Soccer

Soccer

The United States Women's National Team's defense of their World Cup title won't be easy. 

This summer in France, a handful of elite teams are poised to pose problems for the USWNT in the knockout stages of the competition. The Americans never have won consecutive World Cups, and they will arguably face their toughest opposition yet in pursuit of a repeat if (and when) they advance from Group F. 

Here are five teams from the other groups in the tournament that can stop the United States' bid for a second straight World Cup.  

France

The hosts got off to a smashing start Friday, kicking off the World Cup with a 4-0 rout of South Korea. Defender Wendie Renard took an early lead for the Golden Boot with two headed goals off of set pieces, and the French cruised en route to three points. 

France has been close-but-not-quite there for a decade, advancing to at least the quarterfinals in every World Cup, Olympics and European Championship during that time. It all seems to be coming together for Les Bleus, as the side has lost just three times since Corinne Diacre took over almost two years ago. The French only have been defeated once in 2019, and beat the USWNT 3-1 in Le Havre, France back on Jan. 19.

A tournament on home soil could be just what France's "golden generation" needs to win its first major title. The USWNT could face the French as soon as the quarterfinals if both sides top their groups, meaning one of the co-favorites could be responsible for the other's tournament ending in trophy-less disappointment. 

 

Germany

It's always the Germans, isn't it? Germany is the only nation to win back-to-back World Cups (2003, 2007), and won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics. 

A lot has changed in three years, though. Nine of the 23 players on Germany's roster were on the Rio team, and the Germans have had three managers (two full-time) since. Considering Germany had three total managers in the preceding three decades, that's quite a bit of turnover for a country that has been Europe's most successful in the sport. 

Still, the Germans have not lost in 2019, handed France its only loss of the year (so far) in a January friendly and are No. 2 in FIFA's rankings. Germany has a favorable bracket path, too, and wouldn't have to play another group winner until the semifinals at the earliest if it is able to top Group B. Assuming that happens, a match with the USWNT in the quarters is possible if the Americans don't top Group F, setting up a revenge match with the team that knocked out Germany in the semifinals in 2015. 

Australia

Australia made a coaching change itself back in January, leaving Ante Milicic with only a few months of preparation. That was apparent in the run-up to the World Cup, as the Matildas allowed three goals in both pre-tournament friendlies with the Netherlands.

But the Australian attack is as fearsome as any team in the tournament, in large part because any Golden Boot/Ball conversation is incomplete without Sam Kerr. The 25-year-old will be playing in her third World Cup, but is still looking for her first goal in the tournament. Chances are the NWSL's all-time leading scorer won't wait long in France. 

Australia's group is sneaky-tough with up-and-coming Italy and Marta-led Brazil waiting in the wings. A Kerr-Marta showdown on June 13 will offer plenty for neutrals, but should prepare the Matildas well for the knockout stages. Depending on how results shake out in the group stage, the Australians' path to the Final in Lyon could go through the Netherlands and Germany in the quarters and semis, respectively. Kerr is prolific enough to see Australia through. 

England

The English have good reason to believe football's coming home in 2019. After semifinal runs in the 2015 World Cup and the 2017 Euros, the Three Lionesses are arguably the country's best chance at winning its first major soccer trophy since the men won the World Cup on home soil in 1966. 

England won the round-robin SheBelieves Cup back in March, drawing 2-2 with the USWNT. Lucy Bronze is considered by many to be the best fullback in the world, and could complete a quadruple -- she won the French league, French cup and UEFA Champions League titles with Lyon -- if England raises the trophy in her home stadium on July 7. 

 

Expect England to win Group D, thus dodging another group winner until the semifinals. Awaiting the English there could be France or the United States, possibly leaving the obligatory penalty shootout with Germany for the Final. England is more than capable of writing a different ending to that familiar story this time around. 

[RELATED: Some new faces, but same lofty expectations for USWNT]

Canada

Canada has not lost in 2019, and lost three games in 2018 by a combined four goals to France (1-0), Germany (3-2) and the United States (2-0). In other words, the Canadians can hang with the world's elite. 

Aging star Christine Sinclair remains Canada's focal point in the attacking third, and she can surpass Abby Wambach's all-time international record (184) with four goals in France. Canada's defense, led by central defender Kadeisha Buchanan, is sturdy, having allowed just one goal in eight matches this calendar year. 

The group stage will be a different matter entirely, with the European champion Netherlands lurking. Both teams likely will have advanced from Group E by the time the two square off on June 20 in Reims, and the winner's path won't be much easier than the loser's. Group E's runner-up will, in all likelihood, face Germany in the quarters, while its winner probably draws Australia. But Canada can beat either side on its best day, and is capable of ensuring a North American side lifts the World Cup once more.