Here’s the moment when I knew the 2015 Women’s World Cup was going to be awesome: We were in the tunnel at Busch Stadium last month waiting to go out for warm-ups against New Zealand. It was just a friendly. St. Louis doesn’t even have an MLS team. I didn’t know what kind of atmosphere to expect, especially in a giant baseball stadium.
Then we walked out into the sunshine and I saw 35,000 people. And they weren’t just there for a day in the sun. They were rocking. The American Outlaws supporters’ group was bouncing up and down, singing “I Believe That We Will Win.” People were wearing Captain America costumes and waving giant flags. It was a massive sea of red, white and blue — all for an exhibition match months before the World Cup.
I ran out thinking, Holy crap. What’s it going to be like when we invade Canada?
We have a World Cup right in our own backyard, and I have a feeling that things are going to pop off. Football is about to take over this country again. Here’s what you need to know about the tournament.
The artificial turf will have many implications
I’m not going to dwell on this, but I’m also not going to drop it, because it needs to be said. This will be the first global football tournament played entirely on artificial turf. FIFA made a $338 million profit on the 2014 Men’s World Cup. To say that it’s not logistically possible to install real grass at all the stadiums is not acceptable, in my opinion. We have played on grass all our lives. Now we’re going to compete at the highest level on a different surface. I think it has a lot of implications.
Some people have said that all the teams have to play on it, so it negates any advantage either way, but I don’t feel that way. I think the more technical, possession-oriented teams will have a harder time adjusting to turf. Teams that play a run-and-gun, disruptive style will have an easier time on turf. The ball bounces differently — it tends to skip off the surface instead of settling down. It also feels different when you run. And that’s the crucial point: I think the turf will be a lot harder on our bodies. You’re going to see the physical toll add up as the tournament goes on. Seven games on turf is a lot, especially when you’re flying thousands of miles across Canada to different venues for the matches. The wear and tear is going to make the depth of teams very important. The level of football and the style of football that everyone wants to see will suffer a little bit, and that’s a shame.
The good news is that because women from across the sport came together to protest FIFA’s decision, I really believe that they’ll never have another Women’s World Cup on turf again. So we can at least take that positive out of it.
Expect world-class quality
Here’s some more good news: The 2015 World Cup will be the first tournament where the majority of players on the top teams are training every single day in professional leagues. That’s a significant change. As little as five or six years ago, most players were working part-time or going to school on the side and only practicing three times per week, then playing a game on the weekend.
After the last World Cup, the exposure for women’s football really blew up, and the domestic leagues all over Europe and the U.S. really grew because of it. Sweden, Germany and France all have quality leagues that offer good salaries. We have our league up and running in the U.S. now. To see how much effort and money is being put into women’s football on the club level is encouraging. Now, even if you’re not a full professional, you’re probably working part-time for the team or working for a sponsor of the club. In my experience, the teams work around your schedule so that you can train every single day.
Even though salaries in domestic leagues are small and most players need supplemental income, there’s an opportunity now for women to make football their life, and you’re going to notice that translate into a difference in quality at this World Cup.
There’s a lot of dark horses
Because of the professionalization of women’s football, the number of quality teams is different than in the past. The traditional powerhouses like Germany, France, Japan and the U.S. will be strong, but there’s a good number of sleeper teams who will make the group stage interesting.
We just played Switzerland and I feel like they could go on a run. The Swiss like to put the ball on the ground and knock it. They play a possession style out of the back that’s fun to watch. Two players in particular to watch out for are Lara Dickenmann, who I played with at Lyon and is one of the best players in the world, and Ramona Bachmann. I think Lara is going to control the game in midfield and Ramona is going to be a dangerous striker down the middle.
Spain is another entertaining team that could make a run. Are they going to get into the semifinals? Maybe not, but I think they have a handful of really quality players, especially midfielder Verónica Boquete. Their game is similar to the Spanish men’s side — the intricate, tiki-taka style. They’re not the most athletically dominant team, but they’re very technical and have great grasp of how to tactically break teams down.
Nigeria is really solid but they’re in our group, so best of luck to them. For the last five or six years they’ve performed very well in youth tournaments. That generation is now going to get a chance on the World Cup stage, and I’m interested to see how they handle the nerves. We won’t be taking them lightly. Speaking of youth …
The U.S. team is full of young talent
Sometimes I look at our roster and I see birth years in the 1990s and I’m like, Wait, seriously? I don’t always immediately comprehend the terms they use, but other than that, I love the raw energy that they bring to the team.
Two breakout players that you should familiarize yourself with are Christen Press and Julie Johnston. This will be the first time that Press is getting significant minutes at a major tournament and I think she is going to be a breakout star, because she’s coming in to the tournament super in-form and scoring a bunch of goals.
On the defensive end, Julie Johnston is a young one — just 23 years old. But she got a chance to start because of injury and has been phenomenal. She’s proven that she can be a reliable presence at the back who can also score goals. That’s a rare combination. Those two are going to be exciting to watch, even if I don’t understand their hashtags.
So, Canada doesn’t like us very much. The U.S. Men’s National Team has Mexico. We have Canada. Personally, I don’t hate them, but I can understand why they’re still mad about the “delay of game” call on their keeper that sparked our crazy comeback win in the semifinals of the 2012 Olympics. They thought the penalty was B.S., and looking back, maybe it wasn’t the most deserved penalty. But it wasn’t like the game was 1-0. We scored three other goals, including the goal in extra time. Still, I can understand why they feel hard-done by the call.
The tension of the rivalry has been building since that game, and I feel like it’s fueling them going into the World Cup. Tactically, when they play us, their mentality is, “We’re going to do whatever we have to do to win. The gloves are off.”
Christine Sinclair is their leader and all-around best player. She’s going to have to be massive for them. Her style is comparable a bit to Zlatan Ibrahimovic (and I mean that as a purely on-field comparison. Personality-wise, I would never compare anyone to Zlatan. There is only one Zlatan). Sinclair is a technically exceptional center forward who can change the game in an instant, much like Zlatan does for Sweden and Paris Saint-Germain. If she plays well, Canada plays well.
Being on their home turf, Canada will be fired up. I hope they do well. I honestly do. It will build the buzz for the World Cup, which is what we all want. It’s ironic that FIFA’s hardline stance on the artificial turf issue sparked a controversy in the run-up to the tournament, because it created a bit of a false public perception about the strength of our game. The reality is that the women’s game is healthier and more exciting than ever.
It’s going to pop off. We’re coming, Canada.