Pitch-per­fect sce­nario

Plenty of stars, sto­ry­lines in France as de­fend­ing champ U.S. goes for its 4th ti­tle

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - SPORTS - By Michael Lewis

Afi­ciona­dos of soccer have felt that this year’s Women’s World Cup in France could be a game-changer in global pop­u­lar­ity and qual­ity of play.

You’ve got the de­fend­ing cham­pion and top-ranked team in the world in the United States, a host team that plays some of the most en­ter­tain­ing soccer on the planet, a skilled, pacey striker from Aus­tralia who is a mov­ing headache for de­fend­ers and goal­keep­ers, and as many as eight teams that can win it all.

The 24-team tour­na­ment kicks off Fri­day and runs through July 7. The top two teams from each of the six groups will qual­ify for the Round of 16, as will the top four third-place teams.

In con­trast to Canada 2015, which was played on ar­ti­fi­cial turf, France 2019 will use hon­est-to-good­ness green grass.

Lewis rank­ings

(WWC-record 15 goals), can’t be counted out be­cause of its im­pos­ing in­di­vid­ual tal­ent, but his­tor­i­cally falls short.

9. Swe­den has been a thorn in the Amer­i­cans’ side, hav­ing elim­i­nated them in the 2016 Rio quar­ter­fi­nals.

10. Much-im­proved and dark horse Spain should not be taken lightly.

Try­ing for fourth Play­ers to watch (U.S.)

Striker Alex Mor­gan, whose ef­fec­tive­ness in the 2015 WWC was ham­pered by a knee in­jury, is healthy. Me­gan Rapi­noe, who turns 34 on July 5, has her bril­liant mo­ments. But can she be an im­pact player in seven games over 27 days (the USA’s opener is the lat­est start date, June 11)? For­ward Tobin Heath doesn’t look im­pos­ing but is one tough cookie. Carli Lloyd, the 2015 Golden Boot win­ner, has been rel­e­gated to the bench as a su­per-sub (she’s 36). She’ll be out to prove coach Jill El­lis wrong and could be­come a lethal weapon down the stretch.

Play­ers to watch (rest)

ELSA/GETTY

Alex Mor­gan, Tobin Heath and Me­gan Rapi­noe and the rest of the U.S. women’s team will de­fend their ti­tle at the World Cup in France.

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