The decision to expand the Women's World Cup from 16 to 24 teams has absolutely been vindicated by this tournament. Eight teams qualified for the tournament for the first time, three of which went on to qualify for the knockout round. The Netherlands' first-timers displayed passing skills that have utterly convinced me that there is something in the Dutch water that attunes people's brains to the Total Football ethic. Thailand and Cote d'Ivoire played the tournament's most exciting game, a 3-2 Thai win that featured three epic misses by the Africans in the closing stages. Cameroon won twice in the group stage; Spain's terrible showing might finally get women's soccer in the country moving; Ecuador's mere presence might get someone in their country to actually realize they have a women's soccer program.
All that has been excellent, for sure. But the dust has now cleared from the group stage, and from the first knockout round, and pretty much the teams we expected are still standing. I picked seven of the eight quarterfinalists without too much trouble; the only mistake was that I had Sweden finishing second in Group D and beating Brazil in the knockout round, when it was Australia that did these things.
This is the World Cup that we expected when the brackets were released, and now, the real World Cup begins. USA fans silently thanked themselves that, should they win Group D, they would avoid likely group winners France or Germany until the semifinals; should the USA beat China, the France/Germany winner is exactly who they'll see. Canadian fans, knowing their team was also likely a group winner, rejoiced that the three aforementioned teams were all on the other side of the bracket. The hosts have a tough quarterfinal with England, followed by a likely date with Japan, the 2011 winners - but are favorites to at least reach the semifinals.
Here's a quick look at the quarterfinals this week:
Friday: Germany vs. France, 3:00, FOX. The marquee quarterfinal is a European battle between Germany, the world's top-ranked side, and France, the third-ranked team in the world. The Germans have mostly been on cruise control, with 10-0, 4-0, and 4-1 wins so far; their only blemish was a 1-1 draw against a disciplined Norwegian team that bogged them down in the midfield. France, on the other hand, was thrown into disarray with a 2-0 loss to Colombia that had star Louisa Necib whipping the ball at her own teammates in frustration, but that disaster was followed by a 5-0 beating of Mexico and a 3-0 pummeling of South Korea. Given how the USA has played so far, the winner of this match will be the likely favorite to win the tournament.
Friday: USA vs. China, 6:30, FOX. The other quarterfinal in the top half of the bracket is not such an even match. Despite misfiring on offense, the USA defense has been virtually unbeatable; they've probably given up fewer decent scoring chances than the wayward offense has scored goals. As a result, they're heavy favorites against an impossibly young, inexperienced China squad. The Chinese set the goal of qualifying for the knockout round and winning their first game, which they accomplished; an improvement on their 3-0 loss to the USA, last April, would probably be a victory. Many comparisons will be made to the 1999 final, in which the USA won on penalty kicks, but it's really not the same; while the teams were pretty even that day, a Chinese win in this game would be a huge upset.
Saturday: Australia vs. Japan, 3:00, Fox Sports 1. Australia has been the surprise team in this tournament. They were the only team to score against the USA (and their web site filed a famously sniffy entry about how bad the Americans were, postgame), and since then they're undefeated, with wins against Nigeria and Brazil and a draw with Sweden. Beating Japan would cement this as the Matildas' breakout tournament, the one where the promise of previous years was finally realized. Japan, on the other hand, is flying under the radar and quietly winning all four games they've played by a single goal. Japan will press their opponents to the brink of exhaustion; merely getting the ball out of defense against the Japanese can be a chore, and they can play beautifully on offense, as the Dutch found out in the knockout round. For being the 2011 winners, most people aren't talking about them - but if you had to pick a favorite in the bottom half of the bracket, it might be the Japanese.
Saturday: England vs. Canada, 6:30, Fox Sports 1. The hosts can begin to breathe a little easier, now that they've avoided a disaster at home. They've scored just two goals from open play in four games, but they're into the quarterfinals, and now they're hoping they can ride their home-field advantage. A win against England would equal the Canadians' best-ever showing in a major tournament. A win for England, meanwhile, would be their first-ever trip to a semifinal; they've lost in the quarterfinals in both of the last two World Cups, and did the same (as Team GB) at the 2012 Olympics. Many people said the only hope the English had in this tournament was to lose to France and finish second in Group F, in order to avoid that quarterfinal with Germany; this they duly did, and their reward is the hosts.
As for predictions, I'll stick with the four semifinalists I picked prior to the tournament: the USA, Germany, Japan, and Canada. It wouldn't surprise me if I was wrong about three of those. The USA losing, though, would be an upset.