Bill Connelly, ESPN Staff WriterJul 30, 2023, 10:50 AM ET


Bill Connelly is a staff writer for

The first 32-team edition of the FIFA Women’s World Cup has had a little bit of everything: exciting underdogs, star turns and some heavyweights looking utterly spectacular. As is always the case, however, the group stage is just a table setter. The tournament really begins when the knockout rounds do.

It is also always the case that previewing different rounds of this tournament is like hitting a moving target, so we shouldn’t waste time. As the round-of-16 dance card fills in, let’s talk about each qualifying team’s biggest strengths and weaknesses: basically, the reasons they advanced, the reasons they could make a run and the fatal flaws that will probably trip them up at some point. Only one team can win the title, after all.

Editor’s note: As teams officially qualify for the round of 16, we will add them to the file in alphabetical order. Betting odds below are from Caesars Sportsbook. If you add up all the equivalent odds, they will have a total above 100% because, well, that’s why the casino always wins.

Japan (First or second place, Group C)

Title odds, per Caesars: +1800 (equivalent to 5%)
How they got here: Defeated Zambia 5-0, defeated Costa Rica 2-0
Round of 16 opponent: Winner or runner-up, Group A (Switzerland or Norway), Aug. 5

Why they will win it all: They are spectacular front-runners. Over the last two years, in all matches logged by Stats Perform, Japan has scored 20 goals and allowed one when they were ahead. If you give this team a lead, it’s probably lights out.

Now granted, it took them 43 minutes to score their first goal against Zambia in their World Cup opener, but they scored four more from there. And they’ve played almost perfect defense whether tied or ahead: They have allowed six total shots, and have proven almost flawless in buildup play. While more than 50% of their passes have come in their own half of the pitch, opponents have started only eight combined possessions in the attacking third.

The ball primarily goes through Roma defender Moeka Minami and Manchester City midfielder Yui Hasegawa, two of their most talented players, and they’ve been brilliant.

Why they won’t: What happens when they’re behind? Japan’s roster has plenty of major-club talent – four of their 23 players play in England’s Women’s Super League, captain Saki Kumagai plays for German champ Bayern Munich, Minami plays for Italian champ Roma, and two more play in the NWSL. But they’re all midfielders and defenders. Almost all of their shot attempts come from players who are still plying their trade in Japan’s domestic league.

There’s nothing automatically wrong with that, of course, but in this case, their five leading shooters have combined for 35 shots worth 7.8 xG but turned that into only five goals. If they fall behind and have to force the issue, it’s hard to see where attacking prowess might come from.



Should USWNT and other World Cup favourites fear Japan?

Sophie Lawson believes Japan should be considered one of the top contenders to win the World Cup after a “relaxed” 2-0 win over Costa Rica.

Norway (Second place, Group A)

Title odds, per Caesars: +6500 (equivalent to 2%)
How they got here: Lost to New Zealand 0-1, drew against Switzerland 0-0, defeated Philippines 6-0
Round of 16 opponent: Winner, Group C (Spain or Japan), Aug. 5

Why they will win it all: They’reNorway. Few teams boast more high-level club talent, both of the “aging veteran” variety (Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg, Barcelona’s Caroline Graham Hansen, Chelsea’s Guro Reiten and Maren Mjelde) and the “coming into their prime” variety (Arsenal’s Frida Maanum, Barcelona’s Ingrid Syrstad Engen, Bayern’s Tuva Hansen). The 1995 World Cup champions remain dangerous, and when things come together, they’re terrifying.

Just ask Philippines, which trailed Norway 2-0 after 17 minutes and lost 6-0 – without Hederberg even playing (she’s battling back from injury) – via a hat trick from Roma’s Sophie Roman Haug.

Why they won’t: The slightest bump ruins everything. After a perfect, vertical, length-of-the-pitch attack led to a Hannah Wilkinson goal and a 1-0 New Zealand lead in the World Cup opener, Norway short-circuited. They played impossibly direct ball with no success, they pressed forward and opened themselves so badly in defense that they were lucky not to lose by more. Against Switzerland, they controlled the game, generating shots worth 1.4 xG to the Swiss’ 0.5 over the first 75 minutes. But when the breakthrough never came, they seemed to panic again, and Switzerland nearly stole the match with a fantastic scoring chance in stoppage time.

This team never seems to get along with its manager and never seems to be greater than the sum of its parts when things matter. The Philippines blowout was a reminder of their potential, but getting outscored a combined 1-0 by Switzerland and New Zealand was an even stronger reminder of their floor.



Marsden: Spain among the favourites to lift the trophy

Sam Marsden says Spain are among the favourites to win the World Cup as they beat Zambia 5-0 and advance to the last 16 of the World Cup.

Spain (First or second place, Group C)

Title odds, per Caesars: +330 (equivalent to 23%)
How they got here: Defeated Costa Rica 3-0, defeated Zambia 5-0
Round of 16 opponent: Winner or runner-up, Group A (Switzerland or Norway), Aug. 5

Why they will win it all: They have the strongest identity. Against Costa Rica, Spain enjoyed 80% possession and 6.2 passes per possession. Against Zambia: 74% possession, 5.8 passes per possessions. They have forced 187 high turnovers in two matches. Yes, they were facing overmatched opponents, but they have absolutely overwhelmed them, attempting 68 shots and allowing 11. They deploy the most fully-formed version of the modern possession game, they complete 87% of their (mostly short) passes, and when they lose the ball they counter-press with abandon.

This isn’t the most talented Spain team possible, but the players who came to New Zealand have dominated. Barcelona legend Jenni Hermoso, 33, has two goals and an assist. Real Madrid midfielder Teresa Abelleira has combined 18 ball recoveries with 11 chances created.

Simply put, you cannot take the ball off of this team. They force you into a counter-attacking game, and while plenty of other favorites are good at that (particularly the U.S.), you will have no Plan B.

Why they won’t: Will the important shots be on target? In the 2022 Women’s Euros, they lost matches to Germany in the group stage and England in the knockout rounds, scoring one total goal from shots worth 3.2 xG. In two World Cup matches, they have outscored opponents 8-0, but it could have been worse: Their shots were worth 9.4 xG. When you don’t make the most of your chances, it’s really difficult to survive four single-elimination matches without a costly hiccup.



How far can Sweden go at the World Cup?

Sam Marsden reacts to Sweden advancing to the last 16 after beating Italy 5-0 at Wellington.

Sweden (First or second place, Group G)

Title odds, per Caesars: +2200 (equivalent to 4%)
How they got here: Defeated South Africa 2-1, defeated Italy 4-0
Round of 16 opponent: Winner or runner-up, Group E (USA, Netherlands or Portugal), Aug. 6

Why they will win it all: They’re unflappable. After a beautiful Thembi Kgatlana shot set up a Hildah Magala rebound goal to put Sweden 1-0 down in their opener against South Africa, a brief sense of foreboding set in. For all of Sweden’s accomplishments, they brought an aging team to New Zealand, one with a number of stars battling back from injury. South Africa was making them look slow. But Barcelona’s Fridolina Rolfo tied the game with an into-the-mixer goal in the 65th minute, and a set piece goal put them ahead in the 90th.

On Saturday, Italy played them dead even for 38 minutes before a ferocious series of knockout punches – four goals in 12 minutes – turned a nip-and-tuck battle into a laugher.

An “aging team” can also be one loaded with unflappable experience. Rolfo and PSG’s Amanda Ilestedt have combined for five goals in two matches, and a midfield of Manchester City’s Filippa Angeldahl, Hacken’s Elin Rubensson and Milan’s Kosovare Asllani has been excellent.

Why they won’t: It’s hard to trust the defense. Sweden has had to be unflappable because at times, they leave things unsettled. In last summer’s Euros, they needed a 79th minute goal to beat Switzerland, then a late stoppage-time goal to beat Belgium in the quarterfinals. And against better teams, their defense has been glitchy – they allowed four goals to England in the Euro semis and four to Australia and three to Norway in friendlies.

At this World Cup, they’ve only allowed one goal, but it’s come from 22 shots worth a combined 1.9 xG. And with either the U.S. or Netherlands awaiting in the round of 16, the tests are just beginning.

Switzerland (First place, Group A)

Title odds, per Caesars: +10000 (equivalent to 1%)
How they got here: Defeated Philippines 2-0, drew Norway 0-0, drew New Zealand 0-0
Round of 16 opponent: Runner-up, Group C (Spain or Japan), Aug. 6

Why they will win it all: They’re in control. If you’re looking for exciting, pedal-to-the-metal action, look elsewhere. There hasn’t been a goal in a Switzerland match for 206 minutes and counting. But they still won Group A, beating Philippines and nailing down back-to-back scoreless draws with Norway and New Zealand. Their secret weapon: They’re always calm. They averaged more passes per possession than each opponent to date, including Norway, and only ball hogs Spain, England and Germany have averaged more passes per possession in the tournament. They avoid high turnovers well, and they avoid damage from high turnovers brilliantly.

The center-back pairing of Arsenal’s Noelle Maritz and Zurich’s Julia Stierli has been almost mistake-free in both buildup play (Maritz has completed 88% of her passes) and fire-extinguishing (Stierli has won 82% of her duels, 67% in the air). And while Real Betis keeper Gaelle Thalmann has only had to make eight saves in three matches, she made them all. This team is almost impossible to break down.

Why they won’t: You do probably have to score at some point. Granted, it’s technically possible to win the World Cup with scoreless draws and penalty shootout victories, but that seems like a pretty tall ask. You’ll need to put the ball in the net.

Switzerland is not without talent in this regard. Their attack is led by Barcelona’s Ana Maria Crnogorcevic and PSG’s Ramona Bachmann, after all. But the duo has combined for just one goal from 11 shots worth 2.4 xG thus far. They won’t get many chances against the talented opponents on the knockout-round docket, and they have to be far more efficient with the chances they get.