How much does it pay to invest in the future of soccer? This is what the 2008 U-20 Women's World Cup in Chile will answer in lieu of the multimillion-dollar question.
The U-20s are on the cusp of the last stop in each country's soccer system -- the national team -- and many will go on to represent those senior squads as sparks and playmakers. In many ways, the U-20 World Cup should be taken as seriously as the World Cup; it's barely a step removed from soccer's quadrennial mecca. Here's how the dark horses and future medalists stack up:
1. Brazil (Group D)
Kleiton Lima's squad might just be the most exciting team to watch, not just because of the artistry of the acrobatic goal-scoring trio of Daiane, Erika and Pamela, but because it has 17-year-old American Leah Fortune on its side. After finishing a close fourth in the past two U-20 World Cups, in addition to a disappointing second-place finish by their senior counterparts in the 2008 Olympics, the Canarinhas have all the fire of a football-loving nation to propel them to a golden finale.
Key Players: Aside from Brazil's triple-edged sword of Daiane, Erika and Pamela, keep an eye out for Fortune and her dangerously accurate flip-throw, which has been named the cambalhota (the mortal somersault) by awed Brazilian fans.
2. United States (Group B)
|U.S. U-20 schedule|
U.S. vs. France
Estadio Nelson Oyarzun, Chillan, Chile
1 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com
U.S. vs. Argentina
Estadio Nelson Oyarzun, Chillan, Chile
10 a.m. ET, ESPN360.com
U.S. vs. China
Estadio German Becker, Temuco, Chile
2 p.m. ET, ESPN360.com
Widely respected coach Tony DiCicco leads another exciting young group to Chile, in what the USSF hopes will be a return to dominance after a few stumbles -- placing third and fourth in the past two U-20 championships. And the Americans will have even more motivation to finish atop the podium, since the majority of the players are missing their college teams' NCAA campaigns.
Key Players: World-class goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher will be between the posts, and defensive stalwart Becky Edwards will be anchoring the backline. The U.S. also will be dangerous on the attack with Keelin Winters orchestrating the offense.
3. Germany (Group C)
Germany is always a major title contender, and 2008 is no exception. Coming off a UEFA European Women's U-19 Championship in which the young Germans thrashed the competition, the team boasts the gold standard in youth development. The U-20s also have considerable experience, an enviable product of the three years the squad has spent playing together on the international scene.
Key Players: Coach Maren Meinhert has singled out Bianca Schmidt, Kim Kulig, Nadine Kessler and Isabel Kerschowski as players to watch in Chile, and that's not even taking into account that she has a secret weapon in striker Nathalie Bock.
4. England (Group A)
After reaching the final of the UEFA Women's U-19 Championship against Germany, England qualified for Chile by toppling European powers France and Norway, nearly snatching the title away from Germany, too. Highly respected coach Mo Marley will be leading a revitalized, yet inexperienced, side. The squad, playing up from the U-19 designation, first will face the tough challenge of playing tournament-host Chile -- the same team that beat England 1-0 back in February.
Key Players: England boasts a good core of young leaders in Steph Houghton, who originally was named to the senior World Cup squad before suffering an injury, as well as Sophie Bradley, Jessica Clarke and Natasha Dowie -- all of whom have played in FA Women's Cup finals in recent years for their club teams.
5. Canada (Group C)
Canada always has been on the periphery of the women's soccer elite, considered a strong team and consistent threat but one that has lacked the ability to close the deal in major championships. However, for the first time, Canada comes into the World Cup with a slight edge on the U.S., having defeated the American side to win the CONCACAF region. Unfortunately, Canada has landed in what might be the most difficult group of the tournament and will have to best Germany and Japan to advance beyond the first round.
Key Players: Goalkeeper Erin McNulty is one of Canada's rising stars, and her ground game often has stymied major opponents. Forward Jonelle Filigno will bring her national team experience and leadership to the attack.
6. Korea DPR (Group D)
The defending U-20 world champions are expected to make another strong showing; the squad's return campaign will be fortified by impeccable fitness, diligent organization and the physical play that always makes Korea DPR a feared opponent. With Coach Choe Kwang-sok leading the charge again, Korea DPR has the tools to capture another title.
Key Players: Ra Un Sim won the U-19 Women's Championship best player honors during Korea DPR's convincing sweep and will be the team's primary target up top.
7. France (Group B)
Entering a third U-20 World Cup, the French women are one of the more experienced teams in what is shaping up to be a deep tournament. However, the French squad has underwhelmed in the past, especially on defense, a major concern of late following the number of goals conceded in the Euro 2008. France faces another potentially deflating campaign -- the squad will not have an easy go of it against a strong American group for the first match of the tournament, followed by Argentina and a technical China PR.
Key Players: Striker Marie-Laure Delie hopes to repeat a high-scoring tournament from 2006, and Amandine Henry, Livia Jean and Eugenie Le Sommer will pull the strings in the middle of the park.
8. New Zealand (Group A)
With coach John Herdman leading a full women's team to a surprisingly successful 2008 Olympic campaign, the U-20 squad is poised to benefit from Herdman's determination to hoist the women's program up by its bootstraps. However, the Junior Football Ferns run the risk of burn-out -- with nine players from the U-17 World Cup squad making the step up to the U-20s, almost half the team will be playing unprecedented back-to-back World Cup tournaments.
Key players: Forwards Annalie Longo and 15-year-old Rosie White will be among some of the youngest players featured in Chile and likely will have to prove their physicality against players who have four years of experience on them.
9. Japan (Group C)
Dubbed the up-and-coming team for this tournament, the young Nadeshiko hope to follow in the exciting footsteps of their elders, who executed a breakthrough performance in the 2008 Olympics. The U-20s are positioned to reap the rewards of joint training with the senior squad, but they'll need to bring pitch-perfect teamwork and the precise passing game that has come to characterize Japanese soccer.
Key Players: Defender Rumi Utsugi played a pivotal role in last year's U-19 Championship and earned valuable experience with the senior team in the 2008 Olympics. Forwards Hikari Nakade and Michi Goto also have proven they can consistently find the back of the net.
10. Norway (Group D)
Remarkably, this will be Norway's first youth appearance in a World Cup, despite the success of the senior women's side. While the team is offensively capable, it might not have enough depth or consistency to round out a championship-caliber starting lineup. Norway's youth program always has been a bit of a mystery, but the increased efforts to locate talent should pay dividends in this tournament.
Key Players: Midfielder Isabell Herlovsen was a bright spot for Norway's senior squad in the Olympics and will be heavily relied on to quarterback the offensive drive, while captain Maren Mjelde also will help dictate the tempo.
11. China (Group B)
If it's any portent for China's U-20 squad, the senior side of the Steel Roses has floundered of late -- and the pressure on China's soccer youths in light of past disappointments is reaching a saturation point. The good news for the Steel Rosebuds? The squad is loaded with potential, having finished second in the 2004 and 2006 U-20 World Cups, and coach Zhang Guilai has tempered expectations of a medal finish.
Key Players: With the loss of two key strikers, Ma Xiaoxu and Ma Jun, to injury in recent international play, China will be scrambling to find its offensive artillery. Fortunately, it has Weng Xinzhi to hold court on defense.
12. Argentina (Group B)
Bringing a group of newly dubbed Olympians to the U-20 squad, Argentina will not be as star-struck as it has been in the past. Despite an 11th-place finish in Russia 2006, the senior squad's surprisingly able performance in the Olympics bodes well for the young Albiceleste.
Key Players: The topside excellence of Maria Belen Potassa will be key for the team in Chile 2008, and if midfield creator Florencia Mandrile can provide adequate support, Argentina might have a shot at getting more than just points on the scoreboard.
13. Nigeria (Group A)
Always considered a highly physical and athletic team, the Falconets have struggled to inch their way up the soccer ladder. Unless the U-20 squad finds a way to form a cohesive and tactically driven attack, Nigeria will continue to fall short in pursuit of a top-four finish.
Key Players: Forward Orji Ebere led Nigeria to a 3-2 comeback over Ghana in the African qualifying round and will share leadership duties with Sarah Michael and Rebecca Kalu.
14. Mexico (Group D)
As impressive as the tradition of soccer is in Mexico, the women's teams of all ages have consistently placed third among the North American powers. Until the U-20s can improve their fitness, physical prowess and organization in the back, El Tri will continue to hang back from the coterie of women's soccer frontrunners. Despite some dynamic offensive personalities, Mexico will have a difficult time making it out of a very dangerous group that includes Brazil, Korea DPR and Norway.
Key Players: Mexico will count on the dazzling talent of 17-year-old midfielder Veronica Charlyn Corral, who burst onto the scene two years ago in Russia 2006.
15. Chile (Group A)
As host, Chile has been provoked into reforming its women's soccer program. While the women of Chile have never made an appearance in a major women's soccer tournament, the U-20s hope to draw on the energy of a fiercely passionate home crowd and a strong tradition on the men's side. New Spanish-born coach Marta Tejedor has high expectations for her squad, banking on winning games with more than just passion. The team already has shown it can hang with more experienced challengers, defeating England 1-0 in a friendly tournament earlier this year.
Key Players: Nathalie Quezada is a tenaciously quick striker with a nose for the goal, and team captain and midfielder Daniela Pardo will be relied on to keep the team poised and organized.
16. Congo DR (Group C)
Congo DR hopes to improve on its showing in Russia 2006, in which the team posted close games against the U.S. and France but fell hard to Argentina with a 4-0 loss. The young Leopards narrowly earned a berth to Chile 2008 by defeating South Africa in a playoff tie and will be looking to prove their hard-earned spot. They do not have much international experience to rely on, and the dearth of games against opponents from Asia, North America and Europe might leave the team flailing in a formidable Group C.
Key Players: Speedy midfielder Odile Kuyangisa is a ubiquitous threat and isn't afraid to take on multiple players.
Group C and Group D constitute the stronger side of the bracket (with Brazil, Korea DPR, Japan, Germany and Canada), so tournament favorites could drop out early. The United States should have a pretty clear path to the semifinals, but it'll be a toss-up when it gets down to the final four.
Lindsey Dolich is a contributor for ESPN The Magazine and covers the U.S. women's national team for ESPNsoccernet.