5 storylines to watch as the Women's World Cup kicks off
When the Women's World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand on Thursday, it'll be the first time the women's cup is hosted in two countries — with a newly expanded field of 32 teams.
Here's what to know as the world's best pursue the biggest title in women's soccer.
The U.S. is again ranked No. 1 in the world, but it's a team in flux
The U.S. will be looking to snag their third straight World Cup title — and its fifth overall.
The U.S. women's national team (USWNT) has held the No. 1 spot in FIFA's rankings for years, and is the odds-on favorite to win once again. But this year's tournament is considered fairly wide open, with several teams having a decent shot at the title.
Indeed, the U.S. has had an interesting pattern of late: winning the World Cup, but losing at the Olympics. The USWNT won the World Cup in 2015, then failed to medal at the 2016 Olympics. They won the 2019 World Cup, then took home the bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
This time around, the U.S. squad is, on average,less experienced at the international level than it has been at previous tournaments. Several veterans whose experience had been counted on were left off the roster due to injuries, including Becky Sauerbrunn, Mallory Swanson, Samantha Mewis and Christen Press.
The U.S. is in Group E, and will face Vietnam, the Netherlands and Portugal. The team will play the entire group stage in New Zealand.
Several USWNT veterans are returning for the World Cup — and it's Rapinoe's last
Nine players on this year's U.S. roster were part of the 2019 champion team – including Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz.
Rapinoe announced this month that she will retire at the end of the NWSL season, making this her fourth and final World Cup.
The 2019 tournament in France is when Rapinoe, a forward, became a household name. In France, she won the Golden Boot for most goals and the Golden Ball for best player, all while sparring with then-President Trump.
Nine on this year's roster were part of the victorious 2019 squad, and just five were on the team when it took home the trophy in 2015. At 38, Rapinoe is the squad's oldest member. (Her hair color this time? A nice frosty blue.) Forward Alyssa Thompson, 18, is its youngest.
The team will be led by captains Alex Morgan, 34, a forward who has already won two World Cups, and Lindsey Horan, 29, a midfielder who was a key part of the team's 2019 victory.
Australia and New Zealand are hosting, making for early mornings — and winter
Australia and New Zealand are cohosting the tournament, so if you want to catch the tournament's kickoff, you'd better set an alarm.
The first match is New Zealand vs. Norway at noon in Auckland — which is 3 a.m. ET. That's followed by Australia vs. Ireland at 8 p.m. in Sydney — which is 6 a.m. ET.
This marks the first time the Women's World Cup will be held in the southern hemisphere. That means that, while much of the U.S. has been sweating through a very hot summer, this Cup will be the first to be played in the winter.
New Zealand's weather could be an interesting factor in matches held there — snow closed highways in parts of the South Island earlier this month. Chilly temperatures and wind are likely, so expect to see players in tights, and puffy coats on the sidelines.
U.S.'s World Cup rookies are poised to make a big impression
"You want to have this broad range of experience in players on the roster at a World Cup," said U.S. defender Kelley O'Hara, who played in her first World Cup in 2011. "You want to have some experienced players. You want to have some players that are coming up for the first time."
That's the case for 14 members of the U.S. squad. Among those likely to make a big impact are forwards Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith.
Rodman, 21, is the second-youngest player on the roster. She scored two goals in a tune-up against Wales, the USWNT's final match before the tournament begins. Smith, 22, was U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year in 2022. You'll see her haunting a new Nike ad.
The team's newest members might be crucial, as Rapinoe recovers from a calf injury and midfielder Rose Lavelle from a knee injury.
8 countries will play in their first Women's World Cup
This year, the number of teams vying for the cup has expanded from 24 to 32.
With those extra slots, eight teams are making their first appearance at the tournament: the Philippines, Ireland, Zambia, Haiti, Vietnam, Portugal, Panama and Morocco.
One country to watch is Zambia, which also hasn't played in a men's World Cup. Led by star forward Barbra Banda, the Copper Queens upset number-two ranked Germany 3-2 in a friendly earlier this month, with Banda scoringtwice.
But Zambia is in a tough group that includes Japan and highly ranked Spain, so be sure to catch them in the group stage.
Brazil looks to get a cup for Marta
Marta is one of the world's best known soccer players, and has been named world player of the year six times. But a World Cup title has eluded her, and at 37, this may be her last shot at it. She's on the squad but recovering from a knee injury, and the team's manager – former USWNT coach Pia Sundhage – says Marta may start the tournament on the bench.
Her teammate, midfielder Kerolin, says the team wants to do what Argentina's men's side did for Lionel Messi – bring home the trophy to seal a legend's career.
"What they did for Lionel Messi, we want to do it for Marta," Kerolin said on a podcast last month, as The Associated Press reports. "She deserves it for who she is."
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.