University at Buffalo women's soccer coach Shawn Burke will be providing analysis of the Women's World Cup for The Buffalo News during the tournament. Burke is entering his sixth season at UB and has led the program to five consecutive Mid-American Conference tournament appearances and was named MAC Coach of the Year in 2014.
An amazing summer for some of the best soccer in the world kicks off Friday as the eighth Women’s World Cup takes place across nine venues in France. Two teams from each of the six groups and four third-place teams move to the Round of 16, which begins June 22. The final is July 7.
What to watch
The United States will look to continue its dominance on the world stage. The Americans have won three of the seven World Cup trophies and medaled in the other four. The U.S. is seeking to join two-time World Cup winner Germany as the only back-to-back champions.
The U.S. roster is loaded with stars and firepower. Manager Jill Ellis will lean heavily on Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Health to deliver in the attack while veterans Julie Ertz and Becky Sauerbrunn will lock down the midfield and back line. She has no shortage of stars, including Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh and Christen Press, to call upon to make an impact or change a game.
Team USA opens at 3 p.m. Tuesday against Thailand in the group stage and then plays Chile at noon on June 16 and Sweden at 3 p.m. on June 20.
France, Germany and Japan are familiar foes that have the depth and experience. France is peaking at the right time and will have an entire country backing the team to glory as the host. Veteran players Amadine Henry, Eugenie Le Sommer and Wendie Renard will dominate up the middle for Les Bleus. The French know this is probably their best chance to be World Cup champions after getting eliminated in the quarterfinals in 2015, but France would have to get by Team USA in the quarterfinals.
Japan is hoping to make its third consecutive final with a core group that has starred since its 2011 World Cup victory. Germany is ranked No. 2 in the world and will need to come together quickly under Martina Voss-Tecklenburg.
Potential dark horses: England, Australia and Spain are three teams I will be keeping my eye on as these rosters carry young and exciting talent that could run deep into July.
Former Western New York Flash striker Sam Kerr headlines an Australian team capable of a finals run. Arguably the most dangerous scorer in the tournament, Kerr hopes to lead the Aussies to the top of Group C and the potential for a more favorable draw in the knockout stages. Australia has lost in the quarterfinals in each of the last three World Cups. Spain was dominant in qualifying, winning its eight games by a combined score of 25-2. England made the semifinals of the World Cup in 2015. Defender Lucy Bronze is among the world's best.
Don't forget these teams: Historically talented Norway, Sweden, Canada and Brazil still carry legends of the game and experience at this level can play a major factor in advancing.
Reigning Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg will not compete with her native Norway as the prolific striker has boycotted her federation due to inequalities between the men and women’s programs. Brazil still has the legendary Marta, a six-time world player of the year. Sweden reached the Round of 16 in 2015 and is again in the same group as the Americans. Stina Blackstenius is the name to know.
Canada’s roster is loaded with former and current NCAA stars. Christine Sinclair (WNY Flash champion and finals MVP) will be competing in her fifth World Cup and will be looking for the youth around her to help create chances. UCLA standout Jessie Flemming will be one of the most exciting young midfielders to keep an eye on this summer. She grew up playing club soccer with University at Buffalo standout Julie Benati in London, Ontario. Canada will also need an excellent performance from center back Kadeisha Buchanan if it hopes to advance. The West Virginia University product plays professionally in France which should work to her advantage.
I am fully invested and backing our USWNT this summer but am not looking forward to the draw. The Americans will most likely face tournament host France in the quarterfinals and that matchup scares me. I give the edge to the home nation to get by the U.S. and become eventual World Cup champions for the first time in their history. I have Australia riding the shoulders of Kerr (my pick for Golden Boot) to a runner-up finish. My prediction for the third-place game is the Lionesses of England topping the experienced Germans.