Five Storylines Heading Into The World Cup

Looking for a good hook to get into the tournament? We’ve got some suggestions.

A version of this article appears in Issue 17 of Howler Magazine, which is on sale now.

The eighth edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off tomorrow. The quadrennial contest, highlighting the very best that the international women’s game has to offer, will be held in cities across France. The United States are entering as defending champions, looking to add a fourth star to the crest.

Regardless of who comes out on top, the 2019 World Cup looks to be a pivotal moment for the women’s game. With more national football associations investing in women’s soccer, explosive growth at the top levels of the club game trickling down, and the sport’s top stars gaining fame (and sponsorship deals) on equal footing to their male counterparts, this could be the year when the women’s game fully arrives.

Here are some key storylines to watch for this summer in France.

Can The USWNT Stay On Top?

The United States are defending champions, ranked #1 in the world, and are, by almost any measure, the dominant force in international women’s soccer.

But if you’ve watched them play in recent years, you might wonder how on earth that could be true.

Their performances in international friendlies have been wobbly. Their success in the SheBelieves Cup has been middling; two titles, but a second place finish in this year’s edition of the tournament, and an absolutely dismal outing in 2017. And then there’s the 2016 Summer Olympics, from which they were unceremoniously bounced by Sweden in the quarterfinals. It was the first major tournament in which the US failed to reach the semifinals.

But more worrying than the results is the fact that this team frequently does not pass the eyeball test. Their play has often been drab, unimaginative, and, at times, sloppy. Even in games they win, their performances often fail to convince.

None of this is surprising, given both the age of the squad; of the 25 players called in and available for selection for a friendly against Australia in early April, only six were age 25 or younger. There have also been criticisms— some of them perfectly valid— of Jill Ellis’ tactics and personnel management.

If the USWNT have one thing in their favor, it’s the fact that they were in a very similar place heading into the 2015 World Cup, which they went on to win fairly comfortably. If the United States triumph again this year, it will be thanks to a similar formula— superior athleticism, a strong group mentality, and moments of individual brilliant. It could very well be enough this year. But that’s an awfully shaky thing to bet on.

Europe Ascendant

If the Americans fail to win back-to-back championships this summer, the title will almost surely go to a UEFA team.

Of the nine European teams competing this summer, three— England, Germany, and hosts France— are in the top five. France managed to beat the US 3-1 in a friendly back in January, which was the Americans’ worst loss in quite some time. England roared past them to win the SheBelieves cup this year. Germany are the current (at press time) #2 ranked time in the world and, on paper at least, quite possibly the best positioned team to lift the trophy.

Even outside those three top teams, any of the European sides going to France this year could have get on a good run— and maybe even make the Americans sweat. Sweden, of course, eliminated the US from the 2016 Summer Olympics. Spain demonstrated earlier this year that they can go toe-to-toe with the #1 team in the world. Scotland lost to the US 1-0 in a friendly in November, which, all things being equal, is actually a pretty strong result.

Japan, Australia, and Brazil are still forces to be reckoned with, to be sure. But Europe is definitely surging right now. Don’t be surprised if the trophy ends up not leaving France after the final in July.

The Ballad Of Sam Kerr

Speaking of Australia.

The Matildas, the #6 ranked team in the world, are riding the wave of their Golden Generation. The likes of Caitlin Foord, Kyah Simon, and Tameka Butt have helped shape Australia into a force to be reckoned with. And with exponentially increasing support at home— from fans, from media, and from corporate sponsors— this team is going to be heading to France with nearly the entire country behind them.

But all eyes are going to be on one woman— Sam Kerr.

The Chicago Red Stars and Perth Glory striker is quickly becoming one of the biggest stars in world football— of any gender. She’s already a dominant force in the NWSL, capable of both lifting mediocre teams out of the muck and giving strong teams the winning edge they need to really compete. Her celebrity status is already rising into the same elliptical orbit as the top men’s players. And at 25 years old, she’s still very much at the beginning of the story.

There’s a growing sense that this is Australia’s moment. If they’re ever going to win a World Cup, this is the year to do it. And while they do have a strong squad that can fight on equal terms with both the world’s Top Five, they’ll be leaning heavily on Kerr to do it. She’s heading into France with the weight of an entire country on her shoulders— a burden she seems to be bearing with grace and a trademark Cheshire cat grin.

Sam Kerr is ready to conquer the world. Don’t sleep on her. Or the Matildas.

VAR, She Blows

Take a look at Soccer Twitter during matchday weekends for the Premier League, the Bundesliga, or MLS. You’ll notice a few recurring patterns; including, with increasing frequency, grousing about Video Assistant Referee systems.

The reception has been decidedly mixed among fans since it started gaining traction in both club and international football. But it’s safe to say that it’s probably not going anywhere. With VAR being implemented at the 2018 Men’s World Cup last year, it was a reasonable bet that FIFA would follow suit and bring it to France this summer.

That was confirmed in March when the FIFA Council formally approved its use at the 2019 World Cup.

So whether you support the use of VAR or you absolutely hate it, be ready to hear a lot about it.

The Case For WoSo

One thing has been proven over and over again in the women’s game— if you give teams and players the tools and resources they need to succeed, and you treat them like professionals, good things happen.

Look at all the top teams, historically and in recent years. Brazil. Japan. Australia. England. Germany. France. The United States. All invested at least something in women’s soccer. All had it played dividends— for both club and country.

Conversely, one need only look at Colombia, and the shameful discrimination players have been speaking up about in recent months, to see what can happen if you don’t back women’s soccer. They’re but one example in a global football landscape that still often treats women’s players as semi-professional at best and rec league at worst.

The thing holding women’s soccer back isn’t the quality of the play or the name recognition of its biggest stars. It’s a lack of investment— and, indeed, respect— from people (often, it must be said, men) in positions of power.

The World Cup offers the best opportunity to show what the women’s game is all about. The best players in the world, gathered in one country, for one month, all vying for the throne. For those with eyes to see, anyone who’s skeptical of women’s soccer need only tune in to a handful of games to see how incredible it can be. And how much it’s worth supporting.


Bridget Gordon is the digital editor for Howler Magazine. She’s also the deputy editor for All For XI, a website devoted to women’s soccer, as well as managing editor for Chicago soccer blog Hot Time In Old Town. She has bylines at SBNation, MLSSoccer.com, Paste Magazine, The Victory Press, and The Toast, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @thaumatropia.