After 36 group stage matches, and seemingly triple that number of VAR headaches, the Women’s World Cup is getting into the good shit. Gone are the eight teams unworthy of continuing on, while the 16 best remaining sides prepare for a four-round elimination chaos pit. The survivor of that churn will be the eighth champion in World Cup history.
You’ve got your favorites: the United States, France, I guess maybe also Germany. You’ve got some dark horses, too: the Netherlands, England, Australia, and also Italy and Brazil (group C was really good!). And, of course, there are some just-happy-to-be-heres that scraped through the group stage and will get to play a fourth game nonetheless: come on down, Cameroon, Nigeria, and China. Each of these 16 teams has strengths and weaknesses, and there is no better vehicle for exposing both than knockout competition.
Here’s what you can expect from each of the eight round of 16 matches, including a clash between two of the best sides in women’s soccer history and a pair of dark horse showdowns.
Germany vs. Nigeria (6/22, 11:30 a.m.)
The round of 16 kicks off with a historical power against a team that...is not that. Germany has done what tournament contenders are supposed to do: three games, nine points, no goals allowed. Dzsenifer Marozsán’s broken toe will be the storyline going forward for the Germans; if she’s out or significantly hobbled, the side loses both its best playmaker and a crucial edge against the better defenses they will face in the knockout rounds. Sara Däbritz has stepped up admirably in Marozsán’s absence, but it feels difficult to project a run to the final for Germany without their star number 10.
On the other side is Nigeria, which squeaked into the knockouts as the last third-place team side to qualify, and then only because Chile hit the crossbar on a late penalty in their last game. Nigeria’s star attacker Asisat Oshoala was great against South Korea, and the Super Falcons will feel a bit done in by VAR in their near-draw against the French, so they weren’t all bad. But there’s no question they will be overmatched and out-gunned by Germany, even with Marozsán’s injury.
This should add up to a comfortable and very German victory—one in which they control the possession, probably double-mark Oshoala, and slowly but surely suck the life out of their opponents. The Super Falcons provide a tougher test than either Argentina or Chile, the other two third-place teams that didn’t qualify, but that’s a low bar. It feels rude to say this, but this should be Germany’s final warm-up before a much tougher test in the quarter-finals, against either Sweden or Canada.
Norway vs. Australia (6/22, 3 p.m.)
Ada Hegerberg who? Norway have looked like an elite team so far this tournament even without the world’s best player, who is sitting out of the World Cup due to her problems with the Norwegian FA’s treatment of the women’s team. They will feel confident about their chances to make some noise in the knockout stages, even without her. (It’s probably best for all involved not to think about how good this team would be with Hegerberg out there.) Norway looked great in toppling Nigeria and South Korea, even if those teams didn’t look particularly challenging, but their game against France showed that they can keep up with the best of the best, even if they lost due to a VAR-aided penalty call. The Scandinavians are solid at the back and can provide enough offense to cause problems...
...particularly for Australia, which has already been part of two of the three best matches of the tournament. They’re good, and their Sam Kerr-led anarchy up top will make trouble against any team, but their complete lack of coherent defending is an obvious and dangerous weakness. Australia were shocked by Italy in the first match of the group stage, before doing a bit of shocking themselves in a comeback victory against Brazil in which they erased a two-goal deficit to win 3-2. In total, the Matildas scored eight goals—that’s the most in the group stage, non-USWNT division—and allowed five. Kerr exploded in the final game against over-matched Jamaica, scoring four goals and generally showing why she’s such a terror to guard. With her on the side and their shambolic defense doing what it does, Australia could go out in this round. They could also win the trophy. It’s honestly impossible to say which is more likely.
In Norway, Australia do find an opponent perfectly suited to stop them in their tracks. The Norwegian defense should cause problems for Kerr—or, more to the point, for everyone around Kerr, which will suffocate her service—while the offense is good enough to take advantage of the Aussie defense. As will be the case in every match going forward, Australia’s best chance will be to turn this into an up-and-down, high-scoring game. Considering that they have their best player and Norway doesn’t, that strategy might work out.
England vs. Cameroon (6/23, 11:30 a.m.)
England did what they had to do in group D play: three matches, three wins. And yet, it doesn’t feel like the Lionesses have reached their full potential after struggling to break down Argentina and needing some VAR voodoo to stave off Scotland. Fran Kirby is supposed to be the fulcrum of the team’s attack, but she has been mediocre through three games; there’s an argument to be made that she should be benched for 20-year-old Georgia Stanway. Phil Neville’s fluid attacking style has looked stilted in France so far. They’re probably better than they’ve looked, but they haven’t looked great.
Cameroon might help with that. They barely made it through the group stages as the third-best third-place team, although they did provide the moment of the tournament so far when Ajara Nchout’s wonderful 95th minute goal against New Zealand sent the Indomitable Lionesses (this is a real big cat match-up) to the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup. Sure, Cameroon lost its first two matches by a total of 4-1, but they did what they had to do.
England will be heavily favored even after that sluggish start. Cameroon’s defense should prove inadequate against the English attack even if it stays stuck in second gear, and England’s defense has conceded just one goal so far. If England puts it all together on offense, this could be a pretty bad game. But Cameroon has already provided one shocker, and they do have the individual skill to make a magical run to the quarter-finals. Nchout versus Lucy Bronze, who is possibly the best right back in the world, will be the match-up to watch.
France vs. Brazil (6/23, 3 p.m.)
Let’s fucking go. This should be the best and most historically significant match of the round of 16. France have done their duty as the hosts, brushing South Korea aside 4-0 in the opener before grinding out a pair of one-goal victories (with plenty of VAR shenanigans along the way) against a tough Norway team and a Nigeria side that should feel robbed of at least a point. The host’s luminaries have all been as advertised—Eugénie Le Sommer has scored two goals, Wendie Renard has been a rock in both the back and on corners (though her bizarre own goal against Norway almost cost her team two points), and depth talent like Delphine Cascarino and Valérie Gauvin have impressed. France is deep, good, and rolling.
But Brazil is Brazil, and they’re still extremely capable on their best day. This isn’t the golden generation’s finest moment, but in their last ride, Marta and co. have provided plenty of highlights. Barbara has been excellent in goal, aside from the Australia game where nothing went right for Brazil following their 2-0 lead, while 41-year-old Formiga is somehow still performing at a high-level in the midfield. Marta’s attacking partner Cristiane has tallied four goals in three games, while the G.O.A.T. herself scored the game-winning, knockout-ensuring penalty against Italy.
France will be favored here, perhaps even highly so, but Brazil has the tools to make it a rough Sunday in Le Havre. As long as Brazil can keep Le Sommer and her band of pacey and showy attackers out of dangerous positions, the Seleção has enough in attack to torture Renard and Griedge Mbock Bathy. There might well be some home-cooking in the refereeing and VARing for France, but Brazil has been here many times before, and the pressure will only ramp up for France, which has let’s say a history of not always bearing up under that kind of stress. The hosts should still advance, but they will be tested before a potential blockbuster quarter-final matchup against the United States.
United States vs. Spain (6/24, 12 p.m.)
And what a quarter-final that would be. The USWNT have looked every bit the best team in the world in France. Following their 13-0 demolition of Thailand, the Americans peppered the Chilean goal; they scored just three times only because Chile’s goalie stood on her head. A comfortable 2-0 victory against Sweden finished off a perfect group stage for the U.S.—no goals allowed, nine points, 18 goals scored. There are a few minor question marks remaining—Is Julie Ertz’s injury a big deal? How about Alex Morgan’s? Should Jill Ellis bench Crystal Dunn, who is great but is also struggling at left back? Furthermore, who exactly is in the best XI?—but American fans could ask for nothing more than what the team has done through three games.
Spain, on the other hand, have been mightily disappointing so far. One of the world’s best teams in possession, La Roja has not converted their passing skill into much actual goal-scoring, at least beyond a 3-1 opening day victory against South Africa. They looked lost against Germany, then played to a purposeful draw against China on the final day. Their defense has been fine, and they are capable of bossing a midfield on the right day, but nothing about their tournament so far indicates that they will test the United States.
The United States midfield has been a chaotic whirlwind, and could well tear Spain apart. Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, and Ertz have all dominated for stretches of time, with Horan especially being nigh-unplayable so far. Those wrecking balls in mid only make life easier for the U.S. attack, even though Megan Rapinoe has struggled a bit on the left. For Spain to have even a semblance of a chance, their own midfield will have to find ways to break the American organization in midfield. This is not the hardest task, as it happens; most of the U.S. midfielders are very easily pushed out of position, although they routinely make up for it with their physicality. After that, the challenge is to somehow get it past Alyssa Naeher in goal; Naeher was a huge question mark for the U.S. and she hasn’t faced much so far, but she has been solid. If Spain plays as they did in the group stage, this could be the most lopsided score of the round of 16.
Sweden vs. Canada (6/24, 3 p.m.)
Despite losing 2-0 to their forever rivals from the United States, Sweden showed that they’re legit by demolishing two of the worst sides in the tournament. Though they were kept out by Chile’s Christiane Endler for 83 minutes, the Swedes eventually won a game that they controlled throughout 2-0, before whomping Thailand 5-1. Kosovare Asllani has been as good as advertised in the midfield, and Sweden can take some solace in how well they played the USWNT in the second half of the 2-0 loss that sent them to the easier side of the bracket.
Canada has been one of the better defensive sides in the tournament so far, but they have no idea how to score goals. At least, that’s the takeaway after they barely beat Cameroon, only scored two against New Zealand, and needed an inch-perfect cross to their legendary striker Christine Sinclair to avoid getting blanked by the Netherlands and its decidedly average defense. Of course, a defensive approach like Canada’s is perfectly fine in the knockout rounds, when teams tense up and one goal is worth so much.
This might be the hardest match of the knockout round to forecast. Canada has to get its attack in order at some point, and Sinclair is still capable of scoring out of nothing even if the rest stays stuck in neutral. Sweden has shown more against far-worse competition, though hanging in against the best team of the tournament so far earns them some points. The midfield will be key here: if Asllani can break down the first line of defense and find some runners ahead of her—preferably away from Canada’s star defender Kadeisha Buchanan, who has been excellent—Sweden could find glory. Otherwise, their high line will leave a lot of room for Canada to counter right back. Maybe that’s how the Canadians will rediscover their scoring ways.
Italy vs. China (6/25, 12 p.m.)
Italy has been the pleasant surprise of the World Cup so far, bar none. The Italians came into their opening match against Australia and dominated the higher-regarded Matildas for 90 minutes to win 2-1. They took care of business against Jamaica in the second match, before running out of steam somewhat against Brazil, allowing for all three group C teams to finish with six points. Thanks to their superior goal differential, Italy won the group in the country’s first World Cup since 1999. They’ve got some ballers in Barbara Bonansea and Cristiana Girelli, and a good tactical plan focused on their strong back-line. They’re better than almost anyone expected and could make some noise.
Especially since their first opponent is China, which has seemed content to just coast through the group stage with a third-place spot in mind. In their most important game—the finale against Spain, their main competition for second place—China was cowardly in attack and dirty on defense. That dirtiness, as much as the defense, has been China’s best asset so far: they just beat people up and hope to frustrate them into mistakes. That’s not particularly admirable, but we also might not have to watch it for that much longer—Italy is tough enough that it shouldn’t work here. China’s best chance is to get star attacker Wang Shuang to finally pop off. The Chinese player of the year has been quiet, and without her, China doesn’t have much in attack. They scored just one goal across three group-stage games.
Italy’s dream run should not end here. They’re better across the board, they have the ability to score goals out of nothing, and they are better drilled. A date with the Netherlands or Japan waits in the next round, and either should be a much tougher test than the Steel Roses. As long as Italy keep their composure against a barrage of rule-bending tackles in the round of 16, Le Azzurre should keep their fairy-tale run going for at least one more match.
Netherlands vs. Japan (6/25, 3 p.m.)
Are the Netherlands the team that struggled to put one in the net against group minnows New Zealand, or are they the very different team that rolled comfortably over Cameroon and Canada? The answer surely seems closer to the latter, particularly given how well two of their stars have been playing. Vivianne Miedema has been the team’s best player, constantly occupying multiple defenders at the top of the box, while Daniëlle van de Donk has been orchestrating from deeper; her ridiculous bicycle attempt against Canada would have likely been the best goal in Women’s World Cup history if it had gone in. If the Dutch can get their supposed best player, Lieke Martens, to play up to her potential after a quiet group stage, they could power through a favorable draw towards a potential semi-final matchup against Germany.
Japan, on the other hand, have been a disappointment. They were held to a scoreless draw by Argentina in the opening game, struggled with Scotland in what wound up being a 2-1 victory, and then were dispatched with ease by England. The Japanese generation that made two straight World Cup finals earlier this decade is past, and the new blood hasn’t shown enough attacking juice to trouble anyone. Their defense is still pretty damn good, though, although it will have to be if they’re going to sneak past the Dutch
Expect a Netherlands-controlled game here. They have better talent in both midfield and attack, and will look to push Japan back into the box, where Miedema, Martens, and Shanice van de Sanden will look to fill the gaps. Netherlands has looked shaky at the back, but Japan simply doesn’t appear to have the firepower needed to punish them for it. It will take some stunning individual performances from Japan’s backline to keep this one manageable, but for a team that used to be women’s soccer royalty, all signs point to an ignominious end to their 2019 run.
All times EST.