Australia are front-runners for the title of most entertaining team at the Women’s World Cup. The chaotically good Matildas head to France this summer with the stated goal of winning the trophy but the more important (at least for non-Aussies) unstated goal of becoming everyone’s second favorite team. After three straight quarterfinal exits in the previous three World Cups (and the 2016 Olympics as well), Australia will look to make it further than ever before while also trying to overcome defensive deficiencies that have seen them lose their last three friendlies before the tournament.
A 5-3 loss to the United States on April 4 serves as the template for both how Australia want to play and how badly it could all go for them at the World Cup. In that game, new coach Ante Milicic lined the Matildas up to press and hassle the more-settled United States team, with mixed results. After conceding an early goal to Alex Morgan, Australia turned on the burners and took a 2-1 lead in the 47th minute, only to then concede three straight to put the game out of reach. While the team will look to, you know, not concede five in every game at the World Cup (or even three, as they did against the Netherlands over the weekend), the idea of offense through mania seems to be their go-to strategy for unsettling the top tier teams in France.
It all starts with the best striker in the world. Captain Sam Kerr is the 25-year-old live-wire at the top of the Australian attack and the envy of every other nation in women’s soccer. The back-to-back NWSL scoring leader (as well as its all-time leading goalscorer) has been unstoppable both in the United States and in her country’s domestic league, scoring 79 goals in her last 83 appearances for her clubs, Perth Glory and the Chicago Red Stars. If there’s an example of a perfect modern attacker, it’s Kerr; she’s fast, strong, has great positional awareness, and a killer finish with either foot. It’s impossible to overstate how much Kerr’s presence informs Australia’s approach: an attacking barrage, intent on getting the ball into their star’s feet within shooting distance. If Australia are to make the final four (or even further than that), look for Kerr to be the tournament’s top scorer, and it might not even be close.
Next to Kerr will be Caitlin Foord, who plays the supporting role to her more-heralded counterpart. She can still bang in the goals herself, but serves more to open up space for Kerr to do her thing. Alongside them will be two of three wingers: Lisa De Vanna, Hayley Raso, and Emily Gielnik. De Vanna scored Australia’s opener against the United States, while Raso and Gielnik both provide the width and pace necessary to make the madcap style work. And the midfield pair behind all that mayhem is solid, too. Elise Kellond-Knight is the conservative option of the two, while Emily van Egmond will serve as a box-to-box destroyer, leading the midfield press and generally causing havoc everywhere across the park.
As for defense, Australia have arguably the best left back in the world in Steph Catley, and a promising youngster opposite of her in Ellie Carpenter. They will look to fill the spaces left by the marauding wingers, though that exposes their weaker center back pair to a lot of pressure. And that’s why Australia can be considered both a dark horse and a potential bust: their style and personnel are all about attacking, without a strong wall in the back to cover any counters. It’s the cruel juxtaposition of watching Australia: they’re so talented that you want to see them win their way, but to succeed against, say, Germany or the United States or France, they will need to play with a bit more reserve than they would prefer. To succeed, either Australia tone it down a little when the moment calls for it, or they will need to be perfect in attack through seven games to lift the cup. With Kerr leading the way, that’s not out of the question.
Goalkeepers: Lydia Williams (Reign FC), Teagan Micah (UCLA Bruins), Mackenzie Arnold (Brisbane Roar)
Defenders: Gema Simon (Newcastle Jets), Clare Polkinghorne (Houston Dash), Laura Alleway (Melbourne Victory), Steph Catley (Reign FC), Alanna Kennedy (Orlando Pride), Ellie Carpenter (Portland Thorns), Teigen Allen (Melbourne Victory)
Midfielders: Aivi Luik (Levante), Chloe Logarzo (Washington Spirit), Elise Kellond-Knight (Reign FC), Emily van Egmond (Orlando Pride), Tameka Yallop (Klepp IL), Katrina Gorry (Brisbane Roar), Amy Harrison (Washington Spirit)
Forwards: Caitlin Foord (Portland Thorns), Lisa De Vanna (Sydney FC), Emily Gielnik (Melbourne Victory), Hayley Raso (Portland Thorns), Mary Fowler (Bankstown City), Sam Kerr (Chicago Red Stars)
Who even knows! The only certainty for the Matildas is that they will play two strikers up top. Kerr and Ford will ruin defender’s lives with their pace and finishing for as long as they can. But everything below the duo could shift from game to game. In that wild warm-up against the United States, the Aussies went for what seemed almost like a video game-esque 4-2-4, built on pressuring the Americans at all points of the field. It worked...to an extent. As evidenced the 5-3 scoreline, Australia were able to create plenty of chances against the best team in the world, but they regularly left their defense exposed at the back, particularly when fullbacks Catley and Carptener barreled forward to join the attack.
A slightly more conservative approach might fit a tournament setting, but Milicic seems intent on having the Australians try to win by blunt force. The Australia-born son of Croatian parents, he came into the side just six months ago after previous manager Alen Stajcic got fired over what was called a toxic environment for the Matildas. (Stajcic said in a statement back in February that he “never witnessed, never participated in and never acquiesced to the participation of others in any impropriety or misconduct relating to players or the Matildas set-up.”) Milicic hasn’t had much time to impose a philosophy on the Aussies, but seems content with pushing them forward and unleashing hell.
In other words, Kerr and her band of supporting characters will get their chances to shine (keep an eye out for De Vanna marauding up from either wing), and Milicic will hope that his side can control enough of the possession to limit chances on the other end. If that fails, then the Matildas will rely on two elite players at the back. Catley is by far their best defender, though her impact on that end is offset by her propensity to get forward, while goalkeeper Lydia Williams is one of the best shot-stoppers heading to France this summer. That might just be enough to keep Australia ahead in most games, allowing Kerr, Foord, and their assortment of wide players to dictate terms in the opponent’s final third.
June 9, 7 a.m.: Australia vs. Italy at Stade du Hainaut
June 13, 12 p.m.: Australia vs. Brazil at Stade de la Mosson
June 18, 3 p.m.: Jamaica vs. Australia at Stade des Alpes
All times Eastern