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Jon Marthaler writes about the Minnesota United and sport of soccer.

Women's World Cup begins — for real — today with quarterfinals

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.

Soccer Saturday: The World Cup starts today

The 2015 Women's World Cup has the potential to be by far the most interesting ever held. Just like the Men's World Cup did in 1982, the tournament has expanded to 24 teams from 16, allowing a whole bunch of newcomers into the elite ranks - a step toward a much bigger tournament and a much bigger deal.

The usual suspects are still going to dominate, of course. The United States are the favorites again, which fits the team's second-place-is-the-first-loser mentality. Germany, like they do on the men's side, just wins everything, two World Cups (2003, 2007) and six consecutive European Championships among them. Sweden, Brazil, Japan, and hosts Canada are a rung below; all four could take the title without surprising anyone. And then teams like Australia and China and Norway and England and France, countries with a long history of excellence in women's soccer, will be there making life difficult for the rest of the tournament. And then there's teams like Nigeria, who could be great, but haven't yet been. Is this their breakout year?

The interesting group, though, isn't at the top but is at the bottom. Eight teams are making their first appearance in the Women's World Cup; some may be truly, truly terrible. Ecuador managed to qualify despite organizing its first women's soccer competition only in 2013. Thailand, one of the debutants, lost 7-0 in a warm-up match to the Netherlands, another first-timer. There is potential for some of the all-time upsets; there is also potential for a few all-time blowouts. (I fear for Thailand against Germany.)

The United States were unlucky enough to get drawn into the tournament's most difficult group, one that contains none of these debut teams. They'll play Sweden (who beat them in 2011), Australia (who believe in themselves now more than ever), and Nigeria (who are far and away Africa's best team, and might be poised for a breakout). That said, given the United States' relative strength, and the fact that the two top teams in every group plus the best four of the six third-placed sides qualify for the 16-team knockout round, it's unthinkable that the United States wouldn't get out of their group. It's fair to say that many people are looking forward to a potential semi-final date with Germany.

The United States aside, though, this tournament is wide-open in a way that it usually hasn't been. In 2011, this was a 16-team tournament, and 10, maybe 11 teams had a reasonable hope of making the knockout round. All of those numbers have now zoomed upwards, and with chaos comes excitement. I'm ready for what should be a fun couple of weeks.


*There are, as always, a lot of storylines for today's Champions League final between Barcelona and Juventus. It's a chance at a treble for rookie Barcelona manager Luis Enrique, who's already won La Liga and the Copa del Rey in 2015; it's the same for Juventus first-year manager Max Allegri. It could be Juventus midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo's last game in Europe, with rumors rampant that he's headed for MLS after the year is over. Pirlo battles Xavi in midfield; can Juventus attackers Paul Pogba and Carlos Tevez keep up with Barcelona's Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suarez?

By far the most fascinating, though, is that somehow Juventus nearly lined up two of the players that played central roles in the ongoing Luis Suarez Controversy Files. Defender Giorgio Chellini, who Suarez bit at the 2014 World Cup, tore his calf muscle midweek and will miss out on his chance to be gnawed upon again by the Barcelona striker. On the flip side, fullback Patrice Evra, who Suarez threw a racist insult at in 2011, will start for Juventus.

Suarez is the game's most confusing, polarizing player - a remarkable talent who has, for reasons inexplicable by anyone, has chosen to bite opponents three times (THREE TIMES) during games. Throw in the racial abuse, and he's the Mike Tyson of soccer; nothing he does can surprise anyone. And that would include scoring about five goals today.

What to Watch

1:45: Barcelona vs Juventus (FOX). Europe's two best teams duel it out for Champions League glory. Barca go for their fourth European Cup in a decade - Juventus, for their first since 1996, having lost three finals since that triumph.

5:00: Canada vs. China (Fox Sports 1). The Women's World Cup kicks off with the hosts taking on China, perhaps the best of the Group A matchups. Expect plenty of pomp and circumstance, as Canada tries to put its best foot forward.

6:30: Minnesota United FC at Carolina (Ch. 45). Minnesota's hopes for the NASL spring championship are extremely slim, but without a win at Carolina today, they'll be naught. The RailHawks and United are tied for second, and so this game could prove pivotal as both sides begin to jockey for positioning for playoff spots, as well.

TV Listings

Local Schedule

< >
  • Gophers women's hockey at MSU Mankato

    2:07 pm

  • Wisconsin at Gophers football

    2:30 pm on BTN, 100.3-FM

  • Gophers women's basketball vs. Auburn

    6 pm on 1500-AM

  • Dallas at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Vikings at Atlanta

    12 pm on Ch. 9, 100.3/1130

  • Timberwolves at L.A. Clippers

    2:30 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • St. Cloud State at Gophers men's hockey

    6:35 pm on FSN, 1500-AM

  • Clemson at Gophers men's basketball

    8 pm on ESPN2, 1500-AM

  • Wild at Chicago

    7 pm on NBCSN, 100.3-FM

  • Orlando at Timberwolves

    7 pm on FSN, 830-AM

  • Gophers women's basketball at Duke

    6 pm on 1500-AM

  • Toronto at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Ohio State at Gophers men's hockey

    7 pm on FSN, 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Wisconsin

    7:07 pm

  • South Dakota at Gophers men's basketball

    2 pm on 1500-AM

  • Gophers women's hockey at Wisconsin

    3:07 pm

  • Colorado at Wild

    7 pm on FSN, 100.3-FM

  • Ohio State at Gophers men's hockey

    7 pm on ESPNEWS, 1500-AM

  • Portland at Timberwolves

    7:05 pm on FSN PLUS, 830-AM

Today's Scoreboard

No games for NFL

  • Philadelphia

    NY Rangers


    - F



  • New Jersey



    - F



  • Edmonton



    - F



  • NY Islanders

    Tampa Bay


    - F



  • Washington



    - F



  • Dallas



    - F



  • Buffalo



    - 3rd, 0:50



  • Columbus

    St. Louis


    - F



  • Calgary

    San Jose


    - End 1st



  • Ottawa



    - 1st, 0:50



  • Winnipeg



    - End 1st



  • Chicago

    Los Angeles


    - 1st, 13:16



  • Toronto



    - F



  • Brooklyn



    - F



  • Atlanta

    San Antonio


    - F



  • Denver



    - 4th, 1:29



  • New Orleans



    - 3rd, 2:25



  • LA Lakers



    - 2nd, 5:59



  • Sacramento

    Golden State


    - 1st, 5:57



No games for MLS