A repeat of the 2019 Women’s World Cup final beckons in Group E, with reigning champions the United States likely to go up against the Netherlands for top spot this time around. Much will be expected of both, especially the USWNT, but debutants Portugal and Vietnam are eager to prove they’re not just there to make up the numbers.
With the action just around the corner, get up to speed with the major storylines and key players with out Group E preview.
‘We Have a Target on Our Backs’
All eyes will be on the USA, for better or for worse.
In the words of forward Alex Morgan, “We already have a target on our backs as reigning World Cup champs.”
In fact, they’re back-to-back reigning World Cup ‘champs’. If they win the competition this year, they’ll be the first nation – men or women – to raise the trophy three times in a row.
Victors in 1991 and 1999 as well, the USWNT have four World Cup titles under their belt, the most of any team. That’s 50% of eight Women’s FIFA World Cup tournaments.
The US has never finished outside the top three at the World Cup, and as FIFA’s top-ranked team going into the tournament, that pattern could continue. The red, white and blue will more than likely advance from the group stage, even with a squad that doesn’t look much at all like the team that won the tournament in 2019.
Enter the New Generation
Most women’s football fans will remember Rose Lavelle’s legendary goal in the 2019 World Cup final against the Netherlands; a goal that was made up of a series of plays that would come to be known as her signature style of attack for the next four years. How she dribbled through the entire final third; how she wove fearlessly through those orange jerseys like they were mere pylons; how she beat the goalkeeper with a low, hard shot from the edge of the box.
Lavelle was 24 at the time, making her big break at the 2019 World Cup, and this year’s young squad has a few players who could do the same on the world stage. Those include 22-year-old Sophia Smith, who was named both NWSL MVP and US Female Player of the Year in 2022, and 21-year-old Trinity Rodman, a key player in the Washington Spirit’s run to the 2021 NWSL championship title.
In defence, there’s centre-back Naomi Girma, last year’s NWSL Rookie of the Year, Defender of the Year, and nominee for MVP.
Alyssa Thompson will be one to watch as well. The 18-year-old forward will become the second-youngest player ever to represent the USWNT at a World Cup if she plays, behind Tiffany Roberts (18 years, 32 days) at the 1995 tournament. Thompson played in the USA’s final game before the tournament, hinting she might see a good chunk of time on the pitch.
Key Returning Veterans
Forward Megan Rapinoe is coming back for one last hurrah before her retirement later this year. Still the crafty player she’s always been, she’ll play an important role coming off the bench at the World Cup as a game-changer.
She especially thrives on the big stage, having been directly involved in more goals than any other player over the last three World Cups. The USA forward has scored nine and assisted six in 17 matches.
Rapinoe is currently joint fourth in the NWSL this season for assists along with USWNT teammate Morgan. Last year, Morgan won the NWSL Golden Boot, scoring 15 times, and at the 2019 World Cup, she was in peak form in front of goal. She scored five goals against Thailand in the group stage, which equalled a tournament record after Michelle Akers also scored five in a game back in 1991.
Morgan and Rapinoe scored six goals each in the 2019 World Cup, tying with England’s Ellen White as top scorers.
In defence, Crystal Dunn is going to be a weapon at full-back once again, having made an electric return to the pitch for Portland Thorns since coming back from maternity leave last year. Arguably the most versatile player in the USWNT squad, having Dunn back in action is a boost. Her leadership from the back will be important for what is a young defence, though there is an argument to be made that she should play in the midfield at some point as well.
Head coach Vlatko Andonovski made no secret last year of the fact that the team was being built around centre-forward Catarina Macario, who this summer signed for Chelsea after finishing 2022-23 for Lyon as Division 1 Féminine’s third-highest scorer, with 13 goals.
He also made it clear Mallory Pugh and Smith would be key wingers. But then his plans were thrown into disarray when Macario and Pugh were both ruled out of the tournament with injuries. The forward pool runs so deep, however, that despite changes in the frontline, their new attack will still find ways to dominate.
Key Players Injured
Captain Becky Sauerbrunn recently had to give up her spot at the World Cup as well after suffering an injury. Her leadership has been instrumental to the USA’s defence in recent times.
With Sauerbrunn absent, the defence is left with many young players to figure everything out themselves. Kelley O’Hara and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher will provide some experience, but the question still remains as to who the starting centre-backs will be without Sauerbrunn. Based on recent decisions, Girma and Alana Cook could get the nod.
No team at the tournament envies Vietnam. When they step onto the field for their first ever World Cup match, it will be FIFA No. 1 ranked side USA taking the other half of the pitch.
No. 32 Vietnam, however, won’t go down without a fight. They come into the competition on a high from winning their fourth consecutive gold at the South East Asian Games. A 2-0 win over Myanmar to secure the 2023 title was more than enough to prove they’re a World Cup team.
They qualified for the tournament by reaching the quarter-finals of the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, where they defeated both Thailand and Chinese Taipei in play-offs. It was the first time they had reached the knockout stage in their nine appearances in that competition.
A Goal to Make History
Coach Mai Duc Chung hopes to bring out his and the team’s best at the 2023 World Cup. Just one goal would “make history”.
Goals will likely come from Huỳnh Nhu, who is the all-time leading scorer for the national women’s team. She’s won five Vietnamese Golden Balls, including in each of the last four years.
Chung also highlights midfielder Bích Thùy. The Ho Chí Minh City player scored the winning goal against Taiwan at the Asian Cup to secure Vietnam a spot at the 2023 World Cup.
The team has been preparing by participating in training camps in Japan and Europe.
Other Key Players
Nguyen Thi Tuyet Dung is known for scoring wonder goals that few other professional footballers can. Notably, she scored two goals directly from corners in the same match against Malaysia in 2015, one with each foot.
Elsewhere, forward Pham Hai Yen has been a lethal attacker for the national team since 2011 and will add more firepower to the forward line.
Defender Chuong Thi Kieu is not fully recovered from her knee injuries but is still attending the World Cup due to the value that her experience and familiarity with teammates bring to the squad.
They Meet Yet Again
World Cup 2019 finalists the Netherlands have an opportunity for revenge after their heartbreak four years ago. This is, remarkably, the second major tournament since that World Cup that the USA and the Netherlands will face each other in. The Dutch came even closer to beating the US at the Olympics, drawing 2-2 in their semi-final but ultimately falling in a penalty shootout.
That match was a step up from the 2019 World Cup final, in which the Netherlands were held to just eight touches and no shots inside the USA’s penalty area. It was one of five games that tournament – and third against the USA – in which one team did not take a single shot from inside the penalty area.
In their 11 World Cup games, the Netherlands have only failed to score in two of them, so being limited to shots from distance was something of an achievement for the USA, and the Dutch will want to right that wrong this time around.
With a few years’ experience since the 2019 final, the Netherlands will be aiming for top spot in Group E ahead of the US.
The Netherlands went unbeaten in their eight games in qualifying for the World Cup and finished top of their group.
Recovering from an ACL tear, Arsenal’s Vivianne Miedema won’t be on the field with her team at the 2023 World Cup. The Netherlands’ go-to goalscorer scored the most goals for her team in 2023 qualifiers (eight), and the most World Cup goals (three) in 2019.
The Dutch are stacked with an army of stars coming into the World Cup. Forward Lineth Beerensteyn has been a great weapon lately, scoring four goals in the Oranje’s last four matches.
Fellow forward Lieke Martens is always leaned on for her experience and finishing abilities, playing her best when she’s allowed freedom on the ball to make decisions in the moment. Most recently, the Paris Saint-Germain player has scored three goals in her last five matches for the Netherlands.
Sherida Spitse is one of few European players with over 200 international caps. The midfielder was the joint-best assist-provider at the 2019 World Cup along with USA’s Sam Mewis. Each of Spitse’s assists came from set-piece situations – twice as many of any other player in that tournament.
The Mission to Get Here
The path to this year’s tournament was no walk in the park for Portugal. The team had to show serious resilience as they ventured through the scenic route to get to their first World Cup.
They originally didn’t even qualify for the 2022 Euros, though Russia got banned due to the invasion of Ukraine, and Portugal were invited to join. They then ended up qualifying for the World Cup at the Inter-Confederation play-offs in New Zealand in February. After seeing their 1-0 lead cancelled out in the 89th minute against Cameroon, Portugal were then awarded a penalty in stoppage time and Carole Costa put away the game-winning goal.
On the Rise
The Portuguese women’s national team is starting to garner more support, including from men’s star Cristiano Ronaldo. Part of their rise comes from manager Francisco Neto’s decision to start playing against tougher opposition, as well as giving playing time during friendlies to as many players as possible.
Ranked 21 in the world, Portugal went unbeaten in their three most recent games, including a goalless draw with England at the beginning of July.
To advance from the group stage in the World Cup against opponents like the USA and the Netherlands will be no easy feat, but however far Portugal go, their presence in the tournament will have a significant impact on the growth of the game in their country.
Players to Watch
Jéssica Silva is largely considered the key player for Portugal. With 100 international caps, the former Kansas City Current and Olympique Lyonnais player is confident on the ball in one-on-one situations and deadly in front of goal. She currently plays in Portugal’s domestic league for Benfica, where she scored 17 goals in 17 games in 2022-23.
Another player to keep an eye on is Silva’s Benfica teammate Francisca ‘Kika’ Nazareth, who is the youngest player to earn a cap for Portugal. The attacking midfielder started playing for Benfica at just 16 years old and has helped the club to six domestic trophies since. Across the 2022-23 campaign, she scored 26 goals in 36 appearances in all competitions at club level.