Does The USWNT Really Have The Toughest Group at the World Cup?

Recapping this weekend’s World Cup draw.

By Elisha Gunaratnam

The 2023 World Cup draw took place in New Zealand on October 22, and the North American fans who tuned in to watch it got a taste of what their sleep schedules might feel like during next year’s tournament. 

For the first time in Women’s World Cup history, eight groups were formed for the tournament with only the top two sides from each qualifying for the knockout stages. 

The big story emerging from the draw is the possibility of an England vs. USA battle for gold. The two teams fell on opposite sides of the draw, meaning that if they both win their groups, they cannot meet until the final.

The USWNT is aiming to become the first team in men’s or women’s soccer to win three successive World Cups, having won the tournament in 2015 and 2019, but they face a battle to top Group E, having been paired with Netherlands in a repeat of the 2019 tournament final.

General view of graphics screens of the draw during the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 draw in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday. 22, 2022. (Alan Lee/Photosport via AP)

Following the draw, Coach Vlatko Andonovski said that the USWNT have the most challenging World Cup draw, but that this would help his squad prepare for the knockout stages of the competition: “I think that even though it seems the toughest, we’re excited because we feel it’s the type of matches that will help us stay sharp in the group stage and when we hopefully advance in the tournament.”

However, with Australia, Canada, Ireland, and Nigeria being in one group, and France, Brazil, Jamaica, and one of Chinese Taipei, Panama, Papua New Guinea or Paraguay being in another, it can be argued that Group B or Group F are in fact the “Groups of Death.” That could change depending on which teams qualify for the remaining spots that are still up for grabs. 

Here’s a list of the full results of the draw and a preview of what could unfold in Australia and New Zealand next summer.

Group A: New Zealand (22), Norway (12), Philippines (53), Switzerland (21)

New Zealand has a chance to make history on home soil. This will be the Ferns’ sixth World Cup appearance, but they have yet to pick up a win at the tournament. Now they have a chance to rewrite that narrative and even make it out of the group stage of the competition.

Ada Hegerberg had long been the asterisk when it came to Norway’s chances at big tournaments, but her return to the national team certainly didn’t go to plan in England for the Euros. Norway lost one of their group-stage games 8–0 and did not advance to the knockout stage of the competition. In what will be her first Women’s World Cup since 2015, Hegerberg will once again be the focus of a Norwegian team which has plenty of big-name players but has yet to put in a big-team performance on the world stage.

Switzerland, the second-highest ranked team in the group, will be enjoying their return to the World Cup for the first time since 2015. Switzerland will also be looking to redeem themselves in an international competition after a group stage exit in the Euro 2022 tournament. 

The Philippines are one of a number of countries who will taste World Cup football for the first time.

The competition for the top two spots in this group will likely be between Norway, Switzerland, and New Zealand, with New Zealand looking to pull off an upset on home turf and Switzerland and Norway trying to get themselves back on track after rough showings at the Euros.

Group B: Australia (13), Republic of Ireland (24), Nigeria (45), Canada (7)

Australia’s hopes of a best-ever result at a Women’s World Cup will be dependent on how the team navigates Canada, the Republic of Ireland, and Nigeria.

However, Canada certainly seems poised to be the top finisher in Group B. The Olympic gold medalists defeated Australia twice in September, have never lost to the Republic of Ireland, and have a winning record against Nigeria. The team is also on a four-game win streak.

The clash between Australia and Canada will be the final one of Group B. Australia will have a chance to prove themselves against the higher-ranked Canadians. Sam Kerr struggled mightily against the Canadian defense in September, but playing in front of a sold-out home crowd next July might give her the spark she needs to work some of her magic. 

Nigeria is an interesting team to watch in this group. They managed to come away with a tie against the Canadians earlier this year, but are entering this tournament without a WAFCON title behind them, failing to win the competition for only the third time. Michelle Alozie had a fantastic season with the Houston Dash in the NWSL, and she’ll be looking to help her national team climb a few spots in international rankings.

The Republic of Ireland will be making their very first World Cup appearance. 

One player to keep an eye on in this group is Christine Sinclair. The 2023 World Cup is likely to be the all-time leading international goal scorer’s last World Cup appearance. Canada’s best-ever result at the World Cup took place in 2003 when the team finished in fourth, and there’s no doubt that Sinclair’s teammates will be looking to send her out with a memorable finish to her already storied career.

Group C: Spain (6), Costa Rica (37), Zambia (81), Japan (11)

Injuries can change everything for a team. Spain had been tipped to win Euro 2022, but with 2022 Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas tearing her ACL right before the start of the tournament, the team looked like it was struggling to adjust its offense during the later stage of the competition. Still, to credit Spain, they did make it all the way to the quarterfinals before bowing out to England. With Putellas making her return to the squad in 2023, this should be a dangerous team. However, an ongoing dispute between several players and the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) remains unresolved and could yet affect Spain’s prospects. The players pulled off a shocking upset against the United States earlier this month, but one has to wonder how long the players and coaching staff can manage the underlying tension within the federation.

The good news for Spanish soccer fans is that Japan is likely the only threat to claim the spot in Group C. The bad news for Spanish soccer fans is that Japan has been in peak form this year. They have yet to lose a game, and they are setting themselves up for success at the World Cup by taking on top opponents like England prior to the start of the tournament. What’s interesting is that Spain and Japan will be playing each other in a friendly on November 15 in a preview of what will likely be the most exciting game in Group C.

This will be Costa Rica’s second World Cup, and in their debut in 2015, Costa Rica claimed surprise draws against South Korea and Spain in the group stage, and were only denied a place in the knockout round by a narrow defeat against Brazil. Costa Rica had a strong start to 2022 but struggled against bigger teams during the CONCACAF Championship. Measuring Costa Rica’s progress on the big stage will be fascinating, while Zambia are making their World Cup debut after finishing third in the Africa Cup of Nations this year.

With a second-round clash against the winners of Group E—likely to be the United States —waiting for the runners-up, the key for the countries in this group will be to avoid that matchup by grabbing a first-place finish for a more favorable route through the latter stages.

Group D: England (4), Group B playoff (Chile, Haiti, or Senegal), Denmark (18), China (15)

The Lionesses probably feel like they are on top of the world right now, and if they keep playing the same level of soccer that we’ve seen on display this year, they should have no trouble finishing at the top of their group at the World Cup. 

Their main competition in Group D will likely be China. Despite their relatively low world ranking (No.15), the Chinese are seasoned performers at this tournament. China will be aiming to qualify for the knockout stages for the eighth consecutive World Cup. The two countries have met just four times previously, with England winning 2–1 in their most recent encounter in 2015.

With Denmark ending a 16-year absence from the World Cup next year and the final spot in the group being taken by the winners of the Chile vs. Senegal/Haiti playoff, it is difficult to see one of these teams working their way into one of the top two spots.

England are arguably the biggest threat to the USA’s hopes of achieving a World Cup “three-peat.” Teams have been known to fold under pressure, however, so all eyes will be on how the Lionesses cope with the pressure of being one of the favorites to win the tournament.

Group E: United States (1), Vietnam (34), Netherlands (8), Group A playoff (Cameroon, Portugal or Thailand)

Group E has the scales firmly tipped in favor of the higher-seeded teams. In their first-ever World Cup, Vietnam will have to try to steal some points from both runners-up from the last World Cup.

However, the Netherlands and the United States are not the same teams that they were in 2019. The Netherlands underperformed at the European Championship this summer and are in another period of transition, having only just brought in a new coach. 

Meanwhile, even though they are the top-ranked team in the world, the USWNT’s loss to England and to a very depleted Spanish team has proven that the United States is not invincible. 

If the United States wants to achieve a historic three-peat, they’ll have to make some major adjustments between now and next July. The last time they took on the Netherlands was in the quarterfinals of the 2020 Olympics (which ended in a tie), and their last meeting before that was in the World Cup final back in Lyon back in 2019. With both teams struggling to play their best soccer in recent months, anything could happen when they meet in New Zealand next summer.

An undetermined perspective remains with one team still left to be named to the group, but as it stands, the United States could certainly be in a worse situation than Coach Vlatko is making it out to be. 

Group F: France (5), Jamaica (43), Brazil (9), Group C playoff (Chinese Taipei, Panama, Papua New Guinea or Paraguay)

France and Brazil might look like the obvious choices to move on from this group, but Jamaica could cause some serious chaos early on in the tournament. This will be Jamaica’s second World Cup appearance, and their team looks very different this time around. Jamaica had the youngest squad at the World Cup in 2019. Bunny Shaw is now an international star, and the Reggae Girlz have added Drew Spence to their roster. Jamaica had a big win over Mexico during the CONCACAF Championship earlier this year, and the squad will be looking to pull off an upset at the World Cup next year.

While France has been a consistent team over the past several international competitions, the team has been struggling with scoring, and Coach Diacre’s decision to leave Eugenie Le Sommer and Amandine Henry off of the French roster has left many fans frustrated. In contrast, Brazil is known for its ability to put the ball in the net, and have averaged 3.4 goals per game during their 10-game win streak dating back to July 9. 

France and Brazil provided a memorable round-of-16 match in the 2019 World Cup when France defeated Brazil 2–1 and Brazilian legend Marta gave a passionate plea in what many perceived to be her final World Cup. Marta missed this past season with an ACL tear, and it will be interesting to see if she returns for her sixth World Cup. If she plays in the tournament and manages to record a goal, she will break her own World Cup scoring record.

Even if Group B earns the “Group of Death” title, this group is certainly poised to be the Group of Chaos, particularly if Jamaica picks up a win against either Brazil or France. 

Group G: Sweden (2), South Africa (54), Italy (14), Argentina (29)

Sweden should win an award for consistency. They have qualified for every European Championship, Olympics, and World Cup, and have made it out of the group stage each time. They finished third in the 2019 World Cup and second in the 2020 Olympics, and will be looking to end their championship drought in 2023.  The Swedes will be hard to match in this group with their experience in major competitions.

Sweden’s biggest challenge will undoubtedly be in fellow European nation Italy, who are playing in their third World Cup. The Italians topped their group in 2019 and will be looking to replicate that success. Sweden have one of the best defenses in the world, led by Chelsea star Magda Eriksson, however, Italy only conceded one goal during its qualifying campaign, so the matchup between these two teams is going to be an exciting one. 

South Africa are playing in only their second World Cup, while Argentina have played in three—and neither have registered a win. They face what seems to be a nearly insurmountable task against Sweden and Italy to get out of the group. However, it is the World Cup, and anything can happen. 

Group H: Germany (3), Morocco (76), Colombia (27), South Korea (17)

Germany looks untouchable in this group. The depth and talent of this squad carried them all the way to the final of Euro 2022, falling just short to England, and if Alexandra Popp had been healthy enough to play, there might have very well been a different outcome. Germany have qualified for all eight editions of the Women’s World Cup and have topped their group in every appearance. Barring any major breakdowns, they should be able to replicate their group stage success easily. 

Colombia and South Korea have remarkably similar track records heading into this World Cup, with both teams qualifying for the knockout stage of the tournament in 2015, but failing to make it out of the group stage in 2019. Since the teams have found themselves in the same group as Germany, it is likely that only one of them will advance. This means that the most interesting game in this group will likely be the matchup between Columbia and South Korea.

Morocco will be making their first appearance in the World Cup. The team has been preparing for the tournament by taking on powerhouses like Canada, and regardless of how they do at the tournament, they will make history as the first Arab nation to compete in the competition. This history-making moment will be another mark of growth for the women’s game and the success of African women’s football.

With the conclusion of the draw, the announcement of the tournament mascot, and 29 teams having locked in their spots, the 2023 World Cup doesn’t seem so far away. Prior to the draw, FIFA president Gianni Infantino stated that FIFA is hoping for some two billion viewers to tune into the 2023 World Cup, and with a record-breaking 32 teams taking part in the tournament, viewers are going to be in for a treat.

Click to see the full schedule for the 2023 World Cup.

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