Canada vs. China PR, New Zealand vs. Netherlands, USA vs. Australia
By Gunnar Berndt
GROUP A: CANADA (WORLD NO. 8) VS. CHINA PR (WORLD NO. 16)
June 6 – Kickoff: 6 p.m. CT
Red Stars: Karina LeBlanc (GK), Adriana Leon (FWD), Melissa Tancredi (FWD) – all Canada
The tournament opener is key for Canada, which hopes to set the tone for a successful tournament. After finishing last in the 2011 World Cup and scoring just one goal in the group stage, the Canucks put John Herdman in charge of their program and the former New Zealand Head Coach managed an impressive turnaround that culminated in a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. That bit of success has made the Canadians hungry for more, as they aim to win not just Group A but the World Cup trophy in front of their home fans.
Whether that dream becomes a reality will likely depend heavily on the form of star striker and twelve-time Canadian Player of the Year Christine Sinclair, who is hoping for help from two Red Stars forwards, veteran Melissa Tancredi and up-and-comer Adriana Leon. Tancredi recently captained the team to a 1-0 win over England in her 100th cap. The Canadians subsequently had another strong display, as they fell by a narrow 1-0 margin away to France, a World Cup favorite. Chicago goalkeeper Karina LeBlanc is expected to serve as backup for the Canucks.
With Canadian midfield engine Diana Matheson still a question mark due to a torn ACL back in October, former Sky Blue FC standout Sophie Schmidt may be facing increased pressure to perform. The situation in the center of the park touches on a potential depth issue for Head Coach Herdman’s team, which relies heavily on its starters showing well throughout the tournament and which has thus undergone a rigorous fitness regimen.
Saturday’s match will see the clash of two very different styles, as Canada looks to use physical, aggressive play to disrupt the opposition’s possession game. China has not had any significant success on soccer’s biggest stage ever since losing in the 1999 final to the U.S. Women, which sent a wave of disappointment through the country’s sports community and saw resources rededicated to other areas.
Head Coach Hao Wei, who took over after the side failed to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, has launched an ambitious comeback attempt that has focused on developing young talent and expanding the player pool, though these efforts may not yield real results until the next cycle or possible beyond. After draws with the U.S. in December and Brazil in March, China recently showed some promise in a 2-1 away defeat to England, having previously finished last in the 2015 Algarve Cup courtesy of a penalty kick defeat to Portugal in the eleventh-place match.
GROUP A: NEW ZEALAND (WORLD NO. 12) VS. NETHERLANDS (WORLD NO. 17)
June 6 – Kickoff: 9 p.m. CT
Red Stars: Abby Erceg (DEF) – New Zealand
The tournament starts out with a potential six-pointer for these two sides, as a loss for either would mean a steep uphill climb for the remainder of the group phase, one of the opponents being host nation Canada. While the Netherlands don’t face the pressure of being expected to advance in their World Cup debut, going out early would be very disappointing for New Zealand, which has been dubbed “the best team to never have made it out of the group phase.”
With its mix of young players and veterans, the Football Ferns hold the advantage over their Dutch counterparts in terms of experience. Red Stars center back Abby Erceg, who has well over 100 caps at just 25 years old, is the team’s captain and undisputed leader in the locker room. The native of Whangarei, New Zealand, is a key reason her side reached the quarterfinals of the 2012 Olympics and has a reputation for being able to hang around in meetings with top-caliber opponents. This is evidenced by a recent 1-0 defeat away to defending World Cup champions Japan.
While the New Zealand attack is a bit of a question mark, with all-time leading scorer Amber Hearn and protégé Hannah Wilkinson likely leading the charge, many are excited about the Netherlands’ forward sensation Vivianne “Anna” Miedema. After bagging more than a goal per game in the previous three seasons of the Dutch top flight, the 18-year-old striker netted 16 times for her country over the course of a tough qualifying campaign that saw the Oranje squad truly earn its place in the World Cup. After going out at the group stage in Euro 2013, Head Coach Roger Reijners’ hopes to for greater success in Canada.
GROUP D: USA (WORLD NO. 2) VS. AUSTRALIA (WORLD NO. 10)
June 8 – Kickoff: 6:30 p.m. CT
Red Stars: Julie Johnston (DEF), Lori Chalupny (MID-DEF), Shannon Boxx (MID), Christen Press (FWD) – all USA
Despite a disappointing 0-0 tie with visiting Korea Republic in its send-off match, the U.S. enters the tournament as one of the favorites to win it all. Following failure to do so three times in a row, current Head Coach Jill Ellis was hired less than a year ago with the expressed goal of bringing home the trophy. That must-win mentality has been clearly palpable in 2015, and the Red, White and Blue have had notable success in the months leading up to the World Cup, including winning the prestigious Algarve Cup courtesy of goals by Red Stars standouts Julie Johnston and Christen Press in a 2-0 final triumph over mighty France.
The rise of 23-year-old defender Johnston, who has scored three times in her last four international games, is one of few exceptions in what has been a primarily results-oriented approach by Head Coach Ellis that has seen relatively few opportunities given to young players. Among the numerous veterans on the Stars and Stripes squad are midfielder Shannon Boxx and fellow Red Stars ace Lori Chalupny, who made her celebrated return to the international stage in December after five years away due to head injuries.
Boxx, who will be competing in her fourth World Cup, has three Olympic gold medals to her name, one of which she won alongside Chalupny in 2008.
While legends such as goalkeeper Hope Solo and goal-scoring machine Abby Wambach will no doubt figure significantly into the U.S.’ efforts in Canada, many sense imminent attacking fireworks ignited by a partnership between two superstars in their mid-twenties, the Red Stars’ Press and Alex Morgan. California native Press joined her national team’s preparations in early May as the leading scorer in the NWSL with four tallies from three matches.
Favored to win the “Group of Death,” the Americans are expected to beat an Australia side that has shown a lot of promise in recent months but is prone to inconsistency due to a lack of experience. Head Coach Alen Stajcic’s squad is powered by such up-and-comers as Samantha Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Katrina Gorry and former Chicago midfielder Emily van Egmond, all of whom are under the age of 23, with veteran leadership provided by the likes of forwards Lisa De Vanna and Michelle Heyman.
The U.S. Women can ill-afford afford to underestimate their first group opponent, which responded to a 3-0 defeat to England in its second Cyprus Cup fixture in March by downing Finland by the same score line and handing a 6-2 drubbing to the Czech Republic in the fifth-place match. Most recently, the Matildas thumped Vietnam 11-0 in their World Cup send-off game.