Soccer  

Women’s World Cup 2023 first look as USWNT chase three-peat

The 2022 men’s World Cup in Qatar came to a close in the most dramatic way imaginable. Argentina lifted their first trophy since 1986 after beating France on penalties, with Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe going toe-to-toe in what will almost certainly go down as the best World Cup final in history. But while we take some time to reflect on both the good and the bad events of 2022, we can also turn our attention to the next big thing: the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Everything is lining up for the tournament, which kicks off in Australia and New Zealand on July 20, 2023, to be the most exciting to date, with European champions England’s in line to threaten the United States women’s national team in their defence of the world crown they claimed in France in 2019.

The 2023 Women’s World Cup kicks off with co-hosts New Zealand facing Norway at Eden Park in Auckland, before co-hosts Australia get underway against the Republic of Ireland in Sydney on the same day. What are the key things to look out for in the buildup? And what will the tournament have in store?

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February playoffs

We can’t talk about the tournament without acknowledging that there are still three open spots, which will each be determined via an international playoff in February.

The playoff tournament will be held in New Zealand as a test event for the World Cup, and will feature 10 teams split into three groups: two groups of three teams, and one group of four, drawn based on their seeding from qualification. Each group is played out as its own mini-tournament, with the winner of each group qualifying for the big show in July.

Group A features a semifinal between Cameroon and Thailand, with the winner playing Portugal in the final. Group B plays host to Senegal and Haiti, who will go head-to-head to determine who faces Chile in their final. Finally, Group C will see two semifinals take place — Chinese Taipei vs. Paraguay, Papua New Guinea vs. Panama — with the winners of each playing off in the final to punch their ticket to the World Cup.

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Herculez Gomez and Sebastian Salazar discuss the USWNT’s clash against England in October.

More teams than ever before

This edition of the Women’s World Cup will be the first to be played with 32 teams. Previous tournaments have featured 24 teams, with the best third-place teams from the group making it through to the round of 16. In 2023, only the top two teams in each group will progress.

The expanded field means we’ll see several nations making their World Cup debut, with Morocco, Philippines, Republic of Ireland, Vietnam and Zambia all taking part for the first time, and more potential debutants still looking to qualify. Furthermore, the event will mark the first FIFA tournament — men’s or women’s — in which Philippines have competed.

The 2019 Women’s World Cup was watched by more than 1 billion people around the world, with the final between the USWNT and Netherlands reaching an average of 82.2 million viewers, which was 56% more than the 2015 final. And, off the back of the success of the 2022 Euros, which saw a record viewing audience of 365m, we can expect the women’s game to continue to push boundaries in 2023. However, with the tournament taking place in Australia and New Zealand, the time difference (anywhere from eight to 11 hours ahead of GMT) could impact viewership numbers, making this event a big test for the fandom of women’s football.

The expansion to 32 teams was a necessary step for the development of the women’s game, and it will undoubtedly spur on further growth for smaller national teams in years to come. However, we can expect the parity of teams to drop slightly from the 2019 World Cup. While there were some blowout scorelines, such as the US’ 13-0 win over Thailand in their opening group game, the 2019 tournament broadly saw those gaps close significantly between nations. This gap might widen again as new teams enter the fray, but that won’t last.

A USWNT three-peat? Is it coming home, or will it be stolen from the favourites?

Despite a poor run of results in 2022, it’s hard to argue that heading into a World Cup year, the U.S. aren’t still the favourites. The four-time champions are looking to win a third title in a row and while their dominance on the world stage is daunting, the 2023 edition should bring their biggest challengers down under.

For a start, the Lionesses of England have dominated in global competition over the past year. From their historic win at the Euros, lifting the trophy on home soil in front of a record crowd, to beating the U.S. in an exciting clash at Wembley in October, the team have not lost in 26 games since Sarina Wiegman took over as manager and have every intention of bringing the World Cup back to England.

Speaking on their unbeaten run, Wiegman told reporters last week: “You can’t beat that — you can only get equal on that. We want to win every game, but we talk about how we can improve the next game … Of course, we want to break all the records, but breaking a record doesn’t say what you have to do,” Wiegman added.

In an interview with ESPN in November, England and Barcelona defender Lucy Bronze said that women’s football has grown beyond “just one team” when asked about the significance of the USWNT form, adding that the US still have the “wealth and experience” to “know how to win.”

“[The USWNT] are going through a bit of a change at the minute and they also had a lot of players injured who did not play against England or Spain,” she said. “But the thing with the US is you can never rule them out. They have that mentality they have developed over a number of years that the likes of England and Germany probably have not had for as long.

Bronze also noted that while the Lionesses and the USWNT are heavily talked about, there are other nations that will challenge for the trophy in 2023. “Canada [winning] the Olympics, Australia with the home support like England and Netherlands in the last two Euros. So, there are plenty of teams in the running, but [England] will just be focused on what we are going to do, what we can achieve.

“We won the Euros, we have many things we can still improve on. If we can do that, we have a good chance at the World Cup.”

LGBTQ+ rights likely to be highlighted

The 2022 men’s World Cup highlighted significant issues in Qatar ranging from human rights abuses and deaths of migrant workers to suppression of LGBTQ+ rights. The controversies intensified when, ahead of England’s opening match against Iran, FIFA banned countries from wearing the OneLove armband — which eight European nations had agreed on wearing to protest against all forms of discrimination.

It is no secret that women’s football is a more open and inclusive environment, with a number of openly gay players and a culture of activism within the sport. Captains at the 2022 Euros wore rainbow armbands during the tournament in support of the LGBTQ+ community. Australia and New Zealand promise to be more welcoming environment, though it remains to be seen what measures FIFA will put in place for the Women’s World Cup.

The ACL epidemic: Who will miss out?

With just over six months from the opening game, we have to talk about those who may be set to miss out as well. Women’s football has seen a spate of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, prompting questions as to why female players are more likely to suffer this injury than their male counterparts.

Some athletes are set for a potential return just in time for the World Cup. Two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas is one of them. The Spain and Barcelona star midfielder suffered a devastating blow when she tore her ACL in training just before the start of last summer’s Euros. The good news for Spain fans is that Putellas should be fit again in time for the World Cup, though it would be close given the recovery time needed. However, due to an ongoing dispute with the Spanish FA (RFEF), Putellas is one of 15 Spain internationals who’ve asked not to be selected until there is a commitment to a “professional project.” This could mean that even if she does make a full recovery, we may not get to see her at the World Cup without that agreement.

Another star in doubt for the big show is Lionesses star and Euros Golden Boot winner Beth Mead, who tore her ACL in late November while playing for Arsenal. The forward has since had surgery and said she still had her sights set on the World Cup when she accepted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award last week. “I will do my utmost to get to the World Cup,” she said at the awards. “This is an injury where you can have good and bad days, but I’ll be working hard behind the scenes with Arsenal.”

Joining her on the sidelines is Mead’s Arsenal teammate, partner and Netherlands star striker Vivianne Miedema, who ruptured her ACL in December and is awaiting a surgery of her own. The injury, suffered during the Gunners’ Champions League defeat at Lyon naturally makes her an outside shot for the World Cup and hurts Netherlands’ chances of replicating their 2019 World Cup success, when they finished runners-up, in 2023.

Further ACL injuries that could impact the star power at the World Cup include Australia striker Kyah Simon and the Republic of Ireland midfielder Jessica Ziu. While there’s some hope that they are able to return in time, there are no guarantees and they would be difficult losses for their teams to overcome.

Breakout stars

Every major tournament presents a new set of stars that go on to take the women’s game by storm. In 2019, the USWNT’s Rose Lavelle captivated viewers with her skills, Australia’s Mary Fowler proved age was just a number, France’s Grace Geyoro put herself in pole position for stardom and Canada’s Jessie Fleming played with poise well above her age; she would help lead her country to Olympic gold just two years later in Tokyo.

It’s fair to say that 2023 edition is set to follow suit. Germany midfielder Lena Oberdorf may have already broken out at the Euros, but her announcement as one of the world’s best on the global stage will be a show that no one wants to miss.

Another to watch will be Maya Le Tissier, who was called up to the England squad for their November international break. At 20 years old, the Manchester United defender has proved to be one of the best in the Women’s Super League, and her call-up was a testament to that. If selected for the Lionesses, expect her to have a breakout World Cup.

Sweden midfielder Hanna Bennison was named as one of UEFA’s top 10 most promising young players in 2020, and she backed it up two years later at the Euros with a complete performance. With another year of experience under her belt, she looks ready to step into a bigger role for her country at the World Cup.

U.S. forward Alyssa Thompson, who will be just 18 when the tournament starts, has the added benefit of playing alongside other young stars such as Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith up front at the national team level. However, the star power beside her can’t outshine this young talent. After making her debut against the Lionesses in October, Thompson has gone from strength to strength, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her leap to another level come July.