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2019 Women's World Cup team previews: South Korea

Considering that South Korea didn't establish its Women's Football Federation until 2001, it's shocking how far the 11th-ranked team in the world has come. A round-of-16 loss in Canada four years ago was a huge step forward for a team that had previously qualified only once. Four years on, can the tough-nosed Taeguk Nangja defy expectations again?

How they got here

In last year's AFC Women's Asian Cup group stage, Australia, Japan and South Korea -- all drawn in the same group -- each had a win and two draws. Australia's goal differential of plus-8 yielded a first-place finish and one of two automatic qualification spots. Between Japan and South Korea, the tiebreaker went to Japan, which scored five goals to South Korea's four. South Korea went to a fifth-place match against the Philippines, which South Korea won handily.

Strengths/weaknesses

Defensive cohesion of the back line was the team's big issue at the previous World Cup. Against Brazil, errant pass-backs to the goalkeeper and center back led to both of Brazil's goals. Against Costa Rica, a defensive miscommunication allowed Melissa Herrera to nudge a free kick from midfield over the goal line, and an egregious failure to track allowed an 89th-minute sitter. The Taeguk Nangja are crafty, efficient and cohesive on the offensive side; if they can do it defensively, too, they'll be a force in their second consecutive World Cup.

Money stat: 50-1

The odds are stacked against South Korea to win the title. But FiveThirtyEight gave Japan a 41 percent chance of reaching the semis, and a 23 percent chance of reaching the finals before the most recent World Cup, and we know what happened there. Not to mention, in the 2018's men's World Cup, South Korea knocked out reigning champs Germany in the group stage. Odds are meant to be defied, Goliaths meant to be thwarted.

Players to watch

Two stellar midfielders spearhead South Korea's offense: captain and 2015 KFA Footballer of the Year Cho So-hyun, who joined West Ham United in 2019, is the country's most-capped player; Chelsea's Ji So-yun, the motor of this squad, is the country's all-time leading scorer.

Key game

Norway scored 17 of its 22 goals in qualifying against Slovakia and Northern Ireland, 46th and 59th in the world, respectively. In the absence of Ada Hegerberg, only one forward on the World Cup squad plays domestic football outside the homeland. On June 17, if South Korea can take the lead early and control the pace -- if it beats Nigeria five days earlier -- it could surprise.

Local feedback

Can't fault head coach Yoon Duk-yeo for looking ahead. He clued in The Korea Herald on how he selected opponents for the tune-up friendlies before the competition: "In order to reach the knockout stage, we must collect points [against] European teams. Through the April and May friendly matches, we'll especially focus on finding solutions to beat Norway."

Prediction

Chelsea's Maren Mjelde and Maria Thorisdottir will likely thwart South Korea. That being said, a positive goal differential could sneak the Taeguk Nangja into the round of 16, where they'd likely butt heads with Australia or Germany. Crazier things have happened. In 2015, both Colombia and the Netherlands made the knockout round at 1-1-1, with no better than a plus-1 goal differential.

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