The Women's World Cup is less than a month away, and the field of 16 is the deepest-ever for the tournament. Led by the usual suspects of Germany, the USA and Brazil, but with a few new teams in the mix, it looks to be an entertaining September with new teams and players getting a chance to make names for themselves on the international stage.
Players to watch
1. Kelly Smith, M, England
The player facing the most pressure in this year's Women's World Cup likely is Smith. The often-injured English midfielder is finally healthy, and her team is playing well. But, at age 28 and with qualifying for the World Cup as tough as it is in Europe, this could be her first and last appearance in the tournament. It's also her best chance to get the recognition many believe she deserves for being among the best players in the world. If that's not enough, women's soccer in England looks to be gaining traction and all the team's games will be televised. A strong run with an upset or two could do a lot for the sport in the U.K.
2. Marta, M, Brazil
Similarly, the Brazil women need a strong showing in the World Cup -- and need a solid performance from the 2006 FIFA World Player of the Year. Brazil's win at the Pan Am Games, led by Marta's brilliance, has put increased focus on the Women's World Cup in the country -- winning the tournament could keep the focus and funding there for quite some time. She's also just 21 years old and flat-out entertaining to watch: Check out the highlights of Marta's 5-goal game
in a 7-0 rout of Canada on July 20.
3. Birgit Prinz, F, Germany
The top scorer in the 2003 Women's World Cup leads her team back to defend its title. With Germany's defense somewhat questionable (longtime starting goalkeeper Silke Rottenberg is recovering from injuries and not listed as the No. 1 keeper for the World Cup), Germany will rely on stars such as Prinz and Renate Lingor.
4. Renate Lingor, M, Germany
Another brilliant No. 10 playing in this year's World Cup, Lingor finished third in last year's player of the year voting. What makes her much more dangerous than Smith and Marta is the caliber of players surrounding her -- having Prinz up top is a luxury all midfielders would like to have.
5. Lotta Schelin, F, Sweden
With Sweden's string of injuries, up-and-coming star Schelin is one of the last strikers standing. She'll have to team up well with Victoria Svensson because Svensson's regular partner up top, Hanna Ljungberg, has been hampered by injuries most of the year. (Svensson and Ljungberg combined for 6 goals during Sweden's second-place finish in the 2003 Women's World Cup.)
Teams to watch
The U.S. is kind of hard to miss in its new gold jerseys and is also one of the favorites to walk away with the title. Although this is the most inexperienced U.S. World Cup roster since the first, the team has been together for three years and its only loss under Greg Ryan was in penalty kicks to Germany back in March 2006.
The current World Cup titleholders were hampered by injuries earlier this year, and Rottenberg's recent reinjury could be trouble heading into the tournament, but they've been without her long enough to try to get Nadine Angerer ready in goal. Outside the injuries, expect nothing less than solid physical play with tactical precision and all-out effort for the full 90 and beyond. However, no team has ever successfully defended a Women's World Cup title.
With Marta running the show as well as she has been the past two years for both her club and her country, it's difficult to imagine a scenario in which Brazil doesn't go far. But the key is going to be its defense and goalkeeping. Brazil, though without Marta, struggled to keep the U.S. off the board in their friendly back in June. The offense and possession will be there for Brazil; the key will be keeping the other team out of the net.
The Swedes hope Ljungberg is healthy in time for the tournament as they look to improve on their strong second-place finish in 2003. However, even if Ljungberg is fully healthy, other recent injuries (such as the one to starting goalie Caroline Jonsson) could still plague them.
With a world-class midfielder, young, dynamic strikers and a country beginning to show strong support for the women's game -- the English hope the 2007 World Cup is just the beginning of their arrival on the national scene.
Jacqueline Purdy is an editor for espnradio.com. She also hosts the ESPN Women's Soccernet podcast on ESPN PodCenter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.