FRANCE: In the four years since the last Women’s World Cup in Canada, the competition and talent among female footballers has gotten stronger – and more global. The stage will be as big as ever when this year’s tournament kicks off Jun 7 in Paris.
In our latest ESPN FC Rank, we polled our experts to gauge which players will stand out in France.
25. SHANICE VAN DE SANDEN
Another from the Lyon dynasty, Shanice van de Sanden is best known for two things: her blazing speed and her trademark bright red lipstick.
One of the fastest players in the women’s game, Van de Sanden is an absolute handful to deal with on the right wing for opposing full-backs due to her pace and skill.
A player who debuted for the Oranje at just 16, she was a key member of the Netherlands’ victorious European Championship side in 2017 and will be appearing in her second World Cup this summer.
Van de Sanden, now 26, has 15 goals in 63 caps for the Netherlands, but it is her ability to get in behind and create goals for others with crosses from the end line that makes her such a dangerous weapon.
24. DANIELLE VAN DE DONK
Often overshadowed by national team teammates Lieke Martens and Vivianne Miedema, Danielle van de Donk is one of the Netherlands’ most important players, as she provides balance to the midfield and does a lot of tireless work in terms of pressing.
A complete midfielder, Van de Donk is just as adept at stealing or winning the ball back as she is at going forward and creating or scoring goals. The 27-year-old chipped in 11 goals and six assists this season at club level to help lead Arsenal to the FA Women’s Super League title.
23. BECKY SAUERBRUNN
The defender has been part of the NWSL’s “Best XI” team each season since the league’s inception, first with FC Kansas City and now with the Utah Royals. At 34 years old when the World Cup begins, she remains the steady, quiet cornerstone of the US back line.
In fact, she will likely be the only holdover in the starting lineup among the group of defenders and goalkeeper who played so well in the 2015 World Cup. A second title would cement her place alongside the best the US has ever produced at the position.
22. NILLA FISCHER
This will be the Sweden defender’s fourth World Cup, and she will bring her 153 caps’ worth of experience to the tournament. This impressive feat is on her remarkable domestic CV along with a Champions League title, three German titles, thanks to her spell at VfL Wolfsburg, and two Swedish league titles.
Then there’s her World Cup bronze and Olympic silver. Phew. Enjoy watching her while you can. Fischer is now 34, and this will be her final World Cup, but she’s still hopeful of adding a fourth Olympics appearance next year.
21. CAROLINE GRAHAM HANSEN
Hansen, 24, made her debut for Norway’s national team at age 16 and scored her first international goal the next summer. Since then, she has steadily climbed the world rankings, and she has the potential to be a top-10 player.
Hansen led the Bundesliga in assists in five seasons playing club ball in Germany and recently signed a two-year deal with FC Barcelona. Although she missed the 2015 World Cup with a knee injury, Hansen is hungry to help Norway (the 1995 champs) this time.
20. ALEXANDRA POPP
A striker known for her physicality and versatility, Popp, 28, has been a top international player since 2014, when she won the first of her two German Footballer of the Year titles.
A member of the 2016 Olympic gold-medal squad, Popp, who plays for VfL Wolfsburg in the UEFA Champions League, has her sights set on leading Germany to its first Women’s World Cup title. “If I win the World Cup, it would be the jewel in the crown,” she said earlier this year.
19. KIM LITTLE
Arsenal playmaker Kim Little is Scotland’s heartbeat. She is widely regarded as one of the world’s finest players and has overcome her fair share of adversity to be in France, having battled back from a yearlong absence caused by an ACL injury and a fractured fibula at the end of last year.
She was voted MVP in the National Women’s Soccer League awards back in 2014, when she was at Seattle Reign FC, and she has the ability to turn matches on their head. Alongside Erin Cuthbert and Caroline Weir, Little, 28, and her Scotland teammates will ensure they make a splash in their first World Cup.
18. CRYSTAL DUNN
The only question is the context in which she is ranked. Is she evaluated as an attacking player, the role in which she excelled while scoring 12 goals and totaling eight assists since the start of last season as the Courage ran roughshod over the NWSL?
Or is it as an outside back, the role she has filled for the US for more than a year? Perhaps the point is that one of the world’s most versatile players, Dunn, 26, needs to be ranked on her ability to do all of those things.
17. AMEL MAJRI
Majri, who was named Player of the Year by France’s UNFP back in 2016, has been eager to reclaim that form on the global stage since she missed the 2017 European Championship due to injury. The 26-year-old notched 10 goals and nine assists in the 2018-19 Division 1 Féminine season, each the most among defenders.
Going back to 2015, Majri and Lyon have won four consecutive trebles, and in her nine seasons as an integral part of a fearsome Lyon back line, Les Lyonnaises have allowed more than six goals in league play only once.
In 198 league matches, Majri’s Lyon have gone 187-9-2, scoring 1,010 goals and conceding only 53 – almost 20 scored for each allowed. If Majri and host France can yield even a fraction of that untold dominance this summer, their first World Cup title is nigh.
16. SAKI KUMAGAI
Japan’s captain, Saki Kumagai, 28, spends her time in the gray area between defence and midfield but is one of the most accomplished and talented defensive midfielders in the game.
She finished 12th in the 2018 Ballon D’Or and is part of the dominant Lyon side that won the past four Champions League titles. Her 103 caps will prove vital if an inexperienced Japan squad is to reach the final for the third World Cup running.
15. TOBIN HEATH
She’s the only player on the US roster who has won World Cup, Olympic, NCAA and NWSL titles, and the 31-year-old Heath might only now be playing the best soccer of her career.
In addition to eight goals a year ago for Portland in the NWSL, she has 10 goals and seven assists in 15 games with the national team since the start of 2018. Still the best one-on-one take-on player on the US roster, she has never been more efficient in turning that artistry into production.
14. VIVIANNE MIEDEMA
How prolific a goal scorer is Miedema? Well, she needs just three goals to become the Netherlands’ record scorer with 60 goals. Did I mention she is only 22 years old?
The Netherlands No 9, who already ranks among the most feared strikers in the world, has such a bright future and could be a real contender for the Golden Boot in 2019.
Miedema won the Silver Boot back at the 2017 Euros and this season took home the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and FA WSL’s scoring title with Arsenal. Miedema has a 0.77 goals-per-game ratio (57 goals in 74 games) for the national team, so defenders will be keeping a very close eye on her in France.
13. CHRISTINE SINCLAIR
Sinclair’s pursuit of the international goal-scoring record doesn’t feel like a race against time. Whether or not the World Cup is where the 35-year-old gets the four goals she needs to break Abby Wambach’s record, Sinclair is playing at a level that suggests she’ll push the new record well out of reach.
The goals overshadow her excellence as a facilitator, not just with a loaded Thorns roster but also for emerging talents such as Janine Beckie, Nichelle Prince and Jordyn Huitema for Canada.
12. FRAN KIRBY
Kirby announced herself at the last World Cup, leading then-England manager Mark Sampson to nickname her “mini Messi.” Kirby, 25, hated that nickname at the time.
But over the past four years, she has grown in self-belief and is now one of the world’s most lethal forwards. She scooped up a haul of personal awards last year, and though her 2019 has been interrupted by injury, she is one of England’s key players.
11. LINDSEY HORAN
She had quadriceps and hip issues this spring and has yet to play 90 minutes for the US in 2019. But at 25, the reigning NWSL MVP is poised for a breakout World Cup if she’s at full strength.
Introduced to many when she bypassed a college scholarship to sign with Paris Saint-Germain out of high school, Horan has matured into a sophisticated box-to-box player whose game reflects seven years in pro environments. Only Sam Kerr scored more NWSL goals in 2018, and only Megan Rapinoe had more USWNT assists.
10. MEGAN RAPINOE
It’s difficult to believe that Rapinoe is a year younger entering this World Cup than Abby Wambach was entering the 2015 tournament. Far from a veteran in her twilight, Rapinoe, 33, remains arguably the most important player in the US lineup.
A commitment to conditioning in her 30s makes her a presence not just when the US has the ball but also in winning it back. She has 13 goals and 17 assists for the US since 2017 and 19 goals for Reign FC in that span.
The most famous women’s player of all time, Marta is a single-name soccer icon, a six-time FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award winner and the Women’s World Cup all-time scoring leader, with 15 goals in five appearances.
Now 33, Marta is likely making her final World Cup stand in France (she has said she’ll play in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo before retiring), so every international match she suits up for is must-see TV. The only accolades missing from Marta’s résumé: World Cup and Olympic titles.
8. WENDIE RENARD
Renard hails from the French island of Martinique, but she’s the bona fide Swiss army knife of Les Bleus. In the most recent EURO, Olympics and previous two World Cups, Renard is third in touches, aerial percentage and clearances, second in duel percentage and interceptions, and eighth in passing and tackling percentages among outfield players (min. 10 GP). Translation: There are few, if any, better two-way defenders alive.
Just shy of 29, the two-time FIFA FIFPro World XI member and Lyon mainstay – with 13 straight Division 1 Féminine and six UEFA Women’s Champions League titles to her credit – has long been heralded as such.
But with fourth-place finishes at the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics, major international success has proven elusive. A World Cup triumph on home soil would be an immortalising clarion call for Renard.
7. EUGENIE LE SOMMER
One of the world’s most prolific goal scorers, the 30-year-old Le Sommer has amassed a club-record 257 goals for four-time reigning Champions League winners Lyon and another 74 at the international level for France.
A big-game player and serial winner at club level, Les Bleues’ No 9 would rise to national hero status if she were able to deliver host France its first major title.
6. LUCY BRONZE
Bronze finished sixth in the 2018 Ballon D’Or and is arguably the world’s finest right back. She is a key cog in the astonishing Olympique Lyonnais team, having joined them in 2017 from Manchester City, and with the semifinals and final being played in Lyon, Bronze, 27, will be hoping that her local knowledge is required if England makes it to the final stages. England might also utilise her versatility during the tournament, as she can play in virtually every position.
5. LIEKE MARTENS
The scorer of the Netherlands’ first World Cup goal in 2015, Martens, like her country, has taken massive strides forward over the past four years. The 2017 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year, Martens, 26, has led the Netherlands to European Championship and Algarve Cup titles the past two years and heads to France as the focal point of the tournament’s biggest potential dark horse.
Martens bagged 14 goals and added nine assists this past season in leading Barcelona to the Champions League final and has already tallied 42 goals for the Oranje at the ripe old age of 26.
4. AMANDINE HENRY
Henry’s goal and assist numbers will never jump off the page, but watch her closely during a match, and it quickly becomes clear why she is counted among the best players in the world. A midfielder with the versatility to play in either the defensive or attacking midfield role, Henry is adept at winning the ball back, is extremely composed on it and boasts an impressive range of passing.
After winning the Silver Ball as the second-best player at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Henry, 29, is hungry for more and remains a central figure for France in 2019.
3. DZSENIFER MAROZSAN
Twice voted German Footballer of the Year, the 27-year-old Marozsan led Olympique Lyon to a Champions League title, was a 2018 finalist for Best FIFA Women’s Player (she finished second behind Marta) and captained Germany to the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
But it was at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro that the midfielder truly made her mark, scoring the deciding goal in the final and lifting Germany to its first women’s soccer Olympic gold.
2. ALEX MORGAN
After an injury-riddled stretch of her 20s, including a 2015 World Cup in which she was less than full strength, Morgan is in the midst of a renaissance as her 30th birthday approaches.
She’s still the fleet-footed striker who is dangerous running onto balls in open space, but she has grown into an all-around forward who can hold the ball up, play out wide and act as the tip of the spear for US pressure defensively.
1. SAM KERR
Kerr is the most prolific goal scorer in the women’s game. The career scoring leader in the NWSL (in which she plays for the Chicago Red Stars) and Australia’s W-League (in which she captains the Perth Glory), as well as for the Matildas, the 25-year-old is shattering barriers and popularising the women’s game in Australia like never before.
Hers is the top-selling jersey – men’s or women’s – in the country, and images of her exuberant roundoff backflip goal celebrations are plastered on billboards around Oz.
This article first appeared on ESPN.com.
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