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USWNT’s toughest opponents on path to 2023 World Cup title

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team has eight months until the 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, where they’ll face the toughest opponents on the world’s biggest stage.

As women’s soccer grows rapidly across the globe with increased investment and attendance, the upcoming tournament, which begins at the end of July, will arguably be the most competitive Women’s World Cup to date.

Since the first World Cup in 1991, the U.S. has won four titles, the most of any nation. This year, however, other teams proved they’ve caught up to the level of dominance of the reigning champions. After some wrinkles in the USWNT’s play this year and three consecutive losses for the first time since 1993, a fifth title for the U.S. is no guarantee.

The USWNT is in Group E, which includes No. 8 Netherlands, No. 34 Vietnam and one of Cameroon, Portugal or Thailand. If they make it out of the group stage, they play one of the top two teams from Group G: No. 2 Sweden or No. 14 Italy. In the quarterfinals, the U.S. would face a squad from Group A or C.

As the USWNT puts a wrap on the 2022 schedule and looks ahead to the new year, here are seven top-ranked teams they should keep in mind as they ramp up preparations for the World Cup. If the U.S. wants to be a top-four squad, these are the most-likely opponents — based on the FIFA rankings — they’ll have to beat in the group stage, Round of 16 and quarterfinals. From there, the competition will likely get even tougher.

Group stage

Netherlands

Current FIFA World Ranking: 8
World Cup Appearances: 2 (2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Runner-up (2019)
Record vs. USA: 1-1-8

The second-best team in Group E behind the U.S., the Dutch are likely to be the USWNT’s biggest obstacle in the group stage. To have a chance at clinching the first seed in their group and playing the runners-up from Group G in the Round of 16, the U.S. will have to beat the Netherlands in their second 2023 World Cup game on July 27. If the USWNT finishes second in Group E, they’ll play the first-place team from Group G.

Both teams will be looking for a more definitive scoreline than the 2-2 regulation draw in their last meeting, the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics last summer. The U.S. won that game in penalty kicks.

The Dutch had a quiet year in 2022, going 11-4-2, not far off the USWNT’s 14-3-1. Even with a deep bench, they lost 5-1 to England in a friendly over the summer and were bounced from the Euros in the quarterfinals, after which the club parted ways with coach Mark Parsons. The Netherlands ended 2022 struggling to create chances, even though they controlled possession in most of their games. Lately, they’ve been starting a lot of their attacks through the midfield, an area of the pitch the U.S. has to focus on cleaning up in the new year.

Round of 16

Sweden

Current FIFA World Ranking: 2
World Cup Appearances: 8 (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: 3rd (1991, 2011, 2019)
Record vs. USA: 7-23-12

The top two teams in the USWNT’s Group E face the top two from Group G in the Round of 16. Currently, Sweden is projected to be the best team in Group G with their No. 2 FIFA ranking.

The USWNT’s last game against Sweden, in their opening match at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, appeared to spark the era of concern for the U.S. Sweden won 3-0, handing the U.S. their first loss in two years and their first game without a goal since 2017. It was also the team’s first defeat under head coach Vlatko Andonovski.

For Sweden, their rise continued after placing third at the 2019 World Cup and going on to win silver at the Tokyo Olympics. A deep run at the 2023 World Cup could be next. One of seven teams to have qualified for every World Cup, the Swedes are a well-rounded side that is dangerous on set pieces and counter attacks.

Italy

Current FIFA World Ranking: 14
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1991, 1999, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1991, 2019)
Record vs. USA: 4-10-1

The second-best team in Group G behind Sweden, Italy is also a likely opponent for the USWNT in the Round of 16. But the two sides might as well be strangers to one another, having not met since November 2010.

The Italians didn’t end 2022 on a great note, losing three consecutive games to No. 49 Northern Ireland, No. 19 Austria and No. 9 Brazil. They struggled to create quality chances on offense, and on defense they weren’t always on the same page as opponents took advantage of the open space they conceded. On the attack, Italy’s strength comes on crosses, which the U.S. will have to review. Opponents’ runs down the flanks cost the USWNT goals against both Spain and England in October.

Quarterfinals

Spain

Current FIFA World Ranking: 6
World Cup Appearances: 2 (2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2019)
Record vs. USA: 1-3-0

The USWNT has a chance to face a team from Group C if they make the quarterfinals. Currently, Spain is the best-ranked team in the group at No. 6. The Spaniards handed the U.S. a 2-0 defeat in October, as the USWNT dropped two consecutive games for the first time since March 17.

Spain showcased its roster depth against the USWNT in October when 15 of their players made themselves unavailable for roster selection due to a public dispute with the federation over concerns about coach Jorge Vilda. Even before all the roster changes that came with that, Spain has strived to be a possession-based team, forcing opponents to play them with patience. Opportunities could come from pouncing on Spain’s mistakes in their final third, where they struggle to finish at times.

Japan

Current FIFA World Ranking: 11
World Cup Appearances: 8 (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Champions (2011)
Record vs. USA: 1-29-8

Playing in Group C, Japan could also meet the U.S. in the quarterfinals. The USWNT’s most recent game against Japan was a 3-1 win at the SheBelieves Cup in 2020, when Japan finished with more accurate passes and shots on goal but still fell.

Similar to the U.S., they lost to both England and Spain this fall. Experimenting with a couple of new formations, they’ve seemed to find the most success in 3-4-3 variations. This could pose a problem for the USWNT’s 4-3-3 if they don’t set it up in a way that offers additional support to the midfield. When Japan is feeling good, it’s difficult to disrupt their pinpoint possession-style attack.

Norway

Current FIFA World Ranking: 12
World Cup Appearances: 8 (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Champions (1995)
Record vs. USA: 19-29-2

The team with the best FIFA ranking in Group A, the second group that could cross paths with the U.S. in the quarterfinals, is Norway. The last match between the two sides dates back to 2017, when the Americans narrowly escaped with a 1-0 victory thanks to a Christen Press goal.

Norway isn’t particularly strong in possession. In a lot of ways, they’re like the U.S. in that they focus more on making quick attacks happen. They won’t be the most threatening opponent in 2023 after losing 8-0 to England this year. If the USWNT can start strong and take control of the match right away, they shouldn’t have a hard time defeating Norway in a World Cup game.

Switzerland

Current FIFA World Ranking: 21
World Cup Appearances: 1 (2015)
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16
Record vs. USA: 0-4-0

Switzerland, in Group A with Norway, is the fourth team with the best chance of playing a quarterfinal against the USWNT. They last faced the U.S. in October 2016, when the Americans dominated their two-game friendly series, 5-1 and 4-0.

This year, Switzerland has thrived at forcing turnovers in the midfield, drawing players in on the dribble and putting numbers in front of the net, where they execute tedious combination plays in tight spaces. Despite their crafty efforts, they ended the year with a 2-1 loss to Denmark to go 3-7-3 in 2022. Of the teams on this list, they played the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden in 2022 and lost all three matches.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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