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World Cup title contenders: Why they’ll win and why they won’t

The USWNT is vying for a third straight World Cup title in 2023. (Maciek Gudrymowicz/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

There is no doubt in anyone’s mind: The 2023 Women’s World Cup is going to be the most competitive the world has ever seen. With an expanded 32-team field, expect twists and turns as the exponential growth of the game in the last four years culminates in a tournament where any one of the top teams could hoist the trophy.

Let’s take a look at a few perennial contenders in alphabetical order, all of whom have the ability to win it all. One of the exciting aspects of the 2023 event is that no team is perfect, with strengths and weaknesses that should make for instant classics.

Australia

Players to watch

Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley, Mary Fowler

Why they could win the World Cup

The Matildas have arguably never looked more comfortable going into a major tournament as they have in 2023. Manager Tony Gustavsson has the team firing on almost all cylinders, with wins over Spain, England and France in friendlies just this calendar year. Australia as a group has the creative instincts and forward-facing talent that allow them to score at will against even the most seasoned backlines. They’ve integrated younger players into the squad to shore up positions of need, and have played with a more complete style than in 2019 or even the Tokyo Olympics, with a vastly improved defensive performance in recent months. Even without star forward Sam Kerr, who strained her calf in training this week, Australia grabbed a 1-0 win over the Republic of Ireland in their World Cup opener on Thursday.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

Heavy is the head that wears the host’s crown at a World Cup, with no host country winning the event on the women’s side since the U.S. achieved the feat in 1999. While the Matildas will have home-crowd advantage throughout the tournament, they’ll face an extra amount of pressure that even the steadiest teams can struggle with — the kind that also saw them falter in the 2022 Asian Cup. Australia has historically been a team that can be goaded into a shootout, with the ability to concede goals as well as score them.

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Brazil forward Marta announced the 2023 World Cup will be her last. (James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)

Brazil

Players to watch

Kerolin, Geyse, Rafaelle, Debinha

Why they could win the World Cup

Four years after Marta’s impassioned speech encouraging the next generation of Brazilian stars to commit to the hard work of playing for the crest, the Brazil roster looks as balanced as ever. Marta actually encouraged a number of her protégés to join her in the physical, highly transitional NWSL, where stars like Kerolin and Debinha have thrived. Passion for an elder is a galvanizing force, and Brazil will do everything in its power to win one for its legendary leader, who has announced this World Cup will be her last.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

Brazil’s weaknesses are almost baked into the team’s identity as much as their overwhelming strengths. They’re a creative team whose poise on the ball and tenacity in quick transition puts opponents on their heels. But they also can fall victim to their own approach, conceding more goals than they can score. It will take organization in the back combined with attacking fireworks to win a World Cup.

Canada

Players to watch

Kailen Sheridan, Vanessa Gilles, Ashley Lawrence, Jordyn Huitema

Why they could win the World Cup

Canada is a contender for World Cup gold for the same reason they are reigning Olympic champions: Their defensive spine is very hard to penetrate, and they have enough attacking discipline to grind out results. Coach Bev Priestman has done a very impressive job infusing the squad with a balance of youth and experience, with players from top clubs across the globe coming together to form a tight unit.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

The way Canada won Olympic gold isn’t foolproof, as the team used a defensive clampdown and penalty opportunities to keep games close and grit out wins. They’ve also had their fair share of injuries, giving them less time to gel on the pitch as in former years. They also haven’t had sufficient federation support to show up as their best selves, with few camps and friendlies in 2023 due to Canada Soccer’s financial distress. The team greatly struggled through the 2023 SheBelieves Cup tournament while playing under similar duress.

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Rachel Daly and England are considered one of the favorites to win it all. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

England

Players to watch

Lauren James, Kiera Walsh, Alessia Russo, Millie Bright

Why they could win the World Cup

England, the reigning European champions, still appear to be the most balanced and deepest team in the world despite suffering injuries to both their defense and their frontline. Lauren James and Alessia Russo are ready for significant roles in the attack, and the Lionesses’ midfield is second to none as orchestrated by maestro Kiera Walsh. They also have one of the most consistent managers in all of women’s international football in Sarina Wiegman, whose trademark as England’s coach has been a team playing with singular purpose.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

There are two main barriers between the Lionesses and their first World Cup title, and they go hand in hand. With a grueling 2022 schedule that included the fall-to-spring club seasons running alongside their Euros campaign, England suffered injuries to key players, namely captain Leah Williamson and star forward Beth Mead. Outside of obvious absences, the downside of great success is the fatigue that can follow. The postponed Euros were held only one year before this year’s World Cup, and top teams have always struggled with calendar back-to-back tournaments. England has had trouble scoring in recent friendlies, perhaps indicating that the gas tank is beginning to empty.

France

Players to watch

Wendie Renard, Grace Geyoro, Kadidiatou Diani, Selma Bacha

Why they could win the World Cup

France at times this year has looked like a squad with a new lease on life. After the effective ouster of longtime manager Corinne Diacre, once-alienated leaders have been brought back into the fold under new head coach Hervé Renard, who is well respected in both the men’s and the women’s game. France has long had the ability to dominate through possession and force tempo when necessary, and under Renard, they’ve introduced an urgency that can steamroll opponents.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

The FFF should have made the coaching change long before their hand was forced. Now, the roster has had less time to gel under new management than is ideal. France has also dealt with their share of injuries, most notably to Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Amandine Henry. If France has trouble unlocking their opponent’s defense for long stretches of play, they’ll need to avoid falling into bad patterns that have led to early exits in the past.

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Lena Oberdorf, Germany's midfield anchor, will miss the World Cup opener. (Sebastian Widmann/Getty Images)

Germany

Players to watch

Lena Oberdorf, Alexandra Popp, Sara Däbritz, Jule Brand

Why they could win the World Cup

In 2022, Germany turned what was supposed to be a learning experience for a young group into a run that almost ended in Euros glory. A balanced team with both rising and experienced talent, Germany has seemed to address what ailed them in 2019 by developing a much stronger spine. Lena Oberdorf is arguably the most dominant No. 6 in the world who can disrupt opposing play while resetting her team’s attack.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

When Oberdorf is not on the pitch, some of Germany’s old defensive issues persist. The center-backs can be stretched out of position, particularly in a fast-paced, highly transitional game. The team’s recent 3-2 loss to Zambia in a tune-up game is a good example of what can go wrong for the squad when Oberdorf needs to rest her legs (the midfielder will miss the tournament opener with muscle tightness). Their belief and attacking firepower never waver, but they can’t let their defensive discipline rely too much on one player who won’t play every single minute of the tournament.

Japan

Players to watch

Maika Hamano, Jun Endo, Hina Sugita, Yui Hasegawa

Why they could win the World Cup

Aesthetically, Japan has been one of the most enjoyable squads to watch in 2023. A young, hungry group with tactical flair and an impeccable ability to exploit space, Japan can progress the ball through build-up play as well as any other contender on this list. After losing ground following their 2011 World Cup win and 2015 World Cup final appearance, the roster has been completely refreshed under new management after a disappointing Tokyo Olympic campaign. Japan’s approach has been to lean into what is already working on the youth levels, and they’re beginning to see results.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

This World Cup may have simply come a little too soon for a project that needs more time. Currently, Japan is a team that makes the hard parts look easy and the easy parts look difficult, as they try to convert their dominance in between the penalty areas into comfortable wins. Japan has a few lethal attackers, particularly on the wings, but it would take a big step forward in real time for the team to overcome opponents who have had more time to prepare.

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Spain star Alexia Putellas returned to the roster from an ACL injury just in time for the World Cup. (Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

Spain

Players to watch

Alexia Putellas, Ona Batlle, Aitana Bonmati, Salma Paralluelo

Why they could win the World Cup

If you’ve been following the domestic game in Europe over the last four years, Spain’s ascendency into the upper echelon of international soccer has been all but guaranteed. Spain’s roster pulls heavily from domestic talent developed through the country’s two main powerhouses, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, who have been the premier clubs in the world in recent years. They can move the ball with ease and control games well after taking leads through passing combinations.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

Unlike France, Spain’s federation has stuck with embattled manager Jorge Vilda after a number of stars refused call-ups to the team over their unhappiness with the direction of the squad. RFEF’s refusal to concede to player concerns has already had quantifiable impact, with sure starters Patricia Guijarro and Mapi Leon choosing to sit the tournament out in protest. In short, Spain might still be talented enough to fight through adversity, but the federation’s refusal to get out of their own way greatly hampers the team’s potential.

Sweden

Players to watch

Fridolina Rolfö, Stina Blackstenius, Magdalena Eriksson, Kosovare Asllani

Why they could win the World Cup

The USWNT’s longtime adversary, Sweden has shown their blueprint for success at a number of international tournaments. In their silver-medal performance at the Tokyo Olympics, they humbled the U.S. 3-0 in their first match of the tournament. Sweden’s willingness as a group to do the dirty work defensively to disrupt opponents and send the ball the other way has been an attribute that puts them on even footing with any opponent.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

Sweden has been another team dealing with injury: Olympic star Hanna Glas is out indefinitely as she recovers from a knee injury, and fellow defender Hanna Lundkvist recently went down in the team’s final closed-door friendly. Sweden’s dependable core of elite players are also aging, which could pose problems for the team in a difficult group-stage draw.

United States

Players to watch

Sophia Smith, Naomi Girma, Trinity Rodman, Rose Lavelle

Why they could win the World Cup

The U.S. still has one of the deepest player pools in international soccer, bringing a number of strengths to their quest for a third straight World Cup title. Their attacking firepower will be difficult to match, especially on the wings. They also had room to bring creative midfielders and specialists who can beat their opponents in a number of different ways.

Why they won’t win the World Cup

Frankly, there is a reason why no team has won three straight titles before. The U.S. will be up against their own roster rotation, injuries to key contributors, positional imbalances and the challenge of forcing tempo for a full 90 minutes. There’s also the fact that the rest of the field has grown in talent with every passing year. Unwilling to commit fully to 2023 as a development year, the U.S. under Vlatko Andonovski is trying to do many things at once, sometimes without executing those things well. It could simply take one day where the mental discipline slips, and the U.S. has to go back to the drawing board.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Crypto.com Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a Change.org petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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