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.