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Women’s World Cup Preview: The U.S. Has Company In The Lead

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s Women’s World Cup predictions.

On Saturday, two dozen women’s national soccer teams — the most ever to be featured in the same tournament — will begin play at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada. Previous women’s tournaments featured 12 or 16 teams, and back then, simply rooting for the good ol’ U.S. of A. would typically have earned you a championship run — if not the full victory tour.

But if you’re an American hoping for an easy bet, this isn’t the tournament for you. There is no favorite.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t front-runners. The United States and Germany, the only countries with two World Cup championships, enter the tournament with almost equal chances of winning a third title: 28 percent and 27 percent, respectively, according to our forecasting model, which uses game-based offensive and defensive ratings to estimate a team’s overall skill level. The U.S.’s slight advantage over Germany — despite Germany’s stronger power rating in our model — is because Germany is more likely to face a very strong French side in the quarterfinals.

The U.S. and Germany are no strangers; one has eliminated the other in three out of the six World Cups. At the first Women’s World Cup, in 1991, the U.S. defeated Germany 5-2 in the semifinals in what has been the U.S.’s most-lopsided victory over Germany in a competitive match. Eight years later (at the infamous 1999 World Cup), the Americans beat the Germans again, this time 3-2 in the quarterfinals.

By 2003, the Germans were fed up. They routed the U.S. 3-0 in the semifinals — on American soil, no less — and went on to win the tournament.

It’s been 12 years since the two have crossed paths at a World Cup. This year, each has about a 40 percent chance of making it to the final. That the U.S. and Germany are ahead of the pack is clear, but if you’re hoping for a U.S.-Germany final, don’t hold your breath1 — the road to Vancouver will be riddled with former champions and dark horses making their World Cup debut.

Japan, the 2011 champion, is the next-most-likely team to win, with a 10 percent chance.2 France isn’t far behind, with an 8 percent chance of winning the tournament. And if its recent performances in friendlies against the U.S., Germany and Brazil are any indication, France may do even better than expected.

With home-field advantage working in its favor, host-nation Canada has a 7 percent chance of winning. The Brazilians, once World Cup bridesmaids, have a 6 percent chance, and the Swedes have a 5 percent chance of winning. After that, the field drops off considerably — only England, Norway and Australia have more than a 1 percent chance of winning — and the 24-team tournament begins to look more like a 10-team tournament.

TEAM GROUP WSPI
1 Germany B 95.6
2 USA D 95.4
3 Japan C 92.7
4 France F 92.4
5 Brazil E 92.2
6 Sweden D 91.6
7 Canada A 90.1
8 England F 89.6
9 Norway B 88.7
10 Australia D 88.7
11 Netherlands A 86.2
12 Nigeria D 85.7
13 China A 85.2
14 Spain E 84.7
15 South Korea E 84.3
16 Switzerland C 83.7
17 New Zealand A 82.5
18 Mexico F 81.1
19 Cameroon C 79.3
20 Colombia F 78.0
21 Ivory Coast B 75.6
22 Costa Rica E 72.8
23 Thailand B 68.0
24 Ecuador C 63.3

To our knowledge, this is the first-ever forecast of a Women’s World Cup (if you’ve seen one done before, please tell us in the comments!). Our projections are based on what we’re calling the Women’s Soccer Power Index (WSPI), a simplified version of the Soccer Power Index (SPI) ratings that FiveThirtyEight editor-in-chief Nate Silver developed for men’s soccer a few years back.

Unlike SPI, WSPI doesn’t use player data from club games — that data either doesn’t exist (many women’s leagues have folded and started up again) or doesn’t have enough historical context to be meaningful. Instead, our Women’s World Cup model takes into account 8,000 competitive and friendly international matches that have been played since 1971. Below, we take a closer look at each group, breaking down the chances of each team advancing from the group stage to the knockout rounds and where each team’s WSPI ranks.


Bonus Hot Takedown Podcast: Allison McCann talks with ESPN’s Julie Foudy and USWNT players Kelley O’Hara and Christen Press. Subscribe on iTunes.


Group A: Canada, Netherlands, China, New Zealand

Group A has the second-highest average WSPI (86.0) but the smallest standard deviation of WSPI within any of the groups (3.1 points), meaning that the teams are evenly matched. Canada is the most likely team to win Group A (59 percent) — and is even more likely to advance to the knockout rounds (93 percent). The team is led by star striker Christine Sinclair, who you might recall as the player who absolutely thrashed the U.S. backline at the 2012 Olympic semifinal, scoring three goals (two with her head):

The Dutch, appearing in their first World Cup, have a 69 percent chance of advancing beyond the group stage, and a young, technical Chinese team isn’t far behind, with a 64 percent chance. The weakest team in Group A, New Zealand, is quick and scrappy and could advance with a wild-card third-place spot — but it will more likely than not be eliminated (a 53 percent chance).

  • Game to watch: Canada (58 percent chance of winning) vs. the Netherlands (20 percent), June 15
  • Players to watch: Christine Sinclair (Canada), Manon Melis (Netherlands)

Group B: Germany, Norway, Ivory Coast, Thailand

Group B is one of the most-lopsided groups: Germany and Norway are almost guaranteed to advance (with chances of more than 99 percent and 95 percent, respectively), while the Ivory Coast and Thailand will need a minor miracle to survive (their chances of being eliminated are 59 percent and 86 percent, respectively). Germany has the highest WSPI of any team in the tournament, 95.6, although it’s without the 2015 World Player of the Year, Nadine Kessler.3 Thailand, meanwhile, has the second-lowest WSPI of any team in the tournament, 68.0, so Group B is likely to feature some blowout games (Germany’s chances of beating Thailand are 95 percent).

Norway looked strong against the U.S. at the Algarve Cup in March, losing 2-1, but is likely to earn the second-place spot in Group B (69 percent). That would lead to a match against the second-place team from Group F (most likely England). The Ivory Coast is most likely to place third in this group (57 percent), with an almost equal chance of advancing or being eliminated from that spot. Thailand will likely take quite a beating in Group B — the highest chance it has of winning a game in the group stage is 23 percent, against the Ivory Coast.

  • Game to watch: Germany (70 percent) vs. Norway (12 percent), June 11
  • Players to watch: Ada Hegerberg (Norway), Nadine Angerer (Germany)

Group C: Japan, Switzerland, Cameroon, Ecuador

This is the weakest group in the tournament, with an average WSPI rating of 79.8; three of the four teams in Group C are appearing in their first World Cup. The 2011 champions, Japan, should breeze through (they have more than a 99 percent chance of advancing). The team plays a highly technical style of soccer that focuses on quick, short passing and lots of midfield movement, thanks to Aya Miyama’s ability to move the ball seamlessly between the back and front lines.

Switzerland is one of the most exciting additions to this year’s World Cup, and the newcomers have an 87 percent chance of making it to the knockout round — in part because of the fast, strong and skillful striker Ramona Bachmann. Cameroon looked promising at the African Women’s Championship, conceding just one goal in the group stage and finishing in second place behind Nigeria. Cameroon has a pretty good chance of advancing (72 percent). Ecuador, however, is the weakest team in the tournament. It has a WSPI rating of 63.3, having barely qualified by beating Trinidad and Tobago for the last spot.

  • Game to watch: Japan (69 percent) vs. Switzerland (13 percent), June 8
  • Players to watch: Ramona Bachmann (Switzerland), Aya Miyama (Japan)

Group D: U.S., Sweden, Australia, Nigeria

We labeled this the Group of Death after the draw in December, and Group D’s average WSPI rating (90.4) backs that up: There are no bad teams here. The U.S. is the most likely team to win the group (a 65 percent chance), but it will have to get past a very strong Swedish team — helmed by former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage. Although the Swedes have only a 20 percent chance of beating the U.S. in the group stage, they’re very likely to advance from Group D: a 79 percent chance.

The bottom two teams here, Australia and Nigeria, are still very solid, with WSPI ratings of 88.7 and 85.7, both above the median tournament rating. The Aussies are strong and athletic, and who knows — maybe striker Lisa De Vanna has another bicycle kick goal or two she’ll unleash to increase the chances that her team makes it out of this group (it has a 58 percent chance now). Nigeria won the African Women’s Championship and has a standout in youngster Asisat Oshoala, who recently won the BBC Women’s Footballer of the Year Award. But the Nigerians’ chances, even with Oshoala, look grim: They have a 62 percent chance of being eliminated.

  • Game to watch: U.S. (58 percent) vs. Sweden (20 percent), June 12
  • Players to watch: Lotta Schelin (Sweden), Christen Press (U.S.), Lisa De Vanna (Australia)

Group E: Brazil, Spain, South Korea, Costa Rica

Brazil came close to World Cup glory in 2007 but made a disappointing return in 2011, losing in the quarterfinals. The Brazilians remain almost a surefire bet to advance from Group E (98 percent), but their chances of making it to the championship match are another story (only 15 percent). Let’s wait and see what five-time FIFA World Player of the Year Marta has in store.

Spain and Costa Rica are two more new additions to the tournament, but Spain’s prospects are a lot better than Costa Rica’s. Spain has a 77 percent chance of advancing, compared with Costa Rica’s 20 percent. Spanish forward Vero Boquete will be riding high into the World Cup, having recently clinched a UEFA Women’s Champions League title with her club 1. FFC Frankfurt. Shirley Cruz Traña, who plays for the French club Paris Saint-Germain, will be Costa Rica’s best shot at making it out of Group E.

Last but certainly not least in Group E are the South Koreans, who held the U.S. to a scoreless draw last weekend. They are about as likely to advance as Spain, with a 75 percent chance of doing so.

  • Game to watch: Brazil (64 percent) vs. Spain (16 percent), June 13
  • Players to watch: Marta (Brazil), Vero Boquete (Spain)

Group F: France, England, Mexico, Colombia

The final group is another solid mix of teams with an average WSPI rating of 85.3, the third highest in the tournament. The top two teams — France and England — will face off again at a World Cup: France knocked out England in the 2011 tournament quarterfinals. These are the two teams most likely to advance: 97 percent chance for France and 90 percent for England. France has been my not-so-dark horse for 2015; the team is technical, physical and fast, and Louisa Nécib and Eugénie Le Sommer are fantastic together.

Mexico came out strong in a recent friendly against the U.S., holding on in the first half before flaming out 5-1 in the end. The team has less than a 50 percent chance of advancing from Group F, but that’s still better than Colombia’s 32 percent chance. A breakout performance by Colombia’s Yoreli Rincón could help Las Chicas Superpoderosas’ chances, but it’s more likely that they’ll be eliminated: a 68 percent chance.

  • Game to watch: France (50 percent) vs. England (27 percent), June 9
  • Players to watch: Eugénie Le Sommer (France), Yoreli Rincón (Colombia)

Footnotes

  1. According to the model, there’s a 27 percent chance that they will meet in the semifinals and a 7 percent chance that they will meet in the final.

  2. If it wins, Japan will be just the second country (after Germany) to win back-to-back World Cups.

  3. WSPI doesn’t take injuries into account.

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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