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A player for Canada, in red at left, battles a player from the United States, in blue at right, for the ball.
Canada and the United States both have something to prove in this Women’s World Cup.Credit…Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

After Australia and New Zealand, the co-hosts of the Women’s World Cup, kicked off the tournament, the focus now shifts to the next games of group play, and to three top contenders taking the field: Canada, Spain and the United States.

Spain and the United States are no strangers to the final rounds of the Women’s World Cup, and they will have to withstand the pressure of having a target on their backs. Canada faces a different sort of pressure: their so-far-unrealized expectations on the World Cup stage.

After these games, there will be a clearer indication of which of these contenders are poised to make a championship run, and which have problems to address.

Both teams are battling with their federations over investment and equal pay. There had been some rumblings that Nigeria might boycott its opening game against Canada, whose players are reportedly nearing a new contract with Canada Soccer. But both sides arrived at the tournament saying they were putting pay disputes aside and turning their focus to the pitch.

Canada, the reigning Olympic champions, made the quarterfinals of the World Cup in 2015 but lost in the round of 16 in 2019. Nigeria has won the Africa Cup of Nations 11 times but is facing a stiff challenge in a group that includes the host nation Australia.

The Philippines, in its first Women’s World Cup, features a roster with 18 American-born players. It will face Switzerland, a team with only one previous Women’s World Cup appearance, in 2015. The two countries have never played each other; neither is expected to advance far in this tournament.

Spain, whose roster contains several players from the powerhouse European club Barcelona, has lost only once in the last year. Spain is yet another program in a battle with its federation: A truce was called before the team set off for the tournament, but tensions remain.

When Spain and Costa Rica played in the opening match of the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the Costa Ricans were able to hold the Spaniards to a 1-1 draw, a performance they’ll be looking to repeat.

Vietnam, playing in it’s first Women’s World Cup match, has odds of winning the tournament at just 50,000 to one, but the team gave the highly rated German team a scare on June 24 by keeping a friendly close — the final score was 2-1.

The United States was criticized after its opening performance in 2019, when the team beat Thailand by 13-0. In the lead-up to this Women’s World Cup, none of this year’s players would commit to refraining from a similar goal frenzy, and as a team looking to make history with a third straight title, the United State would take a win in any form.

Credit…Madison Ketcham

The third time around, Megan Rapinoe’s reaction to a potentially career-ending knee injury went no further than an eye roll. She had torn her anterior cruciate ligament. She could reel off the recovery schedule from the top of her head. She could see, crystal clear, the next nine to 12 months spooling out in front of her.

The surgery, the painstaking rehab, the grueling weeks in the gym, the anxious first steps on the turf, the slow journey back to what she had once been. As she considered it in 2015, she felt something closer to exasperation than to despair. “I was like, ‘I don’t have time for this,’” she said.

The first time had been different. She had torn the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee at age 21, when she was a breakout star in her sophomore year at the University of Portland. At that time, she felt what she called “the fear” — the worry that it might all be over before it had begun.

Over the last year or so, that fear — and the searching questions it prompts — has coursed through women’s soccer. The sport has at times seemed to be in the grip of an epidemic of A.C.L. injuries, one so widespread that at one point it had sidelined a quarter of the nominees for last year’s Ballon d’Or.

Vivianne Miedema of the Netherlands, whose knee injury will keep her out of the World Cup, pointed out that, this season alone, almost 60 players in Europe’s five major leagues had torn their A.C.L.s. “It is ridiculous,” she said earlier this year. “Something needs to be done.”

Working out precisely what that might be, though, is more complicated than anyone would like.

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