With the clock very much ticking down to the start of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, almost all 32 nations were in action over the last two weeks — including the last three who used to the window to book their tickets to the tournament.
With certain caveats, the international break proved a strong chance to assess many of the teams who’ll be heading to Australia and New Zealand in July with their hopes of creating history. So, how did they do this month and how does it bode for their World Cup chances?
Here’s a region-by-region and team-by-team look.
One of the more impressive teams across the world this month, Australia made it three wins from three at the four-nation tournament that they hosted, the Cup of Nations. Not just building up a head of a stream, the Matildas seems to have the pieces finally clicking into place under manager Tony Gustavsson and they are finally starting to dig out the 90-minute performances the coach has been asking them for.
– Australia vs. Spain: Confidence growing pre-World Cup
– Australia vs. Jamaica: Matildas growing into team to fear
A quite different team under Shui Qingxia, China are still growing under their new coach and made sure to cram the window with playing opportunities, fitting in a couple of non-FIFA friendlies with Liga F teams in-between a loss to Sweden and a draw with Ireland. Like other teams in the region, the Steel Roses are largely composed of Chinese Women’s Super League players who are currently not in season, placing an asterisk over their results this month.
Japan are yet another nation who are still finding out who they are under a new coach Futoshi Ikeda, who after over a year in the role looks to have finally found the right formula for the Nadeshiko‘s midfield maladies. Suffering two defeats in their first SheBelieves games, the team finally got the reward for their endeavours in their final game against Canada. The next job for the former world champions will be consistently finding goals but that’s what April may well be for.
Gustavsson: What he’d do differently & the world catching up with USWNT
Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson discusses what he’d change about his tenure if he had the chance, and how the women’s football world has closed the gap on the U.S.
Heading into their first World Cup this summer, the Philippines have set out to test themselves time and again in the lead-up, looking for improvements and growth rather than results. Despite the mistakes made against Wales, Scotland and Iceland in their three February friendlies, the team does seem to be moving in the right direction.
South Korea may well feel hard-done by with how their Arnold Clark Cup games went, not least as Italy’s winner in their last game carried a strong suspicion of offside. The caveat for some of their failings in England that the team was clearly not in season, with the WK League usually starting in April, yet the nation did slowly appear to be growing into the cup as it progressed.
The only team heading to the World Cup this year not to play this month was Vietnam, who haven’t played a match since July, raising concerns about how prepared the team will be going into the tournament. Their opening game of the World Cup will be against the United States, who infamously pummeled Thailand by a score of 13-0 in their opening game of the 2019 World Cup, which only adds to such concerns.
Opting to pit themselves against teams outside of the top 45 in FIFA’s ranking, Morocco continued their prep with two wins from two but their ability to step up against higher-ranked opposition and different styles remains a question mark for the emerging African nation.
A World Cup mainstay, you never know quite what you’re going to get with Nigeria, but a win and a pair of losses (each by 1-0) at the Revelations Cup suggests they are once again beginning to find their feet ahead of the summer tournament.
The former dames of COSAFA (the confederation representing all the nations in southern Africa), South Africa had a mixed bag in Turkey this month, beating Uzbekistan before drawing with Slovenia. As another team who focus on growth and consistent improvement, coach Desiree Ellis will be asking herself what the team leaned from the two matches and how they can be better next time out.
A narrow loss to Slovenia and wins over North Macedonia and Uzbekistan concluded Zambia’s February, with the Copper Queens another nation readying themselves for a maiden World Cup this summer. Although a team who like to stick to their own style, it can be hard to pinpoint quite where Zambia are at, but the team will take heart from their results against European opposition this month.
South America (CONMEBOL)
Arguably the big winners from South America this month, Argentina claimed three good wins in New Zealand — a 4-0 against Chile and a pair of wins over the Kiwis — highlighting their growth under manager Germán Portanova. Their February should be enough to make fans of La Albiceleste feel a little more comfortable heading into a busy summer.
Leaving the SheBelieves Cup with just one win and two losses, Brazil looked far better on the pitch than their results may suggest but there continues to be a lingering question over how profitable the team is in front of goal given the attacking strengths in the squad.
Another team at the Revelations Cup in Mexico this month, Colombia bookended a win against Nigeria with a pair of 1-1 draws, but are another team who maybe would have been hoping to score a little more over the international window. The questions becomes how can coach Nelson Abadía can augment his attack to take the strain off of young sensation Linda Caicedo.
North America, Central America and the Caribbean (CONCACAF)
Blighted by off-the-pitch issues with the team embroiled in a public dispute with Canada Soccer, the impact on the players and their performances at the SheBelieves Cup have been clear for all to see with those in the squad opening up about the toll the situation has taken on them. Where the team will be at come July and what type of headspace the players are in remains a larger concern for all involved.
The third and final World Cup-bound team at the Revelations Cup in Mexico, Costa Rica will be coming away from the window with mixed feelings after having been both disadvantaged and benefitted from own goals across their two draws. Still looking for a real sting in attack, Las Ticas will be looking towards 21-year-old Priscila Chinchilla to keep boosting her tally for the side to take pressure off of the older heads in the ranks.
The first of the three play-off winners to punch their stamps to the World Cup this summer, Haiti were the most impressive of those at the World Cup qualification playoff tournaments in New Zealand. Finding a joyful attacking balance, Les Grenadières may need to work on their fitness ahead of the summer with a lot of the team clearly flagging in the latter stages of their final against Chile, creating a nervy last few minutes after La Roja had managed to get back into the match.
– Women’s World Cup: Haiti, Portugal & Panama become last teams to qualify
A team who are likely to score more often than not, Jamaica may be coming away from their three Cup of Nations matches feeling a little disconsolate having lost all three, including their second against the Czech Republic in the 90 minute. In specifically testing themselves against strong opposition, the job for coach Lorne Donaldson will be tightening up the team at the back.
Why Gomez wasn’t thrilled with the USWNT’s 2-0 win over Canada
Herculez Gomez reacts to the USWNT’s 2-0 win over Canada in the SheBelieves Cup.
The last nation to come through the World Cup qualification playoffs, Panama were made to sweat in New Zealand but ultimately showed their class and resolve to see off an impressive Paraguay side. With young hot-shot goalkeeper Yenith Bailey in goal and Pachuca’s Marta Cox in the middle of the park, the next step for Panama will be raising the level of the other players in the team to make them harder to break down this summer.
After more than a few gentle wobbles against European opposition at the end of last year, the USA got back to winning ways at the start of 2023, and have built on their pair of wins against New Zealand last month with a hat trick of Ws at the SheBelieves Cup. Yet, as you will read elsewhere on ESPN, the reigning World Cup champions largely won without showing their best form, developing an over-reliance on the individual brilliance of Mal Swanson.
– USWNT vs. Canada: Swanson cements World Cup spot
– USWNT vs. Japan: Finishing good, but midfield a concern
– USWNT vs. Brazil: The press works, but creativity lacking
Now without a win in their last eight, there is, on the face of it, plenty of cause for concern for the Football Ferns. The wider issue is not the losing run but the simple fact that the Kiwis have only managed one goal — a 1-1 draw against South Korea in November — in that time. Heading into a home tournament, the Ferns will need to remedy their goal-scoring draught sooner rather than later if they are finally to break their duck and win a World Cup match.
With Denmark already knowing they’re nearing the end of Lars Søndergaard’s tenure as coach, the team are still looking for consistency and a way of harnessing the vast amount of youth talent coming through. With a narrow loss to France and wins over Norway and Uruguay, including a very late comeback against Las Celestes, there are plenty of positives for Denmark to be taking from the month.
The unbeaten run for England has once again been stretched following a hat trick of Arnold Clark Cup wins against South Korea, Italy and Belgium with the Lionesses finishing the cup with a flourish [and a flurry] against the Red Flames. Inching closer to finalising the team to go to the World Cup, England boss Sarina Wiegman has admitted she’s not sure of her best XI as it stands but the European nation is one that continues to look strong heading into the summer.
– Analysis: England near-perfect at Arnold Clark Cup
– Analysis: Lionesses have selection headaches
Still looking for their best options in attack since Marie-Antoinette Katoto injured her ACL last summer, France may be a little closer to finding a suitable back up with strong cameos from 21-year-olds Kessya Busy and Naomie Feller at the Tournoi de France. Having dispatched with Denmark and Uruguay, the hosts ended their home tournament with a blank against Norway and generally look to be about where you’d expect.
As well as a blank at home against Sweden, Germany spent their February in southern Spain coming up against Ireland in a closed-door friendly. Having romped to the Euro 2022 final last summer, Germany have once again become quite a large blip on people’s radars with the team unquestionably one of the strongest in Europe — yet the side faded against Sweden and, for the first time in 16 outings, failed to score. Without their strongest XI on the pitch, it’s easy to expect it will be another while before Germany finish a match without finding the back of the net again.
Man United’s Mary Earps gives goalkeeping masterclass
Manchester United and England goalkeeper Mary Earps gives ESPN FC’s Ralph Karumazondo a masterclass in the art of goalkeeping.
Starting their Arnold Clark Cup campaign off with back-to-back losses, Italy finished with a win but having not looked quite right since the start of the 2022 Euros, there were again more questions than answers for Milena Bertolini’s team this month and with the World Cup rapidly approaching, there is precious little time for La Azzurre to get their mojo back.
Another of the very many nations to have undergone a semi-recent managerial change, the Netherlands are still coming together under coach Andries Jonker as they navigate the year without their record goal-scorer in Vivianne Miedema. The Oranje‘s month consisted of a double-header against Austria, losing to the nation who narrowly missed out on World Cup qualification before comfortable besting them. The job for Jonker before the start of the summer tournament will be continuing in the footsteps of his predecessor, Mark Parsons, in embedding the younger emerging players into the squad in a way that makes the most sense for the team.
Rounding out the window with one draw, one loss and one win, Norway still has a disconnect between the breadth of talent in the squad and their ability to translate it into results. It’s a long-term issue that new manager Hege Riise is attempting to rectify, yet time seems to be ticking ominously down for the former World Cup winning player.
Romping to a win over New Zealand in a friendly, Portugal had the beating off Cameroon in their World Cup qualification playoff, dominating play from the outset. However, unable to put the match to bed, the European nation needed a last-minute penalty to claim a spot at the World Cup without having to go to extra time against a resilient and rallying Cameroon team. Clearly the better team on the balance of the 90 minutes, Francisco Neto’s side swerved a hiccup and will need to capitalise on their better chances moving forward, including at the World Cup.
Before announcing their double-header against the USA in April, the Republic of Ireland took to Marbella for a pair of friendlies. Like a number of other managers, Vera Pauw has been clear that she wants her squad to keep facing high ranked opposition to ready them for the demands of the incoming summer. Although their results in Spain might not have been what fans want to see, it’s clear that the squad is still refining their performances.
The caveat when it comes to Spain is the team is without 15 of their best players as the well-documented row between them and the federation continues. Although for many it would appear that they’ve reached a stoic impasse and although it is prudent to suggest that the team we’ve seen recently may not be the one that travels to the World Cup this summer, that may also be wishful thinking.
What we do know is the team that manager Jorge Vilda took to Australia to play at the Cup of Nations won two and narrowly lost one, highlighting the depth of ability in Spain and the simple fact that the group called up by the coach is a strong one that can mix with most teams in the world — even without multiple world class talents. But, the further asterisk around La Roja is the nation’s poor tournament form with friendlies and qualifiers usually a world a way from the form of the side when it comes to major outings.
– Explained: Why Spain players are battling their federation
Sweden have never missed a World Cup — that is all many need to know when it comes to the longevity of the nation in women’s football, with Blågult reaching the semi-finals on four of their eight outings at the FIFA tournament. However, after an underwhelming Euros campaign where the side looked tired and out of ideas, the team have seemingly corrected and have begun to find their footing in attack again and should be ready to hit the ground running in New Zealand this summer.
Finally, Switzerland played out a pair of draws against Poland as the team tries to adjust to new coach Inka Grings, who only took charge ahead of this camp. Largely disappointing under their former coach, Grings has precious little time to work out her best team and formation ahead of the World Cup and how their April window goes is likely to be more telling.