championships in the Harbor city, took over as interim coach on short notice, and guided the team to the final game in the Asian qualifiers. Stajcic has since been confirmed as the full-time director and left the W-League side. Lisa De Vanna, Kate Gill and Sam Kerr (if recovered from a knee injury she incurred last month with Perth Glory) are key for the offense. Overall, this is a younger squad with a tough assignment but the stable coaching acumen of Stajcic should help provide the stability to be competitive in this very difficult group.

NIGERIA

The 2014 African Confederation Champion, Nigeria finished second to Germany in last summer's U-20 championships in Canada and the nation's women's national team program could be hitting a purple patch. Nigeria has the talent to easily slip into the quarterfinals or even beyond. Desire Oparanozie (Guingamp, France) and Asisat Oshoala (River Angels in Port Harcourt, Nigeria) scored the goals for Nigeria with a 2-0 win over Cameroon in the African Final. The 20-year-old Oshoala finished with four goals in that tournament, one behind teammate Desire Oparanozie. Oshoala won the Golden Ball as the African Championship's best player, to go with her Golden Ball award from the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Canada last summer. She also won the Golden Boot in Canada as the top scorer. If Nigeria can avoid turmoil over arrangements, visas and bonuses which have plagued them in the past, then they have a very good chance for a semifinal spot next summer, a laudable achievement for a nation that in six previous World Cup appearances advanced beyond the Group Stage only once, losing in the quarterfinals in the U.S. in 1999.

SWEDEN

Sweden's side can be mercurial at World Cups but with Pia Sundhage coaching her native country, they will be a force and no one understands the American's play more than her, having guided the U.S. for 4 years, gaining second place in Germany in 2011 and two Olympic Gold medals. They have veteran experience in 31-year-old forward Lotta Schelin (Olympique Lyon), 35-year-old defender Charlotte Rohlin (who has played who entire career at Linkopings FC but once turned down an offer from Philadelphia Independence in WPS) and 37-year-old defender Teresa Sjogran (FC Rosengard), who won her 200th cap in Sweden's 2-1 loss to Germany last October and now has the third most caps among Europeans behind Germany's Birgit Prinz and Denmark's Katrine Pedersen.

Young forwards Sofia Jakobsson (24--Montpellier Herault in France) and Kosovare Asllani (25--Paris St. Germain) could have breakout tournaments. Forward Marija Banusic (19) recently transferred from Kristianstads DFF to Chelsea for the 2015 season and should make the final squad. Twenty-one year old midfielder Malin Diaz of Eskilstuna United could be a new star on the rise; she has previously played at Tyreso and AIK.

UNITED STATES

Abby Wambach, the all-time leading goal scorer-men's or women's-in international history with 177, is locked and loaded on a World Cup title, which she has never won and which the U.S. has not held since the last century. She has been solid in NWSL over the past few years for her hometown Western New York Flash (Rochester), with 17 goals and 12 assists in only 29 games over two seasons. The American's success depends on Wambach, for her goals on the field and her leadership off of it. WWC 2011 breakout star forward Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns) has struggled with injuries in NWSL but when healthy, can tear defenses apart with her speed. Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash) has scored the winning goal for the Americans in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Finals and is a key force as an offensive midfielder, supported by winger Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign) and Lauren Holiday (Cheney-a NWSL champion in 2014 with FC Kansas City) in the center. The U.S. will have sizeable support coming across the border for their first round games in Winnipeg and Edmonton. If they have a hiccup, it will probably be in their tough first round group.

Group D Projection:

U.S. and Sweden should advance in the top two positions. Anything less than a Finals Victory in Vancouver on Friday July 5 will be considered a failure and likely cost head coach Jill Ellis her job. Sweden has similar pressure-having finished third in 2011-but has the coach to lead them to the final for the first time since 2003, which is a realistic goal for this side. Australia may be a World Cup cycle away from improving on their two consecutive quarterfinal appearances (when there were 16 teams). Nigeria is much improved; a stable pre-tournament camp could see them pip Australia for third and a round of 16 spot. If Nigeria plays up to its potential, it could surprise some favorites in the knockout phase.

Group E Brazil, Costa Rica, Korea Republic, Spain

BRAZIL

Brazil made a splash last month by defeating and tying the U.S. in an invitational tournament in Brasilia. Marta scored all the goals in a 3-2 victory over the Americans. 2014 International Club Champion and 2013 and 2014 South American Libertadores Cup Club Champions Sao Jose Esporte Clube should provide a number of players for Canada. NWSL teams have signed five dozen Brazilian National Team pool players in recent weeks. Houston Dash brought in a pair of veteran Brazilians: midfielder Rosana (who won a WPS title in 2009 with Sky Blue FC and a UEFA Champions League title with Olympique Lyon in 2012) and defender Poliana from São José.

Boston Breakers added forward Ketlen Wiggers from Centro Olimpico in Brazil (who played for Vittsjo in Sweden's Damallsvenskan in 2013), forward Andressa Alves da Silva from Sao Jose in Brazil (who scored three goals in last fall's Copa America) and Brazilian midfielder Francielle Manoel Alberto, also from Sao Jose (who was with Sky Blue in 2009 and won an Olympic Silver Medal in 2008.) England has traditionally not been a destination for Brazilians looking to play in European leagues, but this could change after 2015 if the squad sparkles, as they did in 2007, when they were finalists.

COSTA RICA

Costa Rica was a revelation in last fall's Gold Cup (CONCACAF Regional Championships), finishing second and beating Mexico handily 1-0 in their opening match, when the score belied their dominance. Shirley Cruz, who has won UEFA titles with Lyon and is now with PSG, is a key offensive midfielder while the Gold Cup scoring sensation was Carolina Venegas, who should find a club home in Europe after the finals. Costa Rica may struggle some, but playing two other Latin style teams will be to their benefit. They will have a new head coach however, as Carlos Avedissian left earlier this month to take a job as Puerto Rico's director of both their men's and women's program. The Ticas promoted Amelia Valverde to head coach; Valverde had been with the national program since 2011 and had assisted the full national team and the U-20 national side.

Valverde said: "I'm very aware of the commitment and the responsibility that goes with this…We are going to give it our all in taking advantage of the time that we have in order to prepare the team….It gives me a lot of satisfaction that they are have trust in my work."

The Ticas hope to mirror the men's success in the 2014 World Cup, when they surprisingly made the quarterfinals. Just making the finals is a huge boost to the women's program in a country that successfully hosted the women's U-17 World Cup last summer, averaging almost 9,000 per game including over 29,000 at the National Stadium for the Japan-Spain final. A Round of 16 spot is probably beyond them this time, but the experience will help cement their spot within CONCACAF's top four teams-behind the U.S., Canada, and Mexico, with Caribbean Nations such as Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Haiti attempting to chase them down.

KOREA REPUBLIC

Korea Republic doesn't have the pedigree of the People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), banned by FIFA from participating in the 2015 qualifiers after five of their players tested positive during drug tests at the 2011 WWC Finals. Ji So-Yun was named 2014 FA WSL player of the year after scoring 9 goals in 19 matches for Chelsea. Park Eun-sun is a dangerous scorer who scored six goals in five games at the Asian Cup, where Korea Republic finished fourth. Eun-sun, 27, was 15 when she was on their 2003 Women's World Cup side and was a top scorer in the 2004 AFC U-19 championship, but then left the game for five years. The team will play quickly but is probably a World Cup cycle away from breaking into the top eight.

SPAIN

Spain has leveraged success at the youth level, including two UEFA U-17 Championships in 2010 and 2011, third place in 2013, runners-up in 2014, a 2010 U-17 FIFA World Cup third place finish in Trinidad and runner-ups to Japan last year in Costa Rica, to build a solid team that much deserved its inaugural World Cup spot in Canada. A powerful offense could be comprised of forwards Vero Boquete (1 FFC Frankfurt/Portland Thorns), midfielder Sonia Bermudez and forward Vicki Losada (who both played with Western New York Flash in 2014 and returned to FC Barcelona after the season), forward Natalia Pablos (Bristol Academy in 2013 and 2014 and has joined Arsenal Ladies for this season) and forward Jennifer Hermoso (FC Barcelona and formerly with Tyreso in Sweden). This could be one of the more exciting teams in the World Cup and a good bet for a quarterfinal spot.

Group E Projection:

A must see match in the first two weeks of the tournament is Brazil versus Spain in Montreal, that could be a goal filled shootout, with Brazil's impressive forward Marta facing former Tyreso teammates Vero Boquete and Jennifer Hermoso. Both sides should easily make the Round of 16. Costa Rica should edge Korea Republic for third but may miss out on a Round of 16 spot due to fewer goals than the other third place teams.

Group F-Colombia, England, France and Mexico

COLOMBIA

Colombia is arguably the most consistent side in South America the past four years, given Brazil's yo-yo approach to their national team development at times. Forward Yoreli Rincon recently signed a three year contract with ASD Torres CF of Italy. Long anointed by some as the next Marta, this could be her chance to increase her visibility on the world stage. Colombia, with a strong defense led by central defender and captain Natalia Gaitan (ex-University of Toledo and Houston Aces in the amateur WPSL), needs to boost their offense, as shown by their 2-0 defeat last November to Mexico in the final of the Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz, Mexico.

FRANCE

France finished fourth at both the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics. Head coach Philippe Bergeroo has led his team to wins in 2014 over Germany, Brazil, Sweden and group F opponents England. Louise Necib (Olympique Lyon) is one of the most accomplished midfielders in the world. France should make the quarterfinals at least and, depending on the pairings, could again make the last four. France will be a popular side in French-speaking Eastern Canada. They will open in Moncton, New Brunswick for two games versus England and Colombia and finish Group F against Mexico in Ottawa (bordering Quebec). If they win the group, they will play three consecutive games in Montreal should they make the semifinals. France's U-20 World Cup squad, which finished third last summer in Canada, was a good sign for France's future as a world leader in the game.

ENGLAND

England has been a revelation under 32-year-old Mark Sampson (a native of Wales who previously coached Bristol Academy) who took over from Hope Powell after the London Olympics and brought a new energy to a national team situation that had gone quite stale. After quarterfinal spots the last two World Cups, a semifinal berth in Canada is a natural expectation. The Three Lions are strong at goalkeeper with American-raised Karen Bardsley (Manchester City), and long-time forwards Eniola Aluko (Chelsea) and evergreen 34-year-old Kelly Smith (Arsenal), who all played in WPS. Forward Lianne Sanderson (who joined Arsenal for a year from Boston Breakers ahead of the World Cup) is a strong addition after years in the national team wilderness.

Jodie Taylor (Washington Spirit in 2014 but traded last week to the Portland Thorns, coached by Englishman Paul Riley) was ignored for years by Powell but could be a force off the bench. Anita Asante in defense had a tremendous season in 2014 with Swedish champions FC Rosengard but the FA WSL teams should provide the balance of the squad; a reward for the Federation forming a women's semiprofessional league before the 2011 World Cup.

MEXICO

Mexico had a strong 2011 WWC, with draws against England and New Zealand, but a horrid 2014 Gold Cup, barely finishing in third. Bringing back lighting-rod goal scorer Maribel Dominguez, who chose to opt out of last fall's Gold Cup because of fitness concerns while playing and coaching at a Mexican University, should help. Charlyn Corral, who now plays in Finland's top women's league-the Naisten Liiga-for Merilappi United after two seasons at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, has become a very dangerous forward. Monica Ocampo (Sky Blue FC) can slot in anywhere on the frontline or midfield. Arizona-raised Arianna Romero was transferred to Washington Spirit recently after a strong season with the expansion Houston Dash. Goalkeeper Cecilia Santiago debuted in 2011 at the World Cup as a 16-year-old but can have lapses at times.

This team has the talent to play well in Canada but a poor WWC-anything less than a Round of 16-could spell the end for head coach Leo Cuellar and his son Christopher, who is an assistant and in charge of the U-20 side. Leo has taken Mexico to the 1999 and 2011 World Cups and the 2004 Olympics but one gets the sense that an overreliance on American-raised players has ultimately held back the development of local talent. A 2-0 win over Colombia to win the Central American and Caribbean Games in Veracruz in late November should be a boost in confidence.

Group F Projection:

Another tough group-France and England should qualify easily as the top two teams. Colombia was impressive in their debut in 2011 World Cup and may surprise Mexico for third and a round of 16 berth. France is expected to make the semifinals again, but England has the talent and the coaching savvy to make a legitimate run to the last four. This could be the year for the English to bring home a World Cup medal.


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