When the 2019 Women’s World Cup kicks off Friday, the initial match will contain FiveThirtyEight’s pre-tournament championship favorite — and no, the U.S. women won’t be on the field.1 So, yes: With a 20 percent probability of winning the World Cup in our model, France has the best odds of any team in the field this summer, not the United States.
Our American readers might be wondering, what gives?2 Why is the defending-champion (and world No. 1-ranked) USWNT not the best bet to take home its fourth World Cup in the eight-tournament history of the event? After all, the last time the Americans didn’t win (back in 2011), it was a major upset that required Japan to score a dramatic tying goal in the 117th minute and win on penalties. And U.S. head coach Jill Ellis calls this year’s roster “probably the most talented we’ve had going into a major tournament like this, in my opinion.”
But France is playing at home this year, and our model has traditionally given a big boost to the host country in international soccer tournaments. In the past, our research has found that soccer’s home-field advantage is worth two to three times as much as in, say, the NFL. There is recent evidence that this advantage is on the decline, though, so France’s added boost is a bit smaller than what historical World Cup results suggest the host team should receive. But even so, that edge is enough to lift France, the world’s second-most talented team (according to our Soccer Power Index ratings), past the top-ranked Americans for the title of most-likely champs.
|SPI Ratings||Chance team will …|
|Team||Group||Off.||Def.||Overall||Win Group||Make Knockouts||Win WC|
Each team’s specific path through the tournament matters quite a bit as well. The USWNT wasn’t the highest-rated team in the field last time around, but it was our model’s overall favorite despite drawing the dreaded “group of death” for the initial stage of the tournament. This year, the Americans drew one of the easiest groups, at least in terms of bottom-feeders (Chile and Thailand), and the hosting French got stuck in the group of death. But thanks to the persistent presence of longtime nemesis Sweden, the U.S. won’t necessarily be guaranteed to win Group F — and even if it does, the winner of the group will face Group B’s runner-up (most likely either Spain or China, a couple of solid sides defensively) in the round of 16 and then very likely the winner of Group A in the quarterfinals. The most probable team to be waiting there? France.
That’s why the Americans’ odds of making the semifinals are just 46 percent this year, compared with 65 percent back in 2015. That year, the USWNT went through Colombia (the team rated fifth-lowest by SPI in the field) in the round of 16 and then China (a middle-of-the-field team by SPI) in the quarterfinals before running into top-rated Germany in the semis. (As neither team was the host, SPI had that match relatively even, and the U.S. won 2-0.) This time, the Americans are more likely to face tougher teams earlier in the tournament — which also has the byproduct of giving those tougher opponents fewer chances to be upset before making their way into the U.S.’s path.
And there’s the fact that this year’s field is deeper and more dangerous than perhaps any other in Women’s World Cup history. Among the soccer cognoscenti, there’s a distinct sense that the rest of the world is quickly catching up to the United States in terms of talent on the women’s side, where America has traditionally had a strong first-mover advantage. That’s borne out in the numbers, too: Our model thinks more teams have more of a chance this year than it did four years ago:
All of this is before even getting into the specific on-field flaws that might haunt the U.S.’s bid for a second straight World Cup victory.
But that’s not to say the USWNT looks weak this time around. The Americans still have the best team in the tournament on paper, and it took every bit of France’s home-field edge to deny the U.S. the favorite status. They have plenty of stars from World Cups past, present and future. There’s a solid chance that they will win it all again. (I personally would love to attend another victory parade down the Canyon of Heroes this summer.) Still, it will be a tougher path than usual, thanks to a vicious combination of geography, the knockout bracket and the parity growing across women’s international soccer. And while that might mean heartbreak for the U.S. and its fans, it should also make for an exciting tournament over the next month.
Check out our latest Women’s World Cup predictions.