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Down 1-0 at halftime against Switzerland in its final group-stage game, Cameroon looked like it was coming to the end of its World Cup run. But just after the half, an errant cross made its way through the entire Swiss box, and Cameroon striker Gaelle Enganamouit stood waiting. She swung with her left but missed the ball entirely — a wasted opportunity. Until … Gabrielle Aboudi Onguene collected it behind her and with one touch sent a beautiful shot to the lower-left side-netting.
The score was tied 1-1, but Onguene didn’t celebrate. Instead, she looked blankly toward the sideline and her coach, her face suggesting that she might be thinking, “Do we advance with a tie? Or do we need to win?”
It was a moment that typified the chaos and confusion we’ve come to expect (and love) during the group stage at a World Cup (especially with FIFA’s weird 24-team tournament structure). Cameroon went on to defeat Switzerland 2-1 and become just the second African team to reach the knockout stage at a Women’s World Cup.
But the group stage is over, and the knockout rounds, which begin Saturday, are simple: Win or wait four years. So which team helped itself the most during the group games? Who has the easiest path to the World Cup final? And what did we learn about these teams, many of which were first time World Cup entrants?
There weren’t any surprises atop the groups — all of the most-likely first-place finishers according to our model won their respective groups. But among the second- and third-place teams that advanced, several saw their Women’s Soccer Power Index rating increase significantly after the start of the tournament (there were others whose WSPI ratings fell). Before we look at the biggest WSPI winners and losers from the group stage, let’s see how the bracket has changed since the tournament began.
The U.S. Is Sitting Pretty (Thanks, FIFA!)
The U.S. might still be furious at FIFA over the turf fields, but the USWNT should thank soccer’s governing body for one of the easiest routes to the World Cup final. Instead of randomly assigning every country except for the host like it does for the group stage in the men’s World Cup, FIFA chose to strategically place teams into different groups for “sporting reasons.” The setup means we’re likely to see a Germany vs. France quarterfinal, pitting the No. 1 and No. 3 ranked FIFA teams against each other. The U.S., meanwhile, won’t have to face any of the 10 best teams (according to WSPI) that are still in the tournament until the semifinal.
That fortuitous path means — despite three rather uninspiring performances in the group stage — the U.S. remains the most likely team to win the tournament; its chances are up to 33 percent (from 28 percent at the start). U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe was brilliant against Australia, scoring twice, but we didn’t see much of an attacking threat from the USWNT in the rest of its group-stage games. It churned through almost every forward on the team against Sweden but was still unable to score, and the team found the net only once against Nigeria (which played with only 10 players in the game’s final minutes).
Because of these rather unconvincing wins, the U.S.’s WSPI has fallen since the beginning of the tournament. If the team advances past its Round of 16 matchup with Colombia, it will face the winner of China vs. Cameroon in the quarterfinal. The average WSPI of the USA’s bracket quadrant is only 85.6 — the lowest of any quadrant — compared with 87.9, 90.0 and 90.8 for the other three quadrants.
Germany looked like the powerhouse we were expecting in their opening match, thrashing the Ivory Coast 10-0. But the Germans looked flat against Norway in their second group-stage game, which ended in a 1-1 tie. Despite an increase in WSPI since the beginning of the tournament, Germany has seen its chances of winning the World Cup decrease 2 points, to 25 percent. The Germans face Sweden (the sixth-best remaining team, according to WSPI) in the Round of 16 and would be likely to play France (the third-best remaining team) should they advance to the quarterfinals.
Seven of the eight highest-rated teams going into the tournament performed a bit below expectation and saw their WSPI decrease; Germany was the only exception. Most of the other top teams haven’t seen their chances to win the tournament change significantly. Sweden is down 2 points mostly because of its difficult Round of 16 draw with Germany. Australia is up 1 point after its strong performances in the “Group of Death” and its corresponding increase in WSPI.
But WSPI wasn’t impressed with Japan’s three wins (it won each game by only a single goal), and Japan’s chances of winning the tournament are down 1 point. Brazil’s chances of winning went up only marginally, despite being the one team in the tournament that has yet to concede a goal.
The Group-Stage Winners
Colombia, Cameroon and Costa Rica — the latter of whom was eliminated from Group E by Brazil on Wednesday — emerged from the group stage as the biggest “winners” in our ratings: Their WSPI ratings have increased about 2 points since the start of the tournament, compared with an average WSPI decrease of 0.2 points for all teams. It’s worth noting that the teams whose WSPI changed the most — for better or worse — tend to have fewer competitive matchups in our database, thus the three group-stage matches have a larger impact on their overall WSPI. (See more detail about how we calculate WSPI ratings to understand this effect.)
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- Colombia was the biggest winner from the group stage, having pulled off the second-least-likely victory in Women’s World Cup history with their 2-0 defeat of France.1 Going into that game, our forecast gave Colombia only a 6 percent chance of winning. But the team packed in on defense, and Lady Andrade capitalized early on a beautiful through-ball from Yoreli Rincon to stun the French. Although Colombia was the biggest group-stage winner in the eyes of WSPI — the team’s overall rating increased 2.3 points — it ended up finishing third in Group F, perhaps a bit ironically, and now must face the U.S. on Monday (Colombia has just a 5 percent chance of beating the Americans, according to our forecast).
Going into the tournament, we didn’t know much about the current Cameroon squad beyond its second-place finish to Nigeria in the African Women’s Championship last year. But it came out and demolished Ecuador 6-0 in its opening game, displaying extreme pace on the wings and calm, collected finishing in the box. Cameroon finished second in Group C and will face China in the Round of 16, where it has a 38 percent chance of reaching the quarterfinals.
And although it didn’t advance from Group E, Costa Rica outperformed expectations at its first World Cup, drawing against South Korea and Spain but losing to Brazil.
The Group-Stage Losers
Unfortunately, the other three teams making their World Cup debut didn’t fare quite as well. Ecuador, Ivory Coast and Spain were the biggest group-stage “losers,” according to WSPI. Not only were all three teams eliminated from the tournament, but their WSPI ratings all dropped. Ecuador was the lowest-rated team going in, having just barely qualified, and it finished with three losses and a -16 goal differential thanks mostly to Switzerland’s 10-goal run against them. Ivory Coast suffered a similar fate against Germany, losing 10-0, but rallied in its next two games and even scored one of the tournament’s most beautiful goals.
There were high hopes for Spain at its long-awaited first World Cup, but the team was unable to win a single game. Unlike Ecuador and Ivory Coast, Spain wasn’t crushed in any game. But it was unable to finish several easy chances in its opening game against Costa Rica, and poor positioning from its goalkeeper led to a World Cup-ending goal in its last game, against South Korea.