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New countries and a changing U.S. team: what to expect for the Women's World Cup


The Women's World Cup opens tomorrow, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand. And while it's always been a big event for soccer fans, this year, there will actually be even more teams to follow because, for the first time, 32 teams will compete, and eight countries will make their debut. Joining us to talk about all of this is women's soccer writer Sophie Downey. Welcome back to the show.

SOPHIE DOWNEY: Thanks for having me. It's great to be back.

CHANG: Thanks for being with us. OK, so you are now in Sydney, Australia, as we speak. What has the vibe been like there? Like, what's the energy like?

DOWNEY: So I've actually been here for about a month...

CHANG: (Laughter).

DOWNEY: ...And I was saying the last seven days or so - starting to get the real vibe that something big is happening around here. The banners are all up around Darling Harbour. Yeah, you wander through the streets, and you can just feel, like, that sort of sense of anticipation that, you know...

CHANG: Yeah.

DOWNEY: ...Of what tomorrow night is going to bring.

CHANG: Totally. Well, you know, I have to address the fact that, given the time difference, most of the games will be in the early, early morning or late into the evening here in the U.S. I mean, I can do the late-night games, but I cannot do early morning games. Can you just give us the rundown on who is playing tomorrow and what you expect to see?

DOWNEY: So tomorrow, the tournament opens in Auckland, with New Zealand against Norway. And I think that's going to be an interesting one because New Zealand and Norway have both been on a pretty tricky run of, you know, form. Norway sort of got kind of chucked out the Euros last year - probably a bit of a disappointing time. So they're looking to kind of build themselves back up. Whereas New Zealand, I think, have been on a super bad run of form. They've barely won a game this year.


DOWNEY: And but, then again, they're co-hosting a tournament. And you never know what that can do to the mentality of the players...

CHANG: Yeah.

DOWNEY: ...In terms of, like, giving them that energy and that buzz that they need. And then, on the other side, in Australia, here in Sydney, you've got Australia, the co-hosts, against the Republic of Ireland, and I think that's going to be big. There's over 80,000 expected at Stadium Australia tomorrow.


DOWNEY: And Australia are on an amazing run of form, but Republic of Ireland are not to be counted out, I don't think.

CHANG: Well, what about the U.S. team? I mean, they're the reigning champs from the last World Cup, right? It seems they have some exciting up-and-comers like Trinity Rodman and veterans like Megan Rapinoe, who says it's her last tournament. Like, really? Is that really - is that real?

DOWNEY: Yeah. It's hard to imagine World Cup or International football without Megan Rapinoe.

CHANG: Yeah.

DOWNEY: So it's going to be a bit heartbreaking when it is all over. For me, I think that it's going to be really interesting with the USA because, you know, for so many years, they've been the front-runners, and they've been the out-and-out favorites. And I do think the playing field has leveled a bit in terms of - European countries have invested highly. They've brought the game up - their game up another level. In terms of the USA themselves, they've gone through a bit of transition. So, you know, you've got that core of, like, the Rapinoes and Morgans of the world, who have done so many tournaments, won so many trophies and got so much experience. And on the flip side, you have, you know, the younger players coming through - the likes of the Sophia Smiths and Trinity Rodmans, who have shown such great talent in the NWSL recently. Sophia Smith was obviously the MVP last season. Trinity Rodman is tearing it up for Washington Spirit at the moment. So it's just how they deal with those kind of high-pressure moments, having not been on the global stage before.

CHANG: Well, we mentioned that this is the biggest tournament so far in terms of numbers of teams represented. Is there a new country entering this tournament that you are particularly excited to see play?

DOWNEY: I probably am a little bit biased in the sense that I have good ties with the Republic of Ireland.

CHANG: (Laughter).

DOWNEY: So it's their first World Cup, and I think opening to Australia tomorrow is going to be so special for anyone linked with the Republic of Ireland. I would also say keep your eyes on Zambia. They are very, very exciting going forward. They might not be so strong defensively, but they can hurt teams when they want to. So I would keep my eyes out for them, too.

CHANG: You're getting me excited. That is women's soccer writer Sophie Downey. Thank you so much, Sophie.

DOWNEY: Brilliant. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alejandra Marquez Janse is a producer for NPR's evening news program All Things Considered. She was part of a team that traveled to Uvalde, Texas, months after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary to cover its impact on the community. She also helped script and produce NPR's first bilingual special coverage of the State of the Union – broadcast in Spanish and English.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.