Last week I divided the World Cup competitors into five tiers. Now that we have the full draw, it’s worth taking a look to see how everyone is situated. Did anyone’s road get easier? Harder? Is there a ‘group of death’?
For the most part, the answer to all the questions is ‘no.’ Given a strict seeding system, the pots were pretty evenly balanced. That said, some of the groups do look a bit more interesting, and maybe a bit tougher, than others. So let’s dig in.
Group A: France (tier 1), Norway (tier 3), South Korea (tier 3), Nigeria (tier 4)
This is probably the toughest group from top to bottom. Nigeria was one of the strongest teams in Pot 4, and the same is true of South Korea in Pot 3. Which means all four teams have a legitimate chance of advancing. That said, the overall strength of the group is probably good for France, who is a clear step ahead of the other three. If everyone plays to their level, I’d expect Norway, South Korea, and Nigeria to take points from one another, letting France escape fairly easily with a first place finish. That said, this is one of the groups with the highest variance in possible outcomes. If France does slip up in their opening match against South Korea, there’s a high possibility for chaos to ensue.
Group B: Germany (2), China (3), Spain (3), South Africa (4)
If Group A isn’t the strongest overall, it’s probably this one. Plus, Germany isn’t playing at France’s level right now–and won’t have the home field advantage–which makes the top spot far more open. I’d still expect Germany to have more than enough to handle the others, but it wouldn’t be especially surprising to see either China or Spain sneak into the top position. Then factor in that South Africa is no one’s idea of a pushover, and you have maybe an incredibly fascinating group. I like this Spain team a lot, and was considering adopting them as my dark horse team to follow. This group creates the highest range of possible outcomes they were likely to encounter. They could win the group or finish in last place, without a massive difference in performance.
Group C: Australia (1), Brazil (3), Italy (3), Jamaica (5)
The first group with a clear team at the bottom. Jamaica are probably the weakest team in the tournament, and the draw didn’t do them any huge favors. Italy and Brazil are vulnerable, but it would be a major shock if they dropped points against the Reggae Girlz. Meanwhile, although Australia will want to avoid getting overconfident, they should be able to manage first here without too much trouble, particularly since they play Jamaica last and will know precisely how many goals they’ll need to score to win the goal difference tiebreaker, should they find themselves in a position where that matters. Which means Italy v. Brazil on June 18 could be one of the key matchups in the group stage.
Group D: England (1), Japan (3), Scotland (4), Argentina (5)
This is probably my favorite group. Strictly going by tiers, it looks pretty straightforward. But Japan, Scotland, and Argentina are all among the strongest teams in their tier. If Japan plays like they did over the last 18 months, England should have no trouble with them, and the big question will be whether Scotland can overtake them. But it doesn’t pay to underestimate Japan in big tournaments, and I have a sneaking suspicion that their commitment to youth is going to pay off next summer with a team that looks closer to the dangerous Japan teams over the earlier part of the decade. Then consider the excitement of England v. Scotland, and you’ve got an opportunity for some serious fireworks.
One other thing worth noting: the winner of this group gets placed in probably the best spot in the bracket–facing a third place team in the round of 16 and then a relatively weak runner-up (probably Brazil or Norway) in the quarterfinals. Meanwhile, whoever finishes second will get thrown into a Round of 16 showdown with either Canada or the Netherlands, and would then probably have to play Australia in the quarterfinals. Ouch.
England and Japan play in the final match on June 19, which will probably determine who goes where. That’s definitely one worth marking down on your calendar.
Group E: Canada (2), Netherlands (2), New Zealand (4), Cameroon (5)
This is just about the best possible outcome for the Dutch, who were (pretty easily) the strongest team in Pot 2. They’ll face off against the weakest team from Pot 1, in the only group where there’s nothing close to a clear favorite to win the group. I’d bet on the Netherlands, but not by much. Meanwhile, New Zealand is good enough to play with the top two, but more realistically will have to hope to keep those games tight enough that a big win over Cameroon is enough to see them through.
Group F: USA (1), Sweden (3), Chile (4), Thailand (5)
Yawn. theoretically possible for the US to fail to advance from this group, but it would be the single most shocking result in the history of women’s soccer. In fact, it would be deeply surprising if they did anything other than win the group at a canter. Even if Sweden pulls another miracle out of their hat, their chances of beating the US are pretty low, and the Americans will probably score a dozen or so goals in the other two matches, putting their goal difference out of reach. Basically, the US almost literally couldn’t have been handed an easier group. That said, if they stroll into a quarterfinal match against France having barely been tested, they might end up wishing for a bit more pressure in the early stages.
In my initial framework, I identified 15 teams in the top three tiers. These are the ones that I believe should expect to advance to the knockout round, all things being equal. Now that we have the groups, though, it looks like the teams in Groups A, B, and C might have drawn a slightly shorter stick. They’ll each be competing with other similarly-situated squads for the two guaranteed slots. If they can’t manage that, they’ll have to cast their luck with the third-place chances. But precisely because they’re in tougher groups, they’re more likely to drop points compared to teams in the other groups that face some slightly easier competition.
Meanwhile, Group F looks like the place least likely to produce a third place advancer. Whoever finishes third in that group will probably have a battering from the US dragging down their goal difference, meaning they’ll almost certainly need four points if they want to get through. Which means they’ll need a draw against Sweden–possible, but unlikely.
All of that said, it’s still a long way from June, 2019. Some of these teams may show enough over that time to significantly affect our assessment of their chances. And, of course, soccer is a funny old game so you never want to bet too heavily on things going to form.
What are your thoughts? Who got the easiest draw? The toughest? Which matches are you most anticipating?