Soccer

Women’s World Cup a welcome distraction from FIFA troubles

Team USA forward Alex Morgan poses in the new black and white home uniform for the U.S. women's World Cup soccer team during a news conference in Los Angeles on April 22, 2015.
Team USA forward Alex Morgan poses in the new black and white home uniform for the U.S. women's World Cup soccer team during a news conference in Los Angeles on April 22, 2015. AP

FIFA president Sepp Blatter resigned, and investigations continue into racketeering within soccer’s governing body, but the sport will get a monthlong respite as the Women’s World Cup gets underway Saturday in Canada.

Amid all the negativity engulfing FIFA since news of the scandal broke last week, there are plenty of positive story lines surrounding the tournament.

“A cloud has been lifted,” said Alexi Lalas, a Fox Sports analyst. “Not just for the Women’s World Cup but for soccer in general. You saw euphoria … when this news came out. That’s wonderful. As far as the Women’s World Cup, now we can concentrate on what ultimately is the most important thing when it comes to FIFA and soccer, and that’s the actual play on the field.”

The growth of the women’s game will be highlighted, as the field expanded from 16 to 24 teams and an extra knockout round was added. Eight nations will be participating for the first time — Spain, Switzerland, Netherlands, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Thailand, Cameroon and Ivory Coast.

Nearly 900,000 tickets have been sold, including a sellout crowd of 50,000 for the opening match Saturday between Canada and China at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, Alberta.

All 52 matches will be broadcast by Fox Sports across its several platforms, the first time the entire tournament will be televised. Sixteen games are scheduled to air on big Fox, including five in prime time. Fox will air the final weekend, including the first semifinal June 30 (7 p.m. ET), the third-place match July 4 (4 p.m. ET) and the final July 5 (7 p.m. ET).

The tournament will be hosted in six cities from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Moncton, New Brunswick, and despite a lawsuit by players that was later dismissed, matches will be played on artificial turf in Canadian Football League stadiums.

Many of the world’s top players — including Abby Wambach of the United States, Marta of Brazil and Hamare Sawa of Japan — accused the organizers of discrimination, saying that elite men’s teams would never be forced to play on anything but natural grass. The complaint was filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario but was dropped in January.

The attention now turns to the games, and with the tournament being played just north of the U.S. border, record TV audiences are expected.

“Based on the momentum soccer in the U.S. gained in Brazil last summer, if the U.S. women go deep and, ideally, go to the final and win, it could be a seminal moment for soccer in the United States,” said David Neal, executive producer for Fox Sports’ Women’s World Cup coverage.

Added Lalas: “We are blowing this thing out. The difference from last summer is this U.S. team has a chance to win the World Cup, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a diehard or just coming to the game, the chance to sing the national anthem, raise the flag and scream ‘USA,’ we know that’s what’s America’s all about.”

Although casual fans may assume the Americans are a lock to win, the truth is the U.S. team did not win the past three Women’s World Cups. Germany won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2007, and Japan beat the U.S. in penalty kicks in the 2011 championship game. The last time the United States raised the cup was 1999, when Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy were on the team.

This U.S. team, which is coached by Palmetto Bay resident Jill Ellis, has some of the most famous players in the world on its roster — Wambach, Hope Solo, Christie Rampone and Alex Morgan — and they are under intense pressure to win the final in Vancouver on July 5.

It won’t be easy.

Team USA landed in the “Group of Death” with Sweden, Australia and Nigeria. Sweden is coached by former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage, who knows the American players as well her own. Germany remains a powerful team, and Japan has the precision and focus to make it to the final again. Brazil has Marta, the five-time FIFA Player of the Year.

And then there’s France. The French qualified for their first World Cup in 2003, lost in the first round and then in 2011 made it all the way to the semifinals. Since then, France has developed one of the most dynamic attacks in the game, and they could make a deep run again. The U.S. team lost to France in a friendly in February, barely beat England and tied and lost to Brazil in a tournament there.

“France is one of my favorites,” said Angela Hucles, a former member of the U.S. team. “What we’re seeing is the growth of the women’s game, a lot more attention and support at the international level. We still have a long way to go, but with the expansion of this tournament, it allows for some teams that wouldn’t have had opportunity at the world stage, and that helps push the other teams.”

Tony DiCicco, the U.S. coach in 1999, added: “The level of teams in this World Cup is the best it’s ever been.”

Finally, some good FIFA news.

2015 Women’s World Cup

AT A GLANCE

When: June 6 to July 5

Where: Canada (Host Cities: Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Montreal, Ottawa, Moncton)

TV: Fox and Fox Sports 1

No. of teams: 24

Defending champion: Japan (Runner-up USA, Third place Sweden, Fourth place France)

TEAMS TO WATCH

USA: Despite their many high-profile players, the Americans’ last World Cup title was in 1999, when Brandi Chastain’s sports bra celebration made front pages.

Germany: The Germans won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2007, but reigning FIFA Player of the Year Nadine Kessler is out with a knee injury.

Sweden: Pia Sundhage, the former U.S. coach, is coaching her home country.

France: The French are no longer a surprise team, and they play an exciting brand of soccer. They qualified for their first World Cup in 2003, and lost in the first round, didn’t make it in 2007, but reached the semifinal in 2011.

Japan: The defending champions boast legend Homare Sawa, playing in her record sixth World Cup.

Brazil: Marta can only do so much. Brazilians need to step it up a notch.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Louisa Necib, MF, France: She has been called the female Zidane.

Nadine Angerer, GK, Germany: 2013 FIFA Player of the Year, 36 years old, 20 years with national team.

Vivienne Miedema, F, Netherlands: Only 18 years old, led European qualifying in scoring with 16 goals.

Homare Sawa, MF, Japan: 36-year-old scored five goals to lead team to 2011 title.

Abby Wambach, F, USA: She has scored 182 goals, and eager to win after no title in past three Cups.

Christine Sinclar, F, Canada: Host captain has scored 153 goals.

Alex Morgan, F, USA: One of the most well-known U.S. players, coming off knee injury.

Marta, F, Brazil: Five-time FIFA Player of the Year from 2006-10. Fourteen World Cup goals.

Asisat Oshoala, Nigeria: MVP of Under-20 World Cup, a rising star.

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