Thirty-six games are in the books, with only sixteen left to go. Obviously, the ones remaining are the most important, but it seems like a good point to stop and take stock of who impressed in the group stage of the tournament. I picked twelve names – two from each group. My goal wasn’t to identify the absolute best performers, but rather to pick a range of folks from the obvious to the slightly unconventional. For example, while I would be happy to write another rhapsody about Sam Kerr, it felt more useful to call attention to some less well-known players that also performed superbly.
Amandine Henry – France
Henry was my pre-tournament tip for the Golden Ball winner, and nothing I’ve seen so far makes me regret that choice. She’s the closest thing there is to a perfect all-around player in the game today. Everything you’d want, she can do it: win tackles, hold the ball, link play, brilliant throughballs, wonderfully struck goals, good in the air, good on the ground. And she sees the game as well as anyone. France is stacked from bottom to top, but Henry is the ticking heart of the team.
Guro Reiten – Norway
She scored and assisted a goal in Norway’s opening match, but was arguably even more impressive over the next two games. She has done some excellent work out wide, where her pace and dribbling skills allow her to run at defenses, but at her core she’s really more of a true #10, at home in the middle of the pitch pulling the strings. The ability to get Reiten more of the ball is one of the key reasons for Norway’s success so far in the tournament.
Mapi León – Spain
León has excelled in wide defensive roles in the past, but has played center back in this tournament. Theoretically, you risk losing something when you put such a creative and inventive player into that role. But the way León plays center back, it really hasn’t been an issue. We’re used to ball-playing defenders these days, but it’s still exceptionally rare to see someone lean so heavily into the libero (sweeper) role, particularly as part of a back four. But León is doing it, and with distinction. By moving forward in possession, she gives Spain a whole separate hinge from which to build their attack, and is a key part to their strategy of suffocating possession. León has also done excellent defensive work, particularly in her recovery runs, which is crucial since her wanderings often leave her out of ideal position when the opponent does get the ball.
Lin Yuping – China
I could just as easily have gone with Peng Shimeng, who showed exactly what she is capable of in China’s 0-0 draw with Spain, making a number of top quality saves and ensuring her team a point in a game that they generally got blitzed. But Peng is somewhat of a known quantity, one of China’s few true young stars. Lin is different – at 27, she’s hardly young, but still has under twenty caps. I tried to do some digging, but language barriers and a general lack of content left me with nothing. I don’t know her backstory. All I know is that she is dominant in the air and pretty solid as a one-on-one defender. She effectively shut down South Africa before they had a chance to even start attacking, and was a key part of the defensive wall that limited the German and Spanish attacks.
Barbara Bonansea – Italy
You could pick three or four players from this wonderful Italy team, but I want to focus on Bonansea, the hero of their famous victory over Australia for the brace that she scored. She also had a third goal in the back of the net, only to have it called back on the narrowest of offside decisions. Above and beyond just the goals, Bonansea has been a constant threat, with slashing runs that left Australia under constant pressure in their first game, and with cool link play that helped unlock the Jamaican defense in their second. She’s also done some excellent defensive work, dropping quite deep to pressure the ball and provide critical support. And she has an absolute rocket of right foot, and seems as likely a candidate as anyone to score the golazo of the tournament.
Deneisha Blackwood – Jamaica
Blackwood has fewer than 20 caps, but on this Jamaican team that still makes her a veteran presence. She can play in a number of different roles, but the evidence of this tournament suggests left back might be the best spot for her. She was a whirling dervish in the second half against Italy, racing up and down the pitch, winning tackles, delivering crosses, and playing an endless run of clever one-twos. It was one of the most impressive displays from a fullback I have seen in the tournament, and in a fairer world would have led to Jamaica’s first World Cup goal.
Lorena Benítez – Argentina
Argentina were one of the great stories of the group stage, and while their success should be regarded as a genuine collective effort, two players have generally been specifically singled out for praise: forward Estefanía Banini and goalkeeper Vanina Correa. Both are absolutely deserving, but I want to add a third name to this list: Lorena Benítez. Her performance against Japan was absolutely everything you could hope for in a central midfielder. She disrupted play, she won tackles, she leapt in for critical blocks, and she raced everywhere to plug holes and fill in gaps. If a center back stepped forward to challenge the ball, Benítez dropped behind to fill the space. If a fullback had moved forward in attack, Benítez slipped into the space to block a cross. It was a truly inspired performance, and there’s no way Argentina could have so thoroughly choked off the Japan attack if not for her efforts. In their third game, Benítez took on a more progressive role, serving as a fulcrum for the attack, and demonstrating that she’s far more than just a destroyer.
Erin Cuthbert – Scotland
If you were paying attention to the pre-tournament hype you already know about Cuthbert’s skill and technique. She an inventive attacker, who can dribble, pass, and (especially) shoot with the very best of them. But for me, the most revelatory thing about watching here over these three games is just how big of a pain in the ass she is to deal with. It’s one thing to dazzle with your touch or your precision. It’s another thing to be clinical—to bury your chances when they appear. But one quality I value over almost any other in a striker is peskiness. The players who are constantly in your face, who don’t let a single pass go easily, who are constantly buzzing through the backline, shedding defenders left and right. Cuthbert has this quality in spades. Combine it with top quality skill, and you’ve got a player genuinely ready to take the step up to superstardom.
Vivianne Miedema – Netherlands
It’s probably not telling you anything you didn’t already know, but Miedema is a truly exceptional striker. Her success is even more impressive given the existence of some very real limitations in her game. She relies pretty heavily on service, and is unlikely to create much all alone. But give her the ball in any sort of dangerous position, and set her loose, and chances are the ball is going to end up in the back of the net. She might well be the most clinical finisher in the world, and doesn’t need clear chances to convert. The Dutch have generally not looked great so far, but Miedema is a clear exception.
Desiree Scott – Canada
Canada is not here to make friends, and they’re not here to score goals. They are here to make their opponents miserable, and there’s no player who’s done more for that goal than Desiree Scott. Scott doesn’t offer a huge amount going forward, but more than makes up for that with her relentless defensive work. Her responsibilities are particularly large when Canada shift to a back three, which often leaves Scott as the only player on her line, needing to harass and harry any counter-attacking threats to protect the backline from becoming exposed.
Christiane Endler – Chile
Sometimes the obvious answer is the right one. Many of us flagged Endler as the key player for Chile before the tournament, but we don’t really deserve credit for ‘calling’ that one because anyone with access to the internet and two minutes could have told you the same. But Endler really has been marvelous. She’s not the only reason the US scored ten fewer goals between their first and second game, but she’s a big part of why. Her saves were stupendous, even more so because they ran the gamut of different goalkeeping skill. Some were incredibly athletic, requiring significant extension in the air. Some were pure reflex, requiring instant movement. Some were purely about positioning – putting your body in the right spot to make the save virtually inevitable. The second half against the US was truly virtuosic, but she was good throughout all three games.
Kosovare Asllani – Sweden
Asllani used to be a rising star. She spent five years at PSG in France and Manchester City in England and always seemed to be just on the cusp of making the leap into the stratosphere. But it never quite happened. But since returning back to Linköpings in Sweden in 2017, she seems to have settled into a new phase of her career, one that makes her absolutely central to Sweden’s plans. Playing as a true number 10, Asllani is given the freedom to drift. Step back and she can play make from in front of the defensive line. Step forward and she becomes a second striker, able to make intelligent runs into space. Asllani is one of those players who needs only the barest bit of space to work with. Back off by even a foot and she’ll exploit the angle. She was the most dangerous Swedish attacker in the group stages–both in terms of chance creation and in terms of ultimate production.