The USWNT's World Cup preparation will begin at their next camp in January. (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.