Canada vs. Netherlands, New Zealand vs. China, USA vs. Nigeria
By Gunnar Berndt
(Photo credit: ISI Photos)
Group A: Canada (world no. 8) vs. Netherlands (world no. 12)
June 15 – Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. CT
Red Stars: Karina LeBlanc (GK), Adriana Leon (FWD), Melissa Tancredi (FWD) – all Canada
Despite needing just a point to be guaranteed a spot in the knockouts rounds, the Canadians can ill-afford to take their final group fixture lightly, given they will be facing Dutch opponents for whom only a win would mean certain advancement. Both teams have struggled offensively thus far in the tournament and come off disappointing results, the Canucks having had to settle for a scoreless draw with New Zealand while the Netherlands fell 1-0 to China.
With legendary goal-scorer Christine Sinclair and Red Stars forward Melissa Tancredi showing glimpses of their class in Canada’s opening two matches, now would be the perfect time for a breakout performance from either to jumpstart their national team’s attacking efforts. If the Canucks’ previous meetings with China and New Zealand are any indication, up-and-coming attacker Adriana Leon can be expected to make another appearance off the bench while fellow Chicago standout Karina LeBlanc should once again serve as backup to starting goalkeeper Erin McLeod.
Group A: New Zealand (world no. 17) vs. China (world no. 16)
June 15 – Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. CT
Red Stars: Abby Erceg (DEF) – New Zealand
High drama is almost guaranteed in this clash of two sides who have shown promise in group play and will both be aiming for three points. While a draw would be enough for China only if Canada defeats the Netherlands, Red Stars defender Abby Erceg will need to captain her New Zealand side to a victory if it is to have any hope of advancing. The Football Ferns’ recent 0-0 draw with the Canucks was a testament to the team’s defensive discipline, which, coupled with a Chinese opponent who has allowed just one goal in two games, could make for an affair characterized more by suspense than by attacking fireworks.
Given the need for three points, New Zealand’s inability to find the net in either of its opening games becomes all the more troubling. Record goal-scorer Amber Hearn, especially, will need to step up and regain her confidence after missing a penalty kick in the first half of the meeting with Canada. While it doesn’t help that China has yet to concede from the run of play in the World Cup, perhaps having no choice but to look for a goal can serve to bring out a more attacking mindset in Erceg’s Ferns and make for a surprisingly entertaining match.
Group D: USA (world no. 2) vs. Nigeria (world no. 33)
June 16 – Kickoff: 7 p.m. CT
Red Stars: Julie Johnston (DEF), Lori Chalupny (MID-DEF), Shannon Boxx (MID), Christen Press (FWD) – all USA
Sitting atop the “Group of Death” with four points from two games, the U.S. Women look like a relatively safe bet to advance to the knockout stages but shouldn’t underestimate a Nigeria side that is in desperate need of a win and impressed offensively in the 3-3 draw with mighty Sweden. The emergence of Chicago center back and reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year Julie Johnston makes for a fascinating storyline, as the 23-year-old American will be facing a stern test in the form of forwards and fellow up-and-comers Francisca Ordega and Asisat Oshoala, who received best player honors at last summer’s U-20 World Cup.
Having scored the game-winner in her World Cup debut, a 3-1 win over strong Australians, Red Stars striker Christen Press will look to find the net again after working hard for 67 minutes in a scoreless draw with Sweden. The odds of Press tallying against Nigeria are relatively good, given the Super Falcons’ defensive struggles thus far in the tournament, which saw them give up another pair of goals in Friday’s 2-0 defeat to Australia.
Depending on how the U.S.’ final group fixture plays out, Red Stars captain Lori Chalupny and legendary midfielder Shannon Boxx could see their first minutes of the World Cup, as they are expected to once again be part of the gameday roster.