Netherlands’ Esmee Brugts, center, on the pitch of the Forsyth Barr Stadium with her teammates a day ahead of the Women’s World Cup Group E soccer match between the Netherlands and Portugal in Dunedin, New Zealand, on Saturday.
Credit…Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

The Netherlands, Sweden and France are the teams to watch on Sunday, the fourth day of the Women’s World Cup. Sweden, the world’s third-ranked team and a semifinalist at last year’s European Champion, are a regular contender at major tournaments. The Dutch were the runners-up at the 2019 World Cup, and they still have many of their core players from that tournament on their roster. The French have a new coach but are familiar faces in late stages of international tournaments.

Never count out Sweden.

The Swedes reached the semifinals of the European Championship last year only to lose to England, the eventual champion. A year before they that, they won the silver medal at the Tokyo Olympics. That came after a run to the semifinals at the World Cup in France, and a trip to the final of the Olympic tournament in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, when Sweden stunned the United States in the quarterfinals.

Long story short, Sweden comes to play.

Desiree Ellis has coached South Africa’s national team back from obscurity, leading it to an Africa Cup of Nations title in 2022, its first victory in that continental championship. She also coached the team to its first World Cup berth in 2019. South Africa did not win a single game and failed to advance past the group stage, however, and it faces a tall task against Sweden today.

The Netherlands have been a force in international soccer for several years. It won the 2017 European Championship, reached the World Cup final in 2019 and took the United States to a penalty shootout in the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Its first opponent in this World Cup is Portugal, which needed 13 qualification games to clinch its spot in the 32-team field, the most of any team competing. Portugal is one of the eight teams appearing in the Women’s World Cup for the first time.

That experience gap favors the Netherlands, but of course the matchup’s placement in Group E — with the United States — puts heavier pressure on both teams to post an early win if they want to make it to the knockout rounds.

The Dutch, who lost to the Americans in that World Cup final four years ago. will face the U.S. again on Thursday in Wellington, New Zealand (Wednesday night Eastern time). The game is one of the most highly anticipated matchups of the group stage, and the winner will face a far easier path in the knockout rounds. But first things first, and that’s Portugal.

Despite a successful run in international play over the past few years, France has been in turmoil behind the scenes. In March, the French federation fired its longtime coach, Corinne Diacre, after players complained of an unhealthy environment on the team.

Hervé Renard, a well-traveled coach but one who had never led a women’s team, has worked to steady the ship. But if his pedigree coaching women is thin, his World Cup pedigree is long: Most recently, he coached Saudi Arabia in the men’s World Cup in December, a run that included a famous win over Lionel Messi and Argentina.

France lost a disappointing semifinal to Germany in the 2022 European Championship and failed to qualify for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. After what they have been through, a win in the first game in Australia could help stabilize the team — and set it on the path for a deep run.

Standing in the way is Jamaica, a team playing in its second World Cup. Jamaica had to use crowdfunding websites to raise money for the team’s trip to Australia and New Zealand. The Jamaicans lost all three of their games in the group stage in 2019.

Sophia Smith, right, with Crystal Dunn.
Credit…Andrew Cornaga/Associated Press

To a small subset of devoted soccer fans, Sophia Smith’s goal celebration during the United States’ 3-0 victory against Vietnam would have looked familiar.

After her second goal in the U.S. team’s 3-0 victory over Vietnam, Smith ran her fingers across her lips to zip them and then threw away an imaginary key. It was the same goal celebration her good friend and former Stanford teammate Katie Meyer used during a penalty shootout at the 2019 N.C.A.A. championship game. The gesture by Meyer, Stanford’s goalkeeper and team captain, quickly went viral.

When Stanford won the penalty shootout that day, Smith ran to Meyer and leaped onto her, causing them both to tumble to the ground.

Just over two years later, in March 2022, Meyer was found dead in her dorm room only a few months before graduation. She had killed herself.

“That was for Katie,” Smith said after the Vietnam game, explaining that she and another former Stanford player on the U.S. team, Naomi Girma, had planned the goal celebration in the days leading up to the World Cup. Both have dedicated this tournament to Meyer.

In Meyer’s memory, Smith and Girma also launched a mental health care initiative with the nonprofit Common Goal that included filming a public service announcement with several of their U.S. teammates. “We just want to honor her in every way,” Smith said.

Smith said Meyer’s death “changed everything” about her life. It has helped her value her friendships more, she said, and put other issues into perspective.

“Now I don’t take things too seriously,” said Smith, who left Stanford two years early to play professionally. “I realized that there’s so many more important things happening and the little things that stress me out take a toll on me.”

Herve Renard, in a blue soccer jersey
France’s new manager, Hervé Renard.Credit…Isabella Moore for The New York Times

France arrived in Australia as a World Cup favorite on the mend. Torn apart by bitter feuds, it has in recent months lost players, welcomed them back, and then lost them again. It has changed coaches, changed approaches and changed tactics. And now it has asked Hervé Renard, a respected 54-year-old with a decorated men’s World Cup résumé but no previous experience coaching women, to carry it at least as far as the semifinals.

He started the process, he said, by being open about what he did not know.

“For me everything was new because I didn’t know women’s football, how to manage the girls,” he said. “I was lucky because on our staff a lot of people were already working with women’s football. So I was listening.”


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