Denmark, Japan and England are teams to watch throughout this tournament. Japan wants to get back in the contender conversation after last reaching a World Cup quarterfinal in 2015, and started with a dominant win Saturday against Zambia. Denmark has beaten Sweden, Norway and Japan in the last year — and now China in its opening match. And England, though a bit shaky going into Saturday, got past Haiti and is still the winner of the European Championship last year.
Zambia vs. Japan
Japan looked impressive against Zambia, not only putting up five goals — the most for any team in a game in this tournament so far — but also holding Zambia without a single shot. Yes, that’s correct, Zambia had zero shots. Japan, meanwhile, looked fluid and comfortable as it wove through the Zambia defense.
Japan has long been a fixture in World Cup competition and is the only Asian team to have won the women’s tournament, beating the United States in a penalty shootout in 2011. But the past few years haven’t gone Japan’s way — the team made an early exit from the 2019 World Cup in the round of 16, then lost in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Zambia, led by Barbra Banda, is among the newcomers in this year’s tournament. But the team has been embroiled in allegations of sexual abuse after players accused staff members, including Coach Bruce Mwape, of demanding sexual favors. The Football Association of Zambia and FIFA are conducting investigations.
England vs. Haiti
Aside from the United States, England may be facing the greatest expectations of any team in the tournament. The English won the 2022 Euros on home soil, catapulting the team’s players to household-name status. But some of those names are missing from England’s current World Cup roster, after the Euro captain Leah Williamson and the star forward Beth Mead both tore anterior cruciate ligaments. Still, the Lionesses have a competitive squad and a win over Haiti, 1-0.
Surely, England will hope for a stronger showing in its next two games. Haiti, which has had limited abilities to train and no sponsors in part because of instability in its home country, was a game opponent and had several opportunities to strike first and also to tie after England’s penalty goal.
The hero, perhaps, for England was its goaltender, Mary Earps, with two big saves that held her team’s thin advantage.
Denmark vs. China
Denmark has missed the past three World Cups and is looking to make up for lost time. For much of its match against China on Saturday night, it seemed to be playing defense, or at least stifling aggression.
Yet it seized a sliver of an opportunity in the game’s 90th minute, when Amalie Vangsgaard headed in a long corner kick from Pernille Harder.
Denmark has beaten a top contender, Sweden, as well as competitors Norway and Japan, all within the last year. A successful run for the Danes would see them make the round of 16.
There are no sure bets at any World Cup, but the closest one to date at this year’s tournament is that if you are watching a game, there will eventually be a penalty kick awarded.
A handball in England’s match against Haiti on Saturday preserved an unlikely streak to open the World Cup: Each of the first eight games had at least one penalty.
The streak, broken by the fourth and final game of the Saturday slate between Denmark and China, is understandable. With the advent of video assistant referees, officials at the top level of the game now routinely have the ability to go over calls, and study them again, in Zapruder-film-like detail. At this tournament, referees for the first time are also announcing their decisions to the stadium crowd and the television audience.
Still, some of the penalties have been debatable, or at the very least debated among some watchers.
United States Coach Vlatko Andonovski, for example, refused on Saturday to accept the suggestion that a penalty kick won by forward Trinity Rodman was anything but deserved after she was tripped in the penalty area.
“I don’t know if they happen too easily or not,” Andonovski said of the penalty calls. “I mean, with all the cameras, with V.A.R. and all the angles the referees are reviewing, I’m sure they are making the right call.”
Andonovski left little doubt where he stands, though.
“If it’s a foul in the box, then it’s a penalty,” he said. “Going forward, I don’t know what’s going to happen. If there are fouls in the box, they should call the penalties. If they’re not, they shouldn’t. It’s very simple.”
Players have made four of the eight penalty kicks, but those conversions weren’t easy for Japan and England on Saturday. Both teams needed to redo their kicks, after calls of encroachment by the Zambia and Haiti goaltenders, before finding the back of the net.
In the weeks before the Women’s World Cup, Sophia Smith admitted that she wanted to be the first United States player to score a goal in the tournament. Of course she did. Like every great athlete, she has long envisioned herself as a star.
Growing up in Colorado as the youngest of three girls, Smith spent years trying to keep up with her sporty sisters. She was the sibling relegated to the middle seat of the car, the one who tagged along at basketball practices, the baby yearning to be noticed.
Yet even as a young teenager, Smith said, she knew she was destined for something bigger. She told her parents that she had the talent and drive to be a “special” soccer player. Maybe the best ever. It hardly seemed like a long shot: She was not prepared, after all, to settle for anything less.
“I’m a winner,” Smith said in an interview before the World Cup. “I have to win. It makes me sick to lose anything. Card game, anything. When it comes to soccer, I just find a way.”
On Saturday in the United States’ 3-0 victory over Vietnam, Smith showed — yet again — that there was something to her gut feeling that she would be great.
In her first World Cup game, Smith scored the U.S. team’s first goal of the tournament. Then she scored its second. Later, she had the assist on its third. And even then, she thought her day could have been better.
“We could have scored several more goals,” Smith said. “Myself included.”
It was a remarkable debut, which reinforced the view of many that Smith, 22, could leave Australia and New Zealand as the tournament’s breakout star. In a team filled with promise — eight United States players made their first World Cup appearances against Vietnam — Smith once again hovered high above the rest. Not that her teammates didn’t try to keep up.
At times, it seemed as if every player on the U.S. team could have scored a goal or two, or three. Savannah DeMelo, making her first World Cup start and only her second appearance for the national team, had two great early chances. Rose Lavelle — finally back on the field after a long injury layoff — had at least two more after entering as a second-half substitute, including one shot that looked bound for success until it ricocheted off the crossbar.
Not even Alex Morgan, the star forward in her fourth World Cup, could match Smith. Morgan missed a penalty kick in first-half injury time when her low shot was stopped by the Vietnam goalkeeper, Thi Kim Tranh Tran.
“You know, we can always put more away,” said Morgan, who added that she was happy with the victory but not with her penalty attempt. “But I think the way the first World Cup game goes is not the way the last one is going to go.”
U.S. Coach Vlakto Andonovski acknowledged that his team — which is trying to win an unprecedented third consecutive World Cup title — should have converted more of the two-dozen-plus chances it created, and said he would have liked to see more efficiency in those critical moments in front of the goal. The U.S. team has only several days to make those adjustments before it faces a much tougher test against the Netherlands, but Andonovski said that was plenty of time for his players to study what went wrong and to get back to its usual scoring rhythm.
The deadline is soon. The Netherlands, a team the U.S. defeated in the 2019 World Cup final, surely won’t allow as many chances, and it surely will make the U.S. work harder on defense.
Andonovski had little doubt, though, that the United States would be ready for the match on Thursday (Wednesday night Eastern). He said he was encouraged by how his team played against Vietnam, considering the 11 starters had never played a game together, and six of them — including Smith — had never played a World Cup match at all.
“I’m sure the nerves had something to do with it,” he said of the substandard finishing. “So I’m not worried about it.”
He added that he was encouraged by the style of soccer that the team played, and pleased with all the opportunities it created. Smith was just as upbeat. Once the team loosens up a bit and gets more touches and strings together more passes, she said, it will “settle down and feel more confident.”
She did admit, though, to feeling nervous before the game, a sensation that she said was a first for her.
That means she didn’t feel nerves when she helped Stanford win an N.C.A.A. championship in 2019, which included her scoring a hat trick in the semifinal. Or when she entered her first professional game with the Portland Thorns, in 2020, and scored after only three minutes.
The World Cup, though, is another level entirely, even against Vietnam. Smith is at a new point in her career now, with new emotions and higher stakes. But ever since she was a kid, she has been ready.
“Whoever scores, whatever the score is, a win is a win,” she said in the days before the Vietnam game. “And if it takes me scoring a lot of goals for us to win, I’ll do that.”
The fight for pay equity and equal treatment has roiled women’s soccer in recent years, with the players of the U.S. women’s national team at the forefront of that battle.
FIFA — soccer’s global governing body and the organizer of the Women’s World Cup — increased the tournament’s prize money to $110 million, up from just $30 million four years. Much of that increase comes from larger sponsorships and new broadcast rights for the women’s tournament. Yet the overall prize money still trails far behind the prize money at the recent men’s World Cup in Qatar: $440 million, or four times as much.
Still, women’s players from around the world worked to secure their share of the payout. For the first time in World Cup history, FIFA will allocate money for players and federations separately, a move made to ensure that players will see a cut of the overall prize money.
The U.S. team will not rely on FIFA to determine their share of World Cup prize money and will instead follow the terms set out in their contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation. In it, the Americans have already secured tournament prize money significantly higher than the minimums set by FIFA.
For more than an hour, the United States sailed shots high and spun them wide. It skied them over the crossbar and curled them wide of each post. Occasionally, Vietnam’s goalkeeper would swat one away.
Three of the shots went in the Vietnam net, however, and at the World Cup, that is all that matters. Sophia Smith, a 22-year-old forward playing in her first World Cup match, got the first two and set up the third for Lindsey Horan, a veteran midfielder entrusted only weeks ago with the captain’s armband.
But there could have been more, and the Americans knew that as well as anyone. Alex Morgan failed to convert a first-half penalty kick. Rose Lavelle hit the crossbar late in the second half. Horan admitted she “could have scored maybe three or four more.”
“A World Cup isn’t always perfect or pretty,” Smith said sagely even though this is her first. “But I think we definitely could put away a few more chances.”
Those chances — the United States had 27 shots overall — were perhaps the best evidence of what might have been on a day that will be remembered more for the goals that were almost scored than the ones that were.
Sharpness, efficiency, ruthlessness: Those are discussions for tomorrow. On a chilly afternoon in Auckland, the main takeaway for the United States was that it had opened this World Cup just as it left the last one: with a victory.
“Obviously we came here to win the game,” United States Coach Vlatko Andonovski said, “and we did that.”
Like the United States, Vietnam surely knew that things might have gone much worse. At a pregame news conference at Eden Park on the eve of the game, a reporter from Vietnam took the microphone, introduced himself and asked about a certain match from the 2019 World Cup.
“What do you expect from the Vietnam team tomorrow?” he asked Andonovski. “Are you going to crush us like against Thailand four years ago?”
It was, in all honesty, a fair question. Every soccer fan, every player, every coach knows what happened in a similar shark-vs.-minnow spot: The United States strolled to a 13-0 victory against an overmatched Thailand team in a game that morphed from respect to awe to backlash over 90 stunningly noncompetitive minutes. The fear was that against Vietnam, a team appearing in its first World Cup, the United States might gin up a rerun.
Andonovski didn’t take the bait before the game. He spoke graciously about respect, and admitted, “They will fight and make it as hard as possible for us.” Vietnam’s coach, Mai Duc Chung, promised a battle, saying his team had come for a fight, “not just for jogging.”
But while Andonovski could not say it, another 13-0 result would have been fine with him. In a group stage when goal difference can matter quite a bit, the more goals, the better.
So as chance after chance went wasted, he decided to try to focus on the positives: a rebuilt defense anchored by Julie Ertz, reinstalled as a center back; strong debut performances by Smith, Trinity Rodman, Andi Sullivan and Savannah DeMelo; late minutes for Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe that confirmed their injuries may be behind them. The chances, Andonovski suggested, made him confident that the goals would come eventually.
“I wouldn’t say that I expected more goals,” he said. “But with the way we played and the opportunities we created, I sure wanted to see more goals. And I thought we deserved to score more goals.”
Maybe those goals are coming. Maybe they will arrive in games against the Netherlands and Portugal, the Americans’ next two opponents in Group E. Maybe Smith, already looking like a candidate to be the tournament’s breakout star, will be even sharper next time out.
And maybe the United States will look back on a win that could have been bigger and be happy that, for one day, it was just big enough.