Women’s World Cup: Japan Rolls and England Begins

England players at a training session on Friday in Brisbane, Australia.Credit…Dan Peled/Reuters

Another of the top contenders for a Women’s World Cup title takes to the field Saturday, when England opens its campaign against Haiti. The English won the European Championship last year and are looking to build on that success. Despite missing two key players, the Lionesses have enough pieces of their Euro roster to make a real run.

Denmark and Japan are also two teams to watch throughout this tournament. Japan wants to get back in the contender conversation after last reaching a World Cup quarterfinal in 2015, and started with a dominant win Saturday against Zambia. Denmark has beaten Sweden, Norway and Japan in the last year.

Japan looked impressive against Zambia, not only putting up five goals — the most for any team in a game in this tournament so far — but also holding Zambia without a single shot. Yes, that’s correct, Zambia had zero shots. Japan, meanwhile, looked fluid and comfortable as it wove through the Zambia defense.

Japan has long been a fixture in World Cup competition and is the only Asian team to have won the women’s tournament, beating the United States in a penalty shootout in 2011. But the past few years haven’t gone Japan’s way — the team made an early exit from the 2019 World Cup in the round of 16, then lost in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Zambia, led by Barbra Banda, is among the newcomers in this year’s tournament. But the team has been embroiled in allegations of sexual abuse after players accused staff members, including Coach Bruce Mwape, of demanding sexual favors. The Football Association of Zambia and FIFA are conducting investigations.

Aside from the United States, England may be facing the greatest expectations of any team in the tournament. The English won the 2022 Euros on home soil, catapulting the team’s players to household-name status. But some of those names are missing from England’s current World Cup roster, after the Euro captain Leah Williamson and the star forward Beth Mead both tore anterior cruciate ligaments.

England still has a competitive squad that will look to make a deep run. Its first obstacle will be Haiti, one of eight newcomers to this year’s Women’s World Cup. Because of gang violence and instability in the country, the women’s national team has had limited opportunities to train and no sponsors. While Haiti is unlikely to make it out of the group stage, the team is hoping its play inspires more girls on the island to take up soccer.

China’s lone appearance in a World Cup final came in 1999, when it lost to the United States in a penalty shootout at the Rose Bowl in California. At the 2019 World Cup, the team lost to Italy in the round of 16, a stage it hopes to reach again this year, unlikely as that is. According to their coach, Shui Qingxia, the Chinese are looking at this World Cup as an opportunity to reintroduce themselves to the world stage.

That reintroduction will begin Saturday against Denmark, a team that has missed the past three World Cups and is looking to make up for lost time. A successful run for the Danes would see them make the round of 16, and a win over China would be a first step in that direction.

Sophia Smith, at right, jumps into the air in the arms of a team as other U.S. players run to join the celebration.
Sophia Smith scored two goals in the 3-0 U.S. win over Vietnam.Credit…Andrew Cornaga/Associated Press

For more than an hour, the United States sailed shots high and spun them wide. It skied them over the crossbar and curled them wide of each post. Occasionally, Vietnam’s goalkeeper would swat one away.

Three of the shots went in the Vietnam net, however, and at the World Cup, that is all that matters. Sophia Smith, a 22-year-old forward playing in her first World Cup match, got the first two and set up the third for Lindsey Horan, a veteran midfielder entrusted only weeks ago with the captain’s armband.

But there could have been more, and the Americans knew that as well as anyone. Alex Morgan failed to convert a first-half penalty kick. Rose Lavelle hit the crossbar late in the second half. Horan admitted she “could have scored maybe three or four more.”

“A World Cup isn’t always perfect or pretty,” Smith said sagely even though this is her first. “But I think we definitely could put away a few more chances.”

Those chances — the United States had 27 shots overall — were perhaps the best evidence of what might have been on a day that will be remembered more for the goals that were almost scored than the ones that were.

Sharpness, efficiency, ruthlessness: Those are discussions for tomorrow. On a chilly afternoon in Auckland, the main takeaway for the United States was that it had opened this World Cup just as it left the last one: with a victory.

“Obviously we came here to win the game,” United States Coach Vlatko Andonovski said, “and we did that.”

Like the United States, Vietnam surely knew that things might have gone much worse. At a pregame news conference at Eden Park on the eve of the game, a reporter from Vietnam took the microphone, introduced himself and asked about a certain match from the 2019 World Cup.

“What do you expect from the Vietnam team tomorrow?” he asked Andonovski. “Are you going to crush us like against Thailand four years ago?”

It was, in all honesty, a fair question. Every soccer fan, every player, every coach knows what happened in a similar shark-vs.-minnow spot: The United States strolled to a 13-0 victory against an overmatched Thailand team in a game that morphed from respect to awe to backlash over 90 stunningly noncompetitive minutes. The fear was that against Vietnam, a team appearing in its first World Cup, the United States might gin up a rerun.

Andonovski didn’t take the bait before the game. He spoke graciously about respect, and admitted, “They will fight and make it as hard as possible for us.” Vietnam’s coach, Mai Duc Chung, promised a battle, saying his team had come for a fight, “not just for jogging.”

But while Andonovski could not say it, another 13-0 result would have been fine with him. In a group stage when goal difference can matter quite a bit, the more goals, the better.

So as chance after chance went wasted, he decided to try to focus on the positives: a rebuilt defense anchored by Julie Ertz, reinstalled as a center back; strong debut performances by Smith, Trinity Rodman, Andi Sullivan and Savannah DeMelo; late minutes for Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe that confirmed their injuries may be behind them. The chances, Andonovski suggested, made him confident that the goals would come eventually.

“I wouldn’t say that I expected more goals,” he said. “But with the way we played and the opportunities we created, I sure wanted to see more goals. And I thought we deserved to score more goals.”

Maybe those goals are coming. Maybe they will arrive in games against the Netherlands and Portugal, the Americans’ next two opponents in Group E. Maybe Smith, already looking like a candidate to be the tournament’s breakout star, will be even sharper next time out.

And maybe the United States will look back on a win that could have been bigger and be happy that, for one day, it was just big enough.

Team U.S.A. v. Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand. The U.S. team will not rely on FIFA to determine their share of World Cup prize money and will instead follow the terms set out in their contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation.
Credit…Phil Walter/Getty Images

The fight for pay equity and equal treatment has roiled women’s soccer in recent years, with the players of the U.S. women’s national team at the forefront of that battle.

FIFA — soccer’s global governing body and the organizer of the Women’s World Cup — increased the tournament’s prize money to $110 million, up from just $30 million four years. Much of that increase comes from larger sponsorships and new broadcast rights for the women’s tournament. Yet the overall prize money still trails far behind the prize money at the recent men’s World Cup in Qatar: $440 million, or four times as much.

Still, women’s players from around the world worked to secure their share of the payout. For the first time in World Cup history, FIFA will allocate money for players and federations separately, a move made to ensure that players will see a cut of the overall prize money.

The U.S. team will not rely on FIFA to determine their share of World Cup prize money and will instead follow the terms set out in their contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation. In it, the Americans have already secured tournament prize money significantly higher than the minimums set by FIFA.

Four England players going through drills as they ready for their game, with one player chasing a ball ahead of her.
England’s team warming up for its match against Haiti in Brisbane on Saturday.Credit…Dan Peled/Reuters

It is an interesting time for the England women’s team, which arrives at the Women’s World Cup among the tournament favorites but also in perhaps its most uncertain state after two years of largely smooth sailing.

The Lionesses are the champions of Europe, a triumph that has precipitated a sea change for women’s soccer in England in terms of popularity and expectations.

“With this England team,” Coach Sarina Wiegman said, “everyone expects us to win.”

But in this World Cup, England is arguably a weakened champion. In the months since claiming its European title, what began as the loss of one key starter to injury, striker Beth Mead, has become three. Midfielder Fran Kirby will miss the World Cup, too, after having surgery on a knee. Leah Williamson, who captained England as it conquered, has, like Mead, torn a knee ligament.

Recent results have proved similarly worrisome. A goalless draw in a behind-closed-doors friendly against Canada, England’s last game before the World Cup, was the team’s third straight scoreless performance.

Yet Wiegman remains pragmatic and steadfast. Again and again in her recent interview, she returned to the same questions that have become touchstones for her and her team: “What do we want to do? How do we want to play? What are the roles and the tasks in the team?”