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Welcome back to the Yahoo Soccer Mixer! Kickoff in France is upon us, so it’s time to make our final predictions, from top scorer to best player to the most important prize, Women’s World Cup champion. Who are we backing? Read on ...
Golden Boot winner
Henry Bushnell: This may or may not be crazy. Because she may not even start a game. (Nor should she.) But I’m going with Carli Lloyd. At 36, her reinvented game is tailor-made for the supersub role. She’ll probably get 20-30 minutes per match. That’s enough, given recent form, to ravage deflated minnows and grab a crucial goal or two when the U.S. goes all-out attack.
(Sam Kerr, of course, is the smart pick here. She’s the best striker – and player – at the tournament. But sometimes smart is boring.)
Doug McIntyre: I’m going to go with Dutch master Vivianne Miedema, who has been red-hot for the Oranje (and club side Arsenal) over the last year. Miedema just led the Gunners to the English title by scoring 20 times in 17 games, and, at 22, she has tons of big-time tournament experience after appearing in the 2015 tourney as a teenager before breaking out two years later at the European Championships, which the Netherlands won.
With the Dutch capable of making another deep run this summer in France and Miedema playing alongside Lieke Martens up top, she should get more than enough scoring chances to lead the tourney.
Ryan Bailey: I’m going for Valerie Gauvin. Her teammate Eugenie Le Sommer might be fancied as French top scorer, but Gauvin comes into this tournament on red-hot form, with four goals in Les Bleues’ last five outings. The 23-year-old will get game time and France will, USWNT permitting, go deep in the tournament.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: I’m throwing my weight behind the one true Sam Kerr. Not only is she, to my mind, the best pure striker in the world, but she plays on a team, Australia, that is very good at scoring goals and very bad at stopping the other team from scoring goals. The Matildas, in other words, are all-in on attacking. And with a super manageable group with Italy, Brazil and Jamaica, there will be chances aplenty.
Joey Gulino: I suppose if I’m worried about the USWNT going out in the quarterfinals, I can’t pick an American, right? I’ll go with Alexandra Popp. She’s scored in the last two friendlies for Germany, which will make a deep run, and she’s coming off a successful club season.
Golden Ball winner
Henry Bushnell: If you believe the U.S. will be playing on July 7 – and I do – Megan Rapinoe is the best shout. If not … that means France is likely playing on July 7, and if that’s the case, Amandine Henry will likely be deserving. But defensive midfielders rarely win these awards. So I’ll go with Pinoe over Henry, Kerr, Lieke Martens (Netherlands) and Dzsenifer Marozsan (Germany). But the Golden Ball field is wide open. At least a half-dozen Americans alone could win it.
Doug McIntyre: Amandine Henry. If France is going to deep on home soil – and I do like the host nation’s chances in a potential quarterfinal meeting with the Americans – then Henry, Les Bleues’ inspirational captain, is going to be front-and-center and impossible to ignore.
Ryan Bailey: As Henry noted, the Golden Ball could go to any number of USWNT members, but it’s Alex Morgan for my money. The four-time CONCACAF Player of the Year is more highly decorated than an upscale Christmas tree and is in her third World Cup at the age of only 29. She may not have been at her brilliant best in recent outings, but time and time again, Morgan has shown her imperative value to the team, and she will step up on the big stage.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Wendie Renard. The France and Lyon captain is probably the best central defender in the world and so multi-functional that she’s usually good for double-digit goals every club season – and she doesn’t just score with her head on that 6-foot-1 frame. And the Golden Ball usually goes to someone from the winning team.
Joey Gulino: I’m with Doug on this one. The Golden Ball at the Women’s World Cup has been refreshingly favorable to match-controlling midfielders in addition to strikers, and Amandine Henry fits this bill as much as anyone at the tournament. She’s a wonder to watch, and will be over the next month.
Who will be the USWNT’s breakout star?
Henry Bushnell: Rose Lavelle. With Crystal Dunn a close second – seems like even clued-in fans are forgetting how impactful she can be, simply because she’s playing left back.
Doug McIntyre: Rose Lavelle for me, too. Her comfort on the ball is Tobin Heath-esque. Lavelle’s skills and creativity dazzle and inspire fans, yet many casual supporters don’t really know her yet. That’s going to change this summer.
Ryan Bailey: Is it boring if I say Rose Lavelle too? Fine. I’ll go for Sam Mewis: She has played very well in the recent warm-up matches and definitely deserves some minutes in this tournament to show her value.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Since I’m going second to last and the earth on Rose Lavelle has been salted, I’ll say Mallory Pugh. The breakout star is almost never who you think it’ll be. My money was in Christen Press in 2015 and it wound up being Julie Johnston – now Ertz – who wasn’t even a regular a year before the tournament. But Pugh has all the tools. And if she gets on the field, which I think she will, the 21-year-old forward could stun some people.
Joey Gulino: I am genuinely surprised nobody has mentioned Lindsey Horan. I know she’s a little banged up, but it might also depend on how you define “breakout.” Of course soccer fans know who she is by now, but the world at large is due for an introduction to her significant impact on the USWNT.
Which U.S. player won’t live up to expectations?
Henry Bushnell: Alex Morgan is generally awesome, but hasn’t exactly been in top form lately … just sayin’.
Doug McIntyre: Reigning NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan is a baller, but I’m not sure she’s fully recovered from the quadriceps injury that forced her to miss the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year. Her first World Cup could be arriving just a little too soon.
Ryan Bailey: Forgive me for going against the grain, but I’ll go for Carli Lloyd. Not because she’s 36 and in her fourth World Cup, and not necessarily because her talents are not as well used as an out-and-out striker, but because lightning can’t strike twice. She set the bar too high in 2015.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Alyssa Naeher. And that’s less to do with her than the shoes she’s filling. We’ve come to expect American goalkeepers to change games all by themselves. And for the last five World Cups, the U.S. has had generationally talented netminders in Briana Scurry and Hope Solo. Now that Naeher is wearing the gloves, there will be a lot of pressure on a perfectly competent yet unspectacular goalkeeper.
Joey Gulino: Make that two picks for Alex Morgan. She’s amazing, but she’s also on a squad full of attackers that can score in addition to providing quality service and dusting defenders. People expecting her to score 10 goals or something this summer will probably be a bit disappointed.
Which top-10 team is most likely to crash out at the group stage?
Henry Bushnell: Brazil has been wretched for an entire year now. It hasn’t won since July 2018, and heads to France having lost nine straight, the two most recent defeats to Spain and Scotland. Marta’s fitness is up in the air. All three group games are losable. The 24-team tournament’s format widens the margin for error, but Brazil is the one giant who could conceivably go home without a win.
Ryan Bailey: As an Englishman, I am impugned to cast negativity over the Lionesses, but I’m going to pick our antipodean cousins Australia. Not only are they sharing a group with Brazil and an Italy side poised to reach the knockout stages for the first time since 1991, but this highly touted generation has a huge weight of expectation upon it shoulders. Given the relatively short amount of time Ante Milicic has had to impose his ideas, there could be trouble for the Aussies ahead.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: Japan. I would have said Brazil, but they’re in such an easy group, and it’s SO hard to not survive the group stage in this 24-team format. So I’ll go with the 2011 champions, who seem caught between a generation of World Cup winners that’s long past it and a promising batch that isn’t ready yet.
Joey Gulino: It pains me to do this to Ryan, but I have to say England. They’re the most talented team in their group, but it’s also a tough group, and they have no idea what their ideal XI is. That’s, um, that’s a problem heading into the biggest tournament in the sport.
Doug McIntyre: I grew up in a Scottish household so obviously I’m going to say England, too. In all seriousness, opening against Scotland could be a trap for the Lionesses. The Scots are heavy underdogs, but you can be sure they’ll bring their best game.
Which dark horse could make a knockout-stage run?
Henry Bushnell: All the talk surrounding Norway will be about Ada Hegerberg and her decision to skip the World Cup. But the Norwegians still have talent, and potentially a kind path to the quarters if they finish second in Group A behind France.
Ryan Bailey: I like Norway too, in spite of their tricky group, but I’ll plump for China. They have great talent like Wang Shanshan and PSG’s Wang Shuang (sometimes dubbed “the female Messi”) and they have a reasonable group. They reached the quarterfinals in 2015 and could go further this time out.
Leander Schaerlaeckens: I like Nigeria. They’ve been the strongest team in Africa for years but finally have the backing to prepare for this tournament properly. They could easily make it through the group stage ahead of South Korea and even Norway. And from there, a lot of soft draws for the round of 16 are possible.
Joey Gulino: Dark horses are frequently about situation as much as talent, and I’ll tip New Zealand here. Capable of producing fine performances on their best days, the Football Ferns are being written off because they’re in the same group as Canada and the Netherlands, but if they finish second, they’d face another group runner-up before (likely) Germany in the quarterfinals. And if they win the group? They’d be on a quarterfinal collision course with the Group C winner, which is eminently beatable no matter who it is.
Doug McIntyre: Although the Netherlands is a top-10 team and will vie with Canada for the top spot in Group E, few seem to consider the Dutch legitimate title contenders. But with a little luck and lots of goals from their all-world strikers, I think the Oranje can win a knockout game or two, at the very least.
Who’s winning it all?
Henry Bushnell: ‘Murica.
Ryan Bailey: The Rebel Colonies. (That’s English for “‘‘Murica”)
Leander Schaerlaeckens: France. The men’s national team has already won a Euro and a World Cup on home soil. It’s the women’s turn.
Doug McIntyre: France.
Joey Gulino: France. Aux armes, citoyennes.