Australia and New Zealand are ready to co-host the ninth edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup starting on 20 July – the first to feature an expanded pool of 32 teams, mirroring the men’s tournament.
Over 700 players have been named in the squads for the teams at the finals, but some will take centre stage more than others. This will be the last dance for legends like Marta and Megan Rapinoe, while there are young talents itching to join the next list of superstars.
Here, we pick out 10 of the players we’re expecting to stand out this summer at the tournament.
Sam Kerr (Australia)
One of the best forwards in the women’s game, Sam Kerr will lead Australia on home soil at the World Cup. The country’s all-time top scorer – men’s or women’s – will shoulder the burden of carrying her side to their maiden World Cup.
Not only is she still the all-time top scorer in the United States’ NWSL (77 regular season goals) and one of only two players to have won the Australian A-League Women Golden Boot award more than once (2018 and 2019), but she’s also scored more goals in the English WSL than any other player since her debut in January 2020 (54 – with none of those from penalties).
Despite a drop off in her goalscoring output this season, with just 12 league goals in 21 appearances after successive 20+ goal campaigns, she’s still a player who consistently finds great positions to score. Among players with at least eight non-penalty goals last season in the WSL, only Leah Galton (94.6%) attempted a higher proportion of their non-penalty shots from inside the box than Kerr (91.1%), while Khadija Shaw (0.79) was the only player with a higher non-penalty xG per 90 than hers (0.63).
She is extremely dangerous in the final third, maximizing every touch of the ball. 26.1% of her total touches come inside the opposition penalty box, which is the highest figure among all WSL players with eight or more goals.
She’s added an air of selflessness to her game in the past season and her recent comments about serving as a decoy for other players to thrive in attacking areas is a testament to this development.
Being physically robust makes her an excellent direct outlet for her side with her positioning and hold-up play – only Lauren Hemp (107) received more open-play long balls than Kerr (93) in the WSL this season. Her aerial prowess and ability to win first contact on these long balls make her a viable option and a threat on set-pieces and crosses. Her aerial win rate has consistently lingered around the 60% mark and her 47 aerials won is only behind Khadija Shaw (61) and Dagný Brynjarsdóttir (51) in the WSL.
She has impeccable control on her first contact, often laying it off for the wide runners in behind. This tactic might come in handy for the Matildas this summer, with the side blessed with pace all around Kerr.
Sophia Smith (USA)
With USWNT star Megan Rapinoe retiring at the end of this year, 34-year-old Alex Morgan coming to the end of her brilliant career and Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz now both 31 years old, there’s bound to be a changing of the guard in US women’s soccer upon the horizon. Step forward Sophia Smith.
The 22-year-old is ready to shine at her first World Cup after taking the NWSL by storm. Voted the competition MVP in 2022 following 15 goals and three assists (including play-offs), she’s began the 2023 campaign in even more impressive fashion. With 10 goals and five assists across just 13 appearances, Smith is only three goal involvements off last season’s tally with seven regular season matchdays left to play.
The former Stanford University star is blessed with pace and explosiveness on the ball, making her dangerous with the ball at her feet. Of players to play at least 500 minutes of NWSL action this season, Smith averages the most take-ons per 90 (7.9), with her 44% success rate above average across the 30 most prolific players from take-ons across the league. Fourteen of her take-ons have ended with a shot as the next action – nearly double that of any other player in the league.
She also leads the NWSL this season for progressive carries per 90 among all non-defenders (9.8), while attempting a league-high 43 shots following ball carries – 20 more than any other player in the competition. Overall, her 52 shot-ending carries (43 shots, nine chances created) are another NWSL-high.
Her ability to attack the space between the centre-backs and in the channel between the central defenders and full-backs add further value to her stock as a goalscorer. She takes up wide starting positions and very often beats her marker for pace, making her an excellent progressive outlet for her side. Her 123 progressive passes received is only behind Morgan Weaver (141) and Trinity Rodman (130) in the NWSL. As USWNT aim for their fifth Women’s World Cup title, Smith will be tasked with sharing the side’s offensive load.
Alexandra Popp (Germany)
Germany enter every major international tournament as one of the favourites and this World Cup is no different. The USA are the only team other than the Germans to have won the Women’s World Cup more than once, and both are expected to be in the running for another title this summer.
There are many famous German goalscorers in World Cup past, with Birgit Prinz (14 goals) and Bettina Weigmann (11) among the highest scoring players in Women’s World Cup history.
Alexandra Popp has scored at the last two World Cups for Germany (two in 2019, one in 2015), but with seven goals needed this time around to reach double figures, it’s unlikely that she’ll end up threatening her Prinz and Weigmann in the charts any time soon. She is among the all-time leading scorers in German international history, though, scoring 62 times and ranking fifth among all women. She should move up those rankings this summer, too, with just one goal separating her and fourth-ranked Célia Sasic (63) and two away from third-placed Inka Grings (64).
After sharing the Euro 2022 Golden Boot with Beth Mead last summer thanks to her six goals, the two-time German footballer of the year finished the 2022-23 domestic season with 16 Bundesliga goals to top the scoring charts in the league. None of those goals came from penalties, either. Of the 12 players across the top five European women’s leagues in 2022-23 to score at least 14 non-penalty goals, Popp had the second highest shot conversion rate of 27.6%, behind only Tabitha Chawinga (33.8%).
One reason for her lethal numbers in the German league last season was her exceptional aerial prowess.
The 5-foot-9 striker is a menace with her physically imposing nature and intensity. The Wolfsburg forward can rattle defences with her movements and ability to physically engage opposition defenders. She scored the most headed goals across the top five European leagues in 2022-23 (nine), with those headers contributing over half of her total goal tally in the Bundesliga (56.3%).
Popp has a knack of stepping up in clutch situations, scoring goals in important matches. Examples can be found in the UEFA Women’s Champions League semi-final second leg against Arsenal, as well as scoring in the eventual final defeat to Barcelona, plus the European Championship semi-final versus France last summer, where she scored both of Germany’s goals in the 2-1 win.
Keira Walsh (England)
The 2022 European Championships were the crowning moment for England midfielder Keira Walsh. With a host of top-class performances at the tournament on the way to eventual glory, her stock couldn’t have risen much higher. As a result she was picked up by Barcelona for an at-the-time record transfer fee. Her first season in Spain didn’t go too badly, either. Barcelona won the UEFA Champions League and league double.
The 26-year-old midfielder is the lynchpin for her side, connecting the defence and attack with her passing and her positioning in the early phases of buildup. She is safe and progressive on the ball while offering security without it with her positional discipline.
Across England’s successful Euros campaign, no Lioness started more open-play sequences leading to shots (nine), while she was one of only three England players involved in more than 30 open-play passing sequences that ended in a shot (31).
A voluminous passer by nature, Walsh’s execution is what sets her apart. She averaged 72.7 passes per 90 with a pass completion rate of 89.9%, which is the highest among all players in the Spanish top flight.
When in possession she is consistently looking to progress the ball into the opposition third of the pitch. Walsh’s average of eight final third passes per 90 was the sixth highest in the Spanish league last season. She has a variety of passes in her repertoire, from lateral passes to disguised line breakers, geared towards both retention and progression. Of course, who could forget her phenomenal pass to assist Ella Toone’s opening goal in the Euro 2022 final against Germany?
If England are to have more success this summer, Walsh will be key.
Aitana Bonmatí (Spain)
Spain will be without key players at this World Cup, with some ruling themselves out of selection ahead of the tournament owing to disagreements with the Spanish federation. Despite those absentees, it’s hard to rule out Spain as potential winners with the host of talent still in their ranks. That includes the returning two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas.
With Putellas out with an ACL injury across last summer at Euro 2022 and large chunks of the 2022-23 domestic season for Barcelona, her teammates needed to step up. One player who grabbed the reigns in midfield for both Spain and Barcelona was Aitana Bonmatí.
The Spaniard scored nine goals and provided 10 assists in the league in 2022-23, finishing the season with 19 direct goal contributions – only six players were involved in more non-penalty goals than her in the competition. She also played an integral part in their UWCL success, with more assists than any other player in the competition last season (eight) and chipping in with five goals.
Across the Spanish top-flight and UWCL last season, no Barcelona player to play at least 1,800 minutes of action averaged more open-play shot-ending sequence involvements per 90 than Bonmatí (9.3).
Bonmatí is a key factor to make Barcelona and Spain’s front foot defensive tactic work. She doesn’t shy away from the unglamorous responsibilities off-the-ball, closing out passing angles and hounding the opponent on the ball, making her an elite presser. Her 115 ball recoveries in the league were the fifth most at Barcelona, while only Mariona Caldentey (2.1) won possession in the final third of the pitch more frequently on a per-90 basis than she did (1.6).
In the absence of midfield partner, Guijarro, Bonmatí will once again have to morph herself to compensate for her side’s needs on and off the ball. If Spain are to make a deep run on their third attempt, the diminutive midfielder will have to cast a large shadow on the field.
Racheal Kundananji (Zambia)
Zambia are one the debutants at this World Cup and are the lowest ranked nation at the tournament, placed 77th in the latest edition of the FIFA Rankings. The African nation grabbed headlines when they beat Germany 3-2 in a pre-World Cup friendly game just two weeks before the tournament kicks off, handing out warning signs that they are not here to just make up numbers.
The performance was a testament to the quality in their forward line led by the flamboyant young duo of Racheal Kundananji and Barbra Banda.
Kundananji comes into these finals off the back of a superb domestic campaign. She ended 2022-23 with 25 league goals in Spain, just two goals behind the competition’s top scorer Alba Redondo (27), but with the same tally of non-penalty strikes as her (25). That tally of 25 was the highest across the top five women’s leagues in Europe, while only Redondo (19) scored in a higher number of league matches than the Zambian (17) across those five competitions.
Kundananji was involved in 155 of 500 non-penalty shots in league competition for Madrid CFF last season (112 shots, 43 chances created) – nearly a third (31%) of their total. Only Redondo (174) and Caroline Weir (165) were involved in more across the Spanish league. Across the top five European women’s leagues in 2022-23, she one of only 10 players to play at least 1,000 minutes and average over 4.5 non-penalty shots per 90 (4.6).
The quick forward is a menacing presence who seeks contact before putting on the afterburners. She is deadly in transition situations with the ball at her feet, eating up ground with ease.
No player had more shot-ending (55) or chance-creating carries (20) in the Liga F than the 23-year-old forward. Sixteen of her 25 goals were preceded by a ball carry, underlining her ability to run with the ball while being extremely effective with it.
Only Mayra Ramirez (12) attempted more shots following a take-on than her (11), while Kundananji was also the most effective player at beating her marker and getting into the box, doing it 14 times in the Liga F. Only Mayra Ramirez (25) recorded more take-ons inside the opposition box than she did (24).
If Zambia are to surprise at this tournament, Kundananji will undoubtedly be central any shocks.
Guro Reiten (Norway)
Norway have been an ever-present fixture at the World Cup, and are one of only three European nations to appear in every edition of the tournament since it began in 1991. The 1995 champions finished in the top four across each of the first five editions but have failed to get past the quarter-final stages since.
The talented Scandinavian side will be hoping to remedy that and return to the glory days of the past with Hege Riise – a former World Cup winner with Norway – at the helm. Spearheading this charge will be Chelsea’s baby-faced assassin Guro Reiten.
Reiten finished as the Women’s Super League top assister last season with 11, just four short of the competition record and the most since Fran Kirby’s 12 in 2020-21. Arguably Chelsea’s Player of the Season, she also posted an expected assists total of 6.2, which was the third best in the competition and displayed how dangerous her passes were.
She featured among the top five WSL players for open-play chances created (37) and passes played into the opposition box (140). She was often crucial to Chelsea’s build-up to shots, even when not the creator or the player to attempt the shot. Reiten tallied 21 secondary chances created in 2022-23 – the pass before the chance created for a shot – which was the fourth-highest tally in the competition.
The Norwegian also weighed in with goals, as Chelsea’s second highest scorer in league competition last season (nine) behind Sam Kerr (12), while her non-penalty xG total of 3.7 was the second highest in the squad.
Norway had an underwhelming European Championships last summer, but if Reiten can bring her club form in 2022-23 to these finals, Norway could pose a threat to any opponent.
Selma Bacha (France)
France were a side in turmoil for issues that extended beyond the pitch. While tides have turned in that regard following a managerial change, they have been cursed with injuries and are missing key players in every department.
Marie-Antoinette Katoto and Delphine Cascarino are missing in attack, Amandine Henry has been ruled out with an injury and the defence is still without Griedge Mbock.
Despite their absentees, France’s squad is still loaded with talent. One such rising star is Olympique Lyon’s Selma Bacha.
Bacha has established herself as one of the mainstays at Lyon after breaking into the first team at just 16 years old. The youngster can play in any role on the left flank and is blessed with a wand of a left foot and a desire to get forward and support attack.
Despite playing just 1,046 minutes of league action in 2022-23, only two players across the top five European women’s leagues assisted more goals from set plays than she did (six), while only seven players created more chances from these situations than her (26).
Her average of 0.45 expected assists per 90 were the highest of any player to play at least 1,000 minutes in the French top flight in 2022-23, while only two players across the major European leagues could better that average – Mariona Caldentey (0.53 per 90) and Chloe Kelly (0.55).
Only Faustine Robert (5.4 per 90) average more successful open-play crosses per 90 than her (4.1) in the French league last season, while she was one of just 15 players across the top five leagues in Europe to play over 1,000 minutes and average at least four successful open-play crosses per 90 minutes.
Having a player so dangerous from crossing and set pieces will be something France can weaponise at this tournament, especially with the known aerial ability of Wendie Renard.
If Bacha hits the ground running in this tournament, France could be a force to be reckoned with.
Brazil will play their first Women’s World Cup tournament without the legendary Formiga, while the 2023 edition also looks like it could be the last for another national team legend – Marta. The all-time top goalscorer at the World Cup – men’s or women’s – will need to pass on the goalscoring baton for Brazil.
One player that could take up the mantle is Geyse. The 25-year-old Barcelona forward is a key part of Pia Sundhage’s side and will be a player to watch in these finals.
After ending 2021-22 as joint top scorer in Spanish Primera with 20 goals alongside Asisat Oshoala, she departed Madrid CFF and joined Oshoala at Barcelona to form an enviable attacking force.
Whilst she won the league and UWCL double, she couldn’t replicate her scoring return in league action across 2022-23, with just six goals in 24 appearances for Barca, but she certainly made an impact in the UEFA Champions League. Her nine non-penalty goal involvements (four goals, five assists) were the third most in the competition behind only teammate Aitana Bonmatí (12) and Wolfsburg forward Ewa Pajor (10).
Fans can expect Geyse to be entertaining to watch this summer when progressing the ball upfield. She averaged the sixth most dribbles per 90 (5.1) across the Spanish league last season of players to play at least 1,000 minutes and was ranked in the same position for carries into the penalty area per 90 (2.4). In addition, only five forwards and attacking midfielders averaged a higher progressive carry distance per 90 than the Brazilian (91.5m) last season,
With her positioning, high and wide, she can offer an excellent out-ball option for her sides, helping them add verticality. Her 155 progressive passes received was the fifth most in the Barcelona squad last season.
One downside is that she can be slightly overzealous without the ball, often initiating unwanted contact and giving away fouls. This can reflect itself in her card tally. No Barcelona player committed more fouls (28) or received more yellow cards (five) than the Brazilian in league action last season.
Yui Hasegawa (Japan)
Japan has been quietly producing talented generations of youngsters over the last decade, the fruits of which are shining across the globe. Little Nadeshiko (their U17 side) won the 2014 World Cup while finishing as runners-up in 2016, while the Young Nadeshiko (U20 side) have not finished outside the top three since 2016, and won the U20 World Cup in 2018.
Yui Hasegawa is the fruit of their 2014 U17 side. The nimble-footed magician has since played in Europe and established herself as one of the most technically skilled midfielders around.
The Man City midfielder showed her proficiency in playing a deeper role in the midfield this season. The attacking midfielder shone from a deeper starting position, bringing her defensive awareness to the forefront. Her positional discipline and reading of the game to pick up loose balls in the final two thirds of the pitch received their due credit.
No player initiated more open-play sequences than the midfielder in the English top flight last term (302), highlighting her ability to recover possession and kick-start attacks. The only player to win possession from opponents more often than her (159) in the 2022-23 WSL was Katie Zelem (170).
Her supportive play through the thirds continues to be a big part of her game. She is consistently showing up for the ball in between lines and working in tandem with the moving parts around her. No player was involved in more open play sequences ending with a shot as part of the build-up only (75) than her in the WSL, underlining her core skillset in the offensive phase of play.
Japan are a side that like to maintain possession and trap their opponents high up the field, which makes front-foot defensive-minded players all the more desirable. Hasegawa is one of these players, with her total of 29 open-play sequence starts being the joint-highest in WSL last season alongside Arsenal’s Frida Maanum. In addition, only five players actively won possession back from opponents to start open-play passing sequences than the Japan international (nine) in the WSL across 2022-23.
With Japan hoping to recreate their 2011 triumph, their young generation will have to produce the goods again. The U17 WWC silver ball-winning midfielder will take centre stage for the Japanese either way.