Women's World Cup roundtable: No one is underestimating Sam Kerr and Australia
Sixteen teams remain in the Women's World Cup. But before Germany-Nigeria and Norway-Australia kick off the Round of 16 on Saturday, ESPN's experts debate what we've seen so far in France and weigh in on the biggest storylines -- VAR, anyone? -- that have impacted the games. ESPN FC's Tom Hamilton and Julien Laurens, ESPN Brasil's Natalie Gedra and ESPN's Graham Hays, Julie Foudy and Alyssa Roenigk -- all of whom are on the ground in France -- tackle the tough questions.
Which team that did not win its group is the most dangerous in the knockout round?
Roenigk: Australia. The Matildas came into this tournament as medal favorites, but an early loss to Italy relegated them to sleeper status. After that loss, Aussie fans were on the hunt for anyone to blame: Football Federation Australia (for firing head coach Alan Stajcic five months before the World Cup), new coach Ante Milicic, the defense, the travel, the rain. ... But if the Matildas make it to the medal rounds, as expected, that loss might be precisely what propels them there.
Hays: Playing a virtual road game amid a sea of orange in Reims, Canada dropped a 2-1 decision to the Netherlands and finished second in Group E. That is far from the end of the world. While Japan is a challenging draw in the round of 16, it's also a team that appears built to peak in 2020, when it hosts the Olympics. And as good a story as Italy has been thus far, Canada would have a more favorable quarterfinal against Italy than the Netherlands.
So the path is there for the Canadians -- who play Sweden on Monday -- to make the same kind of run they have in the past two Olympics. The Canadians aren't prolific, but they have attacking options. And despite the mistakes against the Dutch, they're an organized, physical defense.
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Hamilton: It has to be Australia. The Matildas have one of the world's finest players in Sam Kerr, and if Ellie Carpenter is playing well, the whole team follows suit. The Matildas started poorly with their defeat to Italy, but they are building nicely and will hope to continue this crescendo as the knockout stages progress.
Laurens: I would say Australia. Sam Kerr can win a game on her own and score two goals with half a chance. And as we saw against Brazil, the Matildas are so strong mentally. They never give up and they work hard as a team. Their collective unit is a real strength.
Foudy: I still like Australia, even though we have not seen the full Australia yet in my mind. Sam Kerr is finding her stride, and when that happens, look out. The question is can others, such as Caitlin Foord, Emily van Egmond and Chloe Logarzo, help offensively -- because the Aussies have struggled defensively when facing more competitive teams.
Gedra: Australia. The Matildas are a top group of players with relevant experience in big tournaments. Plus, when they have Sam Kerr on a good day, they are pretty hard to catch -- just ask Jamaica.
What is your overall assessment of VAR? Is it doing more harm or good?
Foudy: I think VAR is a mess. It has been overused and, although it has had a few shining moments, the negative moments and distractions have been far too frequent -- especially the new law of the goalkeeper having to keep one foot on the line, which is nearly impossible to begin with. I don't like that when a goalkeeper inches off her line, and when the penalty kick is missed anyway, is told that is a rule violation. It not only ruins the outcome of games. It is downright silly. This should have been tested before the World Cup, not at the World Cup. And if you are going to be granular, you should be looking at the kicker and those encroaching into the box on penalty kicks, but they are not.
Hamilton: VAR has been a good addition to the World Cup, but what's letting it down is FIFA's persnickety laws for this tournament. The use of VAR should be for clear and obvious mistakes on the referee's part, and is also effective for narrow offside calls -- regardless of how tight an offside decision is, the player is either offside or not.
But the way VAR is used around penalties is causing alarm. The goalkeepers have been trained their whole lives how to approach a penalty in a certain way, and shifting that with such ridiculous authoritarianism as seen in France-Nigeria and Scotland-Argentina seems at best misjudged and at worst harsh.
Gedra: More good, and my impression in the stadiums is that people are much more used to the procedure now. That awkwardness every time VAR is called has definitely diminished.
Laurens: I have always liked VAR and always thought it would improve the game. However, the incidents with the penalty kicks in the France-Nigeria and Scotland-Argentina matches have spoiled the whole idea. It has been used too much during this World Cup.
Hays: The system itself is working as intended, so some of the considerable criticism it's taking is unfair. But as the agent of poor decision-making by FIFA, it's doing more harm than good at the moment. It showed little regard for those involved to use the signature event in women's soccer to debut both VAR in the women's game and a series of rule changes that apply to both men and women, including the now-infamous rule requiring goalkeepers to keep one foot on the line until a penalty kick is taken. Enforcing that rule to a letter -- and centimeter -- of the law not seen before, through a review process new to everyone in the women's game, created a surge of confusion, frustration and recrimination that ticks off fans and makes the sport look bad.
Roenigk: Before I answer, let me table my Kronenbourg 1664. It's hard to type while playing the VAR drinking game. There's no real method to it, but let's be honest: The new video replay is driving people to drink. I'm sure I'm not the only person imagining a nightmare scenario of a penalty shootout that sees a goalkeeper issued a red card, mid-shootout. What happens then? Drink!
Which player needs to step up in the knockout stages?
Gedra: Lieke Martens is one of the most talented players of this Dutch generation. She has the skills and the attitude to shine more in this World Cup.
Roenigk: Let's stay with Australia, my pick to face the United States in the semis. If the Matildas want to get there, their defense in general -- and co-captain and defensive leader Steph Catley specifically -- must keep connected, not allow opponents to stretch their lines and clean up their midfield passing. The Matildas have one of the most lethal players -- and heads -- in the game in striker Sam Kerr, but she's only a difference-maker if the defense keeps Australia in the match.
Foudy: Megan Rapinoe. She has been quiet, in my opinion. If the U.S. women are to go all the way, they will need her threatening more. They will need her creative force offensively.
Hamilton: The French forwards need to find their cutting edge if the hosts are to knock over the United States in the quarterfinals. So someone like Gaëtene Thiney will have to find her best form in time for the knockouts, while they also will want more consistency out of the outstanding Eugénie Le Sommer.
Hays: It's not so much that Germany's Sara Dabritz needs to step up as that the midfielder needs to continue stepping up with the status of Dzsenifer Marozsan in doubt due to injury. Having recently confirmed a big move from Bayern Munich to Paris Saint-Germain, Dabritz couldn't be better situated to finish emerging from her captain's considerable shadow than by leading Germany to a trophy in France. She scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win against Spain, the group game that held the most peril for Germany, and scored again in the finale against South Africa. Germany needs a star if Marozsan is out or less than 100 percent. At 24, Dabritz might be ready.
Laurens: Alexandra Popp. The German striker has only one goal in three matches, and it was against South Africa. She needs to perform better, get better service and to deliver if Germany wants to go far in this competition.
If we have a France/U.S. showdown in the quarterfinals, is it good or bad for the tournament that the two Cup favorites will potentially meet so early?
Hays: It's bad for the tournament in the long run, but at least it comes with one heck of a short-term payoff. Considering the game between the United States and Chile outdrew the host's opening game against South Korea by a few hundred fans in the same stadium, a game between the two favorites in Paris would be the toughest ticket in the history of women's soccer. It might also be the most hyped game. But in losing either the host or the best television market and traveling fan base before the tournament even shifts to Lyon for the semifinals, the final week risks becoming anticlimactic. It would be one thing if the quarterfinal meeting was the result of one team stumbling in the group phase. But penalizing both for being perfect would be a disservice.
Laurens: It is a good thing, even it will feel like a final at the last 16 stage. However, that's what the World Cup is all about: have the best teams facing each other at some point or another. We all love and care about this competition because it gives us those encounters. So let's fully enjoy a France-United States clash whenever it happens.
Foudy: It is definitely bad for the tournament. I don't think losing the hosts or the United States early is ever good for a World Cup. Sadly, it is looking to be a collision course in the quarters.
Gedra: For football lovers, it is good that this fixture happens regardless of the stage. While there are other teams in the competition that have the potential to make things difficult for the United States, I'm not sure anyone can take the title away from the Americans.
Roenigk: It's never ideal for two popular, powerhouse teams to face off too early in a tournament -- especially when one is the host nation -- but that's the luck of the draw. However, that match sure opens up that side of the bracket, and if I'm the United States, I say bring on the toughest opponents as early as possible. The fresher the legs, the better.
Hamilton: It is a shame, but it is symptomatic of the slightly flawed draw structure that has teams traipsing from one end of France to the other and then back again in the space of a few days. France-U.S., if they do meet, will be the game of the tournament, but it will not detract from the knockout stages where everyone will be looking to knock off the reigning champion U.S. women from their perch.
Which player has been your unsung hero of the tournament so far?
Laurens: Spain's Jennifer Hermoso. I love watching her play. She is so skillful and so elegant with her left foot and her style of play. I don't think she got enough love and praise from the media or the fans for her performances so far.
Gedra: Cristiane is one of the best players in the history of the Brazilian team. She was mentioned when scoring a hat trick against Jamaica, but she remains underrated. Cristiane is a central piece of Brazil's attack -- complete, skillful and a true leader. At the age of 34, she still does so much for the team. Obviously, there is always a lot of praise around Marta (more than fair, by the way), but in general, Cristiane is overshadowed internationally.
Hamilton: South Africa headed home without a point to their name, but captain Janine Van Wyk was fantastic. This tournament is full of unsung heroes, whether it be brilliant goalkeepers Vanina Correa (Argentina) or Christiane Endler (Chile), or perhaps the whole Thailand team for the way it reacted after scoring against Sweden. But Van Wyk never stopped running, tackling and chasing for Banyana Banyana.
Roenigk: As a team, Italy has outperformed expectations and topped a tough group. That has been in large part due to the brilliant play of 21-year-old midfielder Manuela Giugliano, she of the pregame, national anthem camera wink. Giugliano leads the tournament with three assists and likely the most social media mentions. Three of her teammates have scored multiple goals, but the goal scorers get all the love. Let's spread some around to the women who tee them up.
Foudy: Cristiana Girelli. She was Italy's leading scorer in qualifying and leads the team with three goals in France.
Hays: It's difficult to stray far from who you've seen the most, so U.S. defender Abby Dahlkemper gets the nod. She and Lindsey Horan are the only American out-field players who started all three group games. And while the United States didn't face many defensive tests in its first two games, Dahlkemper has been largely without fault in her first World Cup and defused several potentially problematic moments against Sweden. Horan, Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis will get more acclaim for their midfield exploits, but Dahlkemper has been darn good as a distributor and defender.