Two games. Seven goals scored. None allowed.
Japan has arrived at the World Cup with its foot on the gas and emerged with two easy wins. Four days after opening with a 5-0 thrashing of Zambia, Japan dispatched Costa Rica, 2-0, with goals three minutes apart midway through the first half.
Hikaru Naomoto and Aoba Fujino did the honors on Wednesday, becoming the fifth and sixth players to score for Japan in its first two games. But it has been the manner in which Japan has won — with an abundance of speed and technical ability and a defense that has surrendered only two shots on target through two games — that raise an intriguing question:
Might be time to start including Japan, a World Cup champion only a decade ago, in the conversation about which team might win this year’s tournament? Japan’s coach, Futoshi Ikeda, raised the prospect after his team’s opening win. Its second will not change his opinion.
“We have these players who have grown up seeing Japan become world champions,” Ikeda told reporters after the Zambia game. “We would like to take up the challenge again to be champions.”
It has been more than a decade since Japan won the 2011 World Cup, beating the United States. But its fortunes faded after that: Routed by the United States in the 2015 final, Japan was eliminated in the round of 16 four years ago.
Few experts had included them on the growing list of title contenders in this year’s expanded tournament. Now Japan might be the first team through to the knockouts: If Spain beats Zambia as expected later on Wednesday, both Japan and Spain will clinch places on the round of 16.
Their meeting to close the group stage, on Monday in Wellington, New Zealand, might offer a good guide of which team can truly take aim at the title.
The next stretch of games in the Women’s World Cup will see several favorites to win the tournament look to build some momentum — or, in Canada’s case, find some — and display the dominance for which they’re known.
Canada, which left the field frustrated after playing a scoreless tie with Nigeria in its first game, will look to rebound against Ireland. Spain, which cruised in its opener, will look to repeat the feat just like Japan did on Wednesday in its win over Costa Rica, 2-0.
And then on Thursday afternoon in New Zealand (Wednesday night Eastern time), the United States will try to set aside an uneven performance against Vietnam and produce the kind of authoritative victory its fans expect.
Spain vs. Zambia
Spain opened the World Cup in impressive style against Costa Rica. Zambia’s tournament has already taken a bad turn.
It is down to its third-string goalkeeper, after the starter Hazel Nali was ruled out of the World Cup with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and her backup Catherine Musonda earned a suspension by getting two yellow cards in the Japan game.
That doesn’t bode well for a Zambia team that allowed five goals in its first game, especially as it faces a mesmerizing offense that is just now starting to return Alexia Putellas, the reigning world player of the year, to full fitness after a knee injury.
Canada vs. Ireland
Ireland lost to Australia in its opening match but had several chances. It needs at least a draw against Canada to keep alive its hopes of advancing from Group B.
Canada, meanwhile, is under pressure to get its first win. But simply scoring a goal or two would be a confidence boost after the veteran forward Christine Sinclair failed to convert a penalty that might have meant a victory — instead of a scoreless draw — against Nigeria.
Adding to the Canadians’ challenges is the number of Irish fans expected to be in attendance Wednesday. More than 10 percent of Australia’s population claims Irish roots, which was part of the reason the Australia-Ireland opening day matchup was moved to a larger stadium.
“We’ve already sensed that there is a strong following,” Canada Coach Bev Priestman said.
But Priestman sees bigger issues than a hostile crowd. She described the Irish as a “horrible” team to play against because of its combativeness and physicality, a “passion” she said her team would have to match.
Japan vs. Costa Rica
Japan’s five goals were the headline from its opening win against Zambia, and it followed that up by overwhelming Costa Rica on Wednesday, 2-0.
Many fans have been looking ahead to a showdown between Spain and Japan, which is scheduled for Monday. That will likely be a contest to determine who wins Group C, though both teams are threats to make even deeper runs.
United States vs. Netherlands
One of the most highly anticipated matchups of this World Cup comes with huge stakes, since it most likely will determine which of these teams has an easier path out of Group E. But it comes off unsatisfying performances by both the United States (in a 3-0 win over Vietnam) and the Netherlands (1-0 against Portugal) in their opening games.
“We weren’t always clicking on the field,” the United States co-captain Alex Morgan said this week.
The Americans figure to have a tougher task against the Dutch. The Netherlands beat its first opponent, Portugal, by only a single goal, but did not allow a shot on target until the 82nd minute. And therein lies the problem facing the United States: that sturdiness, discipline and organization will be tough to break down.
Their game is scheduled for Thursday afternoon in New Zealand, or 9 p.m. Eastern time Wednesday.
Rose Lavelle is certainly aware that Wednesday’s match against the Netherlands at the Women’s World Cup is a big deal.
The game is a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final, won by the United States, and of a meeting between the teams in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics, also won by the United States. Its result most likely will determine which team will finish first in the Group E, and thus which one will get an easier path in the knockout stages.
For all those reasons, for all that history, for all the stars on both teams, the game is, by definition, a big deal. But Lavelle runs on one setting: chill. So at a news conference on Tuesday in Wellington, Lavelle offered brief answers about her status (“I’m ready”), her health (“good”) and her maturation into a starring role on the U.S. team (“I’m just … me”).
She gave no indication that she considered the big game a bigger deal than any other. She predicted, in fact, that it would be “fun.”
About the only revelations in 30 minutes of questions and answers alongside Coach Vlatko Andonovski was that Lavelle might be in for a more prominent role against the Netherlands — her presence at the pregame news conference alone suggested she might be in for a start — and that Lavelle considers quite a few things to be “fun.”
The U.S. team’s win over the Netherlands in the 2019 World Cup final.
Her memory of that game.
Thursday’s rematch against the Dutch.
Watching World Cups.
Playing in World Cups.
Scoring a goal in the World Cup final.
Yes, Lavelle said that scoring the clinching goal for the United States in the World Cup final was fun, one of nine times she used the word in her news conference. And in her defense, that goal in 2019 looked like a lot fun: a full-speed straight through the Dutch defense, a cutback to split two defenders, a low shot rocketed into the corner of the goal with her left foot, a celebration of a lifetime goal achieved.
The goal remains one of the touchstone moments of Lavelle’s career. But asked if it had changed her life, or her, in any way, she seemed to shrug.
“I always say I think I would have expected a moment like that to feel like I’m different, or change me,” she said. “But I don’t really feel like it did. It was a goal and it was fun, but, I don’t know, I feel like I’m still just, me.”
Norway is in about the worst position it could have imagined going into its third game of the Women’s World Cup: It has a loss and a draw; its best player, the 2018 Ballon d’Or winner Ada Hegerberg, did not play on Tuesday because of discomfort she felt during warm-ups; and one of its most respected midfielders, Caroline Graham Hansen, tore into her coach after the game for dropping her from the lineup.
“People talk all the time about ‘standing together as a team’ and ‘standing together as a nation,’” Graham Hansen told the Norwegian broadcaster Viaplay after the game. “It is not true that you should get anything for free in this life. But I thought I had earned a certain amount of respect.”
Still, because of a strange set of results in its group, in which every team but the Norwegians has a win, Norway is very much in play to go from last in the Group A standings to the round of 16 if it can beat the Philippines on Sunday.
The scenarios for advancing at the World Cup can often be convoluted, but we’re here to help. The Upshot has again produced a team-by-team look at who would move on given the possible outcomes for each game, accounting for the complex system of tiebreakers that comes into play each tournament.
The charts show, for example, that Norway — which entered the tournament as the top team in its group based on the FIFA rankings — could use a bit of help from Switzerland. And, conversely, the math shows that Switzerland probably might want Norway to win, too, to give the Swiss some chances to advance even with a loss. New Zealand and the Philippines each can advance with a win, but also with a draw, depending on how things play out.
These scenarios will be updated as each group wraps up its second set of games, giving you an immediate look at what each team will need in its final group-stage game to advance to the knockout rounds.