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Women’s Olympic Soccer Preview: Is There A Threat To The U.S. Reign?

We’re on the ground in Rio covering the 2016 Summer Olympics. Check out all our coverage here.

RIO DE JANEIRO — The 2016 Olympic Games start Wednesday — not with Friday’s opening ceremony — with group play in the women’s soccer tournament. The reigning World Cup champions and four-time Olympic gold medalists, the U.S. women’s national team, play New Zealand in Belo Horizonte, but I’m hundreds of miles away in Rio de Janeiro, the epicenter of the Olympic Games and the city where the host nation’s team will begin its Olympic run against China this afternoon. It seemed like a good chance to catch a Brazil game among local fans. So far, I can’t even find a place to watch the game.

“Rio is made of bars, but I’m not sure many people will be watching the women’s game,” Patricia “Patchy” Toledo, a former professional women’s soccer player in Brazil, told me when I asked if there are any places where Brazilian fans will be watching their team play. Cíntia Barlem, a journalist covering women’s soccer in Brazil for Globo Esporte, one of the largest sports news sites in Brazil, said she didn’t think most Brazilians would be paying attention. I told her that in the U.S., everyone will be watching the U.S. women’s national team play. “I would like it if the Brazilians do the same here, but it is not the reality.”

Reality has been a trip for the U.S. women. Just over a year ago I sat in a stadium with 53,000 people and watched Carli Lloyd rocket a shot from half-field, sailing the ball over Japan’s backtracking keeper and scoring her third goal in the first 20 minutes of the Women’s World Cup final. Since then, the USWNT — which has won four of the five gold medals handed out in the history of women’s soccer at the Olympics, including three in a row since 2004 — has lost only one game in the past year. It has also added fresh, young talent — Mallory Pugh, Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan — to a roster of World Cup champions. All of this makes them heavily favored to win a fifth gold medal this year: They have a 38 percent chance of doing so — almost double the odds of Germany, the next-best team — according to our forecasting model. If they get the fifth gold, they’d be the first team in history to win the World Cup and Olympics in consecutive years.

Our projections are based on the Women’s Soccer Power Index (WSPI) we created last year, which uses game-based offensive and defensive ratings to estimate a team’s overall skill level. The 12-team Olympic tournament is much smaller than the Women’s World Cup (which fields 24 teams) which means some of the world’s best teams, such as Japan and Norway, did not qualify while some, like England, have their own reasons not to compete in the Olympics. Instead, the field is stocked with teams like Zimbabwe, ranked 93rd in the world by FIFA and making their international tournament debut.

This isn’t to say the Olympics will be inferior to the World Cup. In fact, the overall average WSPI of the teams at the Olympics is greater than it those that were at the World Cup (86 compared to 84) but the tournament is much more stratified with great teams at the top of the table — Germany, France and Brazil — and much weaker teams at the bottom like South Africa and Zimbabwe. Below, we take a closer look at the 2016 Olympic tournament, breaking down each team’s chances of advancing from the group stage to the knockout rounds. At the Olympics, the top two teams (as well as the top two third-place finishers) advance from each of the three four-team groups to the single-elimination knockout rounds: the quarterfinals, semifinals and the championship game.

CHANCE OF FINISHING GROUP CHANCE OF REACHING ROUND
TEAM WSPI OFF DEF GRP. 1ST 2ND 3RD QTR. SEMI FINAL WIN
USA 96.3 3.6 0.4 G 71% 23% 5% 98% 77% 56% 38%
Germany 94.5 3.2 0.5 F 58 28 13 97 63 41 21
Brazil 91.0 2.7 0.6 E 55 28 13 94 60 28 14
France 91.5 2.7 0.4 G 23 48 21 86 43 22 8
Australia 90.5 2.7 0.7 F 27 38 29 88 44 18 7
Sweden 89.5 2.6 0.8 E 28 37 25 83 39 15 5
Canada 87.4 2.2 0.5 F 15 30 44 77 30 10 3
China 85.0 2.0 0.7 E 13 26 38 65 21 6 1
New Zealand 83.8 2.0 0.9 G 5 20 44 51 14 4 1
Colombia 77.2 1.6 1.1 G 1 9 29 24 4 1 <1
South Africa 75.7 1.4 1.1 E 3 9 24 26 4 1 <1
Zimbabwe 69.5 1.3 1.6 F <1 3 14 11 1 <1 <1

Group E: Brazil, Sweden, China, South Africa

Brazil sits atop Group E, the weakest of the groups with an average WSPI of 85.3, and with home field advantage adding a boost of about 0.35 goals per game they are very likely to medal this tournament — they’ve got a 94 percent chance to make the knockout stage and a 60 percent chance of making it to the semifinals. If five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta has any hat-trick surprises left at age 30, the Brazilians could go even further. Sweden is the next-best team in group E and has a 83 percent chance of advancing to the knockout rounds. They tied the U.S. in group play last year at the World Cup and are known to match up well against the Americans thanks to the former U.S. head coach Pia Sundhage. China exited the World Cup early last year in the quarterfinals, losing to the U.S. 1-0, but they’ve got a 65 percent chance of making it back to the knockout rounds this year as one of the two third-place teams that will advance. South Africa, despite holding the U.S. to only one goal last month, has only an 11 percent chance of advancing from the group stage.

Group F: Germany, Australia, Canada, Zimbabwe

The second-ranked team in the world, Germany, will be the biggest challenge for the Americans at the Olympics. The U.S. defeated the Germans in the semifinals of the World Cup 2-0 and 2-1 at the SheBelieves tournament in March, but Germany remains the next most-likely team to win gold, with a 21 percent chance. Australia, despite having only a 7 percent chance of winning the Olympics, is a sleeper pick from Group F; they beat Japan, 3-1, in the Asian Qualifiers in February to eliminate the World Cup runners-up from the Olympics. Canada will likely feel snubbed by their third-place rank in Group F, but an early exit at last year’s World Cup quarterfinals and a loss to France just a few weeks ago moved them further down in our ratings. Zimbabwe upset Cameroon on aggregate goals in last year’s Confederation of African Football (CAF) qualifiers to make it to their first major national tournament, but it’s unlikely they’ll see anything past the group games.

Group G: U.S., France, New Zealand, Colombia

The group that features the American women will usually be the de facto “Group Of Death,” but this tournament’s version earns the title with the largest average WSPI of all of the groups, 87.2. France will give the U.S. its most difficult group game, especially if injuries continue to nag the U.S. midfield — the area of the field where France excels. Les Bleues have a 22 percent chance of making the final game and an 8 percent chance of winning it all. New Zealand’s scrappiness can be effective — they held Canada to a draw at the World Cup last year — and they’ve got a 44 percent chance of squeezing into the knockout rounds as the third-place team from Group G. As for Colombia, I’m still waiting for the breakout performance of Yoreli Rincón, but there’s a 61 percent chance the Colombians go out in the group stage.

CORRECTON (Aug. 3, 5:23 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified the French women’s national soccer team. The team’s name is Les Bleues, not Les Bleus.

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

Jay Boice is a computational journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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