In 14 combined Women's World Cups and Olympic women's soccer tournaments, the United States has failed to make at least the semifinals only once, losing in the quarterfinals to Sweden in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Its record is impeccable, and considering the Americans have won the past two World Cup finals by a combined 7-2, it's safe to say they aren't preparing to relinquish their best-in-the-world crown anytime soon.
With each passing year, however, women's soccer grows more tactically advanced. Based on how teams have played recently, and how their rosters are taking shape for 2023, let's take a look at the 10 teams most capable of knocking the USWNT from its throne three years from now.
FIFA ranking: Third
2019 World Cup: Quarterfinals
On a match-for-match basis, France might have been the best team in the 2019 World Cup. In four matches against teams that made at least the knockout rounds, the French women averaged an expected goal (XG) differential of plus-1.62, far better than any other team in the past three tournaments. They dominated possession and were easily the most disruptive squad, averaging 13.4 possessions started in the attacking third against knockout-round teams. Opponents averaged only 5.3. If "field position" were a soccer term (and it should be), France would be a field-position master.
Going by the box score, the French also probably should have beaten the U.S. in the quarterfinals. Megan Rapinoe's early goal meant the U.S. was happy to let France possess the ball (60% of the time, with 347 completed passes compared to the 188 for the U.S.), and it could have easily backfired. France finished the 2-1 loss with double the shot attempts (20-10) and a 1.8-1.1 XG advantage. Sure, the French were at home, but at worst they were the USWNT's equals.
While a few key players might be in danger of aging out of the player pool -- midfielder Gaétane Thiney (currently 34) and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi (33) -- and longtime midfielder Élise Bussaglia has already retired, France has a young and dangerous core: forwards Valérie Gauvin (24) and Kadidiatou Diani (25), attacking midfielders Delphine Cascarino (23) and Grace Geyoro (22), etc. Plus, they have the best club team in the world to call on for reinforcements. Of the 27 players to have seen action for France in the past two years, eight play for four-time defending Champions League winner Lyon.
FIFA ranking: Sixth
2019 World Cup: Fourth place
Speaking of expected goals, the tally from the United States' 2-1 victory over England in the World Cup semifinals was England 1.8, U.S. 0.8. The U.S. went up in the 31st minute, then held on for dear life for an hour straight. Ellen White saw a goal overturned by VAR in the 69th minute, Alyssa Naeher saved a Steph Houghton penalty in the 84th minute, and the outcome was uncertain all the way to the final whistle.
It was England's second consecutive heartbreaking loss in a World Cup semifinal -- it fell to Japan in 2015 via an own goal in stoppage time -- but it was also a reminder of how close England is. Over the past two years, 75% of its national team minutes have gone to players who will be between the ages of 28 and 35 in 2023. While Manchester City stars White (31), Houghton (32) and Jill Scott (33) are the veterans, they should still have something to offer, and the reinforcements -- Lyon's Nikita Parris, Arsenal's Beth Mead, Chelsea's aptly named Bethany England -- will be entering their prime.
Increased investment in the Women's Super League in England can only help. Seventeen English players have logged at least 700 minutes for the national team in the past two years, and while three play for Lyon (Parris and fullbacks Lucy Bronze and Alex Greenwood), 12 play in the Super League, including six from Manchester City and three from newly crowned champion Chelsea. As this league improves, so will the competition level for national team candidates.
FIFA ranking: Second
2019 World Cup: Quarterfinals
Easily the second-most successful country in the history of women's soccer, Germany is, like its men's team, really good at hanging around. In 14 total World Cups and Olympic tournaments, the German women have reached at least the semifinals nine times. It was jarring to see them knocked out by Sweden in the quarterfinals last year.
They, too, could take a peaking team to the next World Cup. Of the 12 players who have logged at least 500 minutes for the national team in the past two years, 11 will be between the ages of 28 and 33 in 2023. That's pretty much exactly where you want to be, even if it means there might be some heavy roster churn after '23.
While they've got key contributors playing for Lyon (midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan) and Paris Saint-Germain (midfielder Sara Däbritz), they are also able to call on two very good club teams for depth: 37 players have logged time for the national team in the past two years, 11 play for Bayern Munich and eight play for a Wolfsburg team that is currently running rampant through both the Frauen-Bundesliga and Champions League (four wins and a 22-0 scoring margin in the first two knockout rounds). Forward Alexandra Popp, midfielder Svenja Huth and defender Sara Doorsoun-Khajeh are all Wolves and all in their prime.
FIFA ranking: Fourth
2019 World Cup: Runner-up
The Netherlands have overachieved its statistics of late, but it's hard to ignore the simple fact that the Dutch won the 2017 Euros and reached the 2019 World Cup finals. Sure, they didn't have to face France, England or Germany last summer, but the record is still awfully impressive for a rising team that didn't even qualify for its first World Cup until 2015.
Also impressive: Vivianne Miedema. The Arsenal forward has already scored 69 goals for her country and 203 goals in her club career, and she's 23. Arsenal teammate Daniëlle van de Donk has been a mainstay for club and country and is still only 28, and they have excellent 27-year-old wingers in Lyon's Shanice van de Sanden and Barcelona's Lieke Martens.
So if the Dutch have big wins and big stars, how are they not higher than fourth? For starters, their XG margin while winning the 2017 Euros was only plus-0.27 per match, seventh best in the tournament. Against knockout-round teams in the World Cup last year, it was minus-0.01. That's not much margin for error. They also don't appear to have the depth of the teams above them here, leaning on a smaller player pool for most of their minutes.
Still, with Miedema the Dutch will contend.
FIFA ranking: Eighth (tie)
2019 World Cup: Round of 16
Canada has easily the strangest player pool among contenders. Over the past two years, only one player currently aged between 26 and 30 (defender Shelina Zadorsky) has logged serious minutes. Quite a few mainstays, such as forward and captain Christine Sinclair, might age out of the player pool soon. But the roster is littered with players who have both carved out national team niches and signed with big clubs: Manchester City's Janine Beckie (25), Lyon's Kadeisha Buchanan (24), PSG's Ashley Lawrence (24) and Jordyn Huitema (19), OL Reign's Rebecca Quinn (24), etc. Talent shouldn't be an issue.
No one dominated the ball like Canada at the 2019 World Cup -- against teams that made the knockout rounds, the Canadians averaged 61% possession and took 6 more shots per match. Against Sweden in the round of 16, they had 59% possession, completed 132 more passes and attempted three more shots, but four of them were blocked and only one was on goal. Sweden didn't manage much more than that but scored the lone goal. It was a missed opportunity.
FIFA ranking: Seventh
2019 World Cup: Round of 16
No contender has given more minutes recently to younger players than Australia. Of the 12 players to log at least 500 minutes in the past two years, eight are 26 or younger. That includes best-player-in-the-world candidate Sam Kerr (26) and fullback Ellie Carpenter, who has led the Matildas in minutes over these past two years despite just recently turning 20.
Maybe this means Australia won't be ready for true title contention until 2027, when this group is in peak age range and younger, and high-upside players such as Montpellier's Mary Fowler (17) are further developed. But depth appears decent, and Kerr -- the ESPYS winner for the best international player in 2018 and 2019 -- makes the Matildas dangerous at all times, even if she's been battling injuries since joining Chelsea this past fall. A large majority of their minutes go to players in the National Women's Soccer League, but only a couple play for the same team. That makes familiarity and continuity tricky, but the upside is high.
FIFA ranking: Fifth
2019 World Cup: Third place
Like Germany, Sweden always hangs around. The Swedes reached four World Cup semifinals and have only once failed to advance out of group play. They perhaps overachieved their stats last year in reaching the finals -- they had a minus-0.3 XG differential per match -- but they took only great shots (79% of them were in the box, easily the most in the tournament), blocked shots and crosses and scrapped like a veteran team should.
They might be a little too veteran. Of the nine players who have logged at least 800 minutes for Sweden in the past two years, six will be at least 33 in 2023. There are interesting young players in the pipeline -- Wolfsburg attacking midfielders Madelen Janogy (24) and Fridolina Rolfö (26) and Chelsea fullback Jonna Andersson (27). But while Sweden's got talent and a track record, it might find itself between generations in 2023.
FIFA ranking: 11th
2019 World Cup: Round of 16
Japan has a strong women's league to call on -- the Nadeshiko League employs 10 of the team's top 11 recent minutes-earners (eight play for either Nippon TV Beleza or INAC Kobe Leonessa). And like Canada and Australia, the Japanese women have already begun to get a look at their future: 18 players have logged at least 370 national team minutes in the past two years, and 12 are 24 or younger.
As far as known quantities, though, the lineup is a bit of a mess. Forwards Yuika Sugasawa and Mana Iwabuchi have been productive, but a large cast of midfield candidates hasn't. Among players who are in the prime age range, only Lyon center back Saki Kumagai is a truly known entity. Having lots of young options is great, but some of them have to become key contributors -- and quickly.
FIFA ranking: 12th
2019 World Cup: Quarterfinals
One of the sport's early powers, Norway's women have, of late, been most notable for who doesn't play for them. For the past three years, they have been without Lyon striker and 2018 Ballon d'Or Féminin winner Ada Hegerberg. Only 24, she has already scored 220 goals in 182 appearances for the best club in women's soccer. She would immediately make Norway a top-eight team at worst. (At least she would once she's recovered from her current ACL injury.) She quit the national team in 2017 in protest of poor support of the women's squad, so her future with the squad is uncertain.
What-ifs aside, Norway still has dynamite midfielders in Chelsea's Guro Reiten (25) and Wolfsburg's Ingrid Engen (22). Strikers Caroline Graham Hansen, Isabell Herlovsen and Lisa-Marie Karlseng Utland are decent Hederberg stand-ins. It beat Australia to reach the World Cup quarterfinals last year, and the core roster should enjoy solid continuity in 2023.
FIFA ranking: 13th
2019 World Cup: Round of 16 (best finish)
In terms of raw talent, Brazil should probably hold a spot on this list. But it is still alarmingly reliant on 42-year-old Formiga and 34-year-old Marta, and an iffy home league means it has players in basically every league in the world. It's hard to get home for international matches, and the Brazilians have played 49 players in the past two years. Even with former USWNT manager Pia Sundhage in charge, it's going to be awfully hard to build a strong, familiar squad.
Instead, Spain gets the final spot. It had the second-best possession rate in the most recent World Cup (61%), attempting 177 more passes and creating 7.3 more chances per match than opponents. The Spanish women gave the U.S. fits in the round of 16, too, before falling via a late Rapinoe penalty.
Finishing was an issue. Against teams that made the knockout rounds, they averaged just 1.1 XG per match and actually scored 0.3 per match. Midfielders Virginia Torrecilla and Alexia Putellas will assure that the possession game remains strong, and 21-year-old Athletic Bilbao winger Lucía García has massive potential, but Spain needs a little more bite to move further up this list.