Updated: Jul 16, 2021
The Olympic women’s soccer tournament kicks off on July 21, and features some of the very best teams in the world. This guide is meant to provide a quick overview of all 12 teams, offering some key things to know, players to watch, and unresolved questions.
I’ve also outlined an achievable goal for each team as well as a stretch goal. The latter of those is meant to still be within the realm of realistic possibility. Obviously every team wants to win gold and in a short tournament where 2/3 of the pool make the quarterfinals, nothing is truly outside the realm of possibility. But the stretch goal is meant to be a normal solid result, not something that requires defying the odds in any serious way.
Finally, I’ve offered a quick rooting recommendation for each team, with some thoughts about why you might want to support a given team, or why you might want to back someone else. These are not meant to be taken too seriously; all twelve teams are full of interesting and exciting players who deserve support.
Team overview: Japan were surprising World Cup finalists in 2015, but were not able to build much on that success over the past few years. By now, that previous generation is almost entirely gone and it’s the new wave running the show. That was very much intentional, with the plan being to set up the new generation for success at the home Olympics. COVID has given them another year together, though it’s not clear they’ve been able to capitalize on that time. It’s a very skillful team, but one that has done very little to show they can seriously compete with the very best teams at the tournament.
Players to watch: Saki Kumagai is the captain and one of the most versatile and rock-solid players in the world. Up top, Mana Iwabuchi is precise and deliberate on the ball, while there are few more deadly goal-scorers in the world than Yuika Sugasawa.
Major question marks: For a team hoping to peak at this tournament, they’ve played shockingly few games in the past two years, and none against serious opposition since the start of COVID. And the tough games they did play back in March of last year at the SheBelieves Cup didn’t go particularly well. They’ve put up some gaudy scorelines in the past couple months against the likes of Paraguay, Ukraine, and Mexico, but will that translate against tougher opponents?
Realistic goal: Semifinals. With home-field advantage, they ought to be able to win their quarterfinal match. Anything beyond that will be a lot tougher.
Stretch goal: Silver. Even a bronze would be their first ever Olympic medal and would be worthy of celebration.
Why you should root for them: If you like possession-based football with lots of quick passing and careful control, Japan are the team for you. Their octofinal exit against the Netherlands in the 2019 World Cup was one of the most thrilling games of the tournament. They really are a delightful team to watch.
Why you should root for someone else: I can’t think of any good reasons to root against Japan, except for the fact that they’ve already won a major international tournament, and it might be fun to see someone new take the title.
Team overview: A conglomeration of four separate football associations, necessitated by the Olympic rule that only nationalities may be represented, which is inexplicably called “Great Britain” despite the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the country but not part of Great Britain. Anyway, in practical terms this is pretty much just England (they have 19 of 22 roster slots, along with two Scots and one Welsh player). As such, they come with all the normal England baggage: great players who increasingly seem unable to play together in any kind of coherent way. In terms of raw talent, GB only trail the US. In terms of demonstrated ability to win soccer games...it’s far less clear where they stand.
Players to watch: Fran Kirby is coming off her best season yet, and if her form continues into this tournament it could be enough to tip several games. Lauren Hemp is quickly cementing her place as one of the best players in the world. And Ellen White can put away chances with the very best of them when she’s clicking. With all that depth in the attack, Team GB really ought to light up the scoreboard.
Major question marks: With all this talent, why have the results been so dismal? Ever since the World Cup semifinal against the US in 2019, England have punched far below their weight, including a shocking string of results under former coach Phil Neville. But things haven’t really improved much under Hege Riise. England have looked thoroughly lost in building their attacks, and incredibly disjointed in the connections between defense and the midfield. And without any warmup games as “Team GB,” (ed. note: GB did play a closed-door friendly against New Zealand, winning 3-0 on Wednesday) it’s not like they’ve had the chance to fix those kinks, much less to integrate the Scottish and Welsh additions.
Realistic goal: Bronze. With this much talent, anything less would be a major failure.
Stretch goal: Gold. There’s absolutely no reason this squad can’t win three knockouts.
Why you should root for them: England have finally started seriously investing in women’s football, and are starting to see some of the rewards. It would be really nice to see that pay off in a major tournament success. This is also the only chance that Kim Little will ever get to win a major tournament, and you’d need to have a heart of stone to not want to see that.
Why you should root for someone else: The England program has a long history of terrible responses to racist behavior, including isolating their own players for having the temerity to speak out about it. Plus, take a look at how England fans have responded to the successes (and failures) of their men’s team at the Euros. Do we really want to reward that kind of behavior?
Team overview: A perennial top-10 team who has never managed to push their way into the true inner circle. This may be the last tournament for many of the old guard—including all-time international goal-scoring leader Christine Sinclair—but they’ve got a strong core just coming into their prime. The problem is there’s not much in between those generations, making for a solid but incomplete squad.
Players to watch: Christine Sinclair isn’t their best player anymore (that title probably goes to Ashley Lawrence these days), but she continues to defy age and is one of the few players on the roster who can consistently score goals. If Canada does well this year, it will probably be because one of the other attacking players did something special, and the most likely candidates there are probably Janine Beckie and Nichelle Prince. Or because Kailen Sheridan has some outrageous games in goal.
Major question marks: Where will the goals come from? Canada can be stodgy in defense but has struggled for years to create much themselves. They have a good backline and might just about scrape some results by keeping the opposition down, but if they want to make a real impression they’re going to need to score at some point.
Realistic goal: Quarterfinals. They’re in a tough group, and qualifying for the knockout stage shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Stretch goal: A medal. Canada won bronze in 2016 and they will certainly want to shoot for that again, if not silver or gold.
Why you should root for them: Christine Sinclair is one of the all-time greats and has never gone further than the semifinals of a major tournament. She deserves a chance to shine. Plus, the further Canada goes, the higher the chance of another showdown in the (often one-sided) US/Canada rivalry.
Why you should root for someone else: There are a lot of teams in this tournament with engaging and exciting play styles. Canada is definitely not one of them.
Team overview: Chile had to best Argentina to finish second in CONMEBOL and then win a playoff against Cameroon to qualify for the tournament, giving them one of the longest routes to the tournament. They’re pretty limited in the attack but make up for it with a strong defense—anchored by one of the best goalkeepers in the world. The odds are against them in Group A, but they certainly shouldn’t be written off.
Players to watch: Any and all success for Chile will depend on Christiane Endler—regarded by many as the best goalkeeper in the world. If any goals are forthcoming, the best bet is probably Francisca Lara, a two-way midfielder who plays for Le Havre in France. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Rosario Balmaceda, who is wonderful on the ball and at just 22 years old has already established herself as key cog in the Chilean frontline.
Major question marks: Will they score any goals? They managed just one in three group stage games at the 2019 World Cup. It’s going to be very hard to advance if they can’t scrounge up one or two more. They can potentially afford to lose twice. The forgiving structure of the tournament means 3 points might well be enough, so long as Endler can keep those losses narrow and save their goal difference.
Realistic goal: Get at least one result.
Stretch goal: Quarterfinals.
Why you should root for them: They’re a pleasing team to watch. Despite their comparatively low ranking, they generally don’t set up uber-defensively. That willingness to take the game to the opposition can make for some highly entertaining games.
Why you should root for someone else: There aren’t any great reasons to root against Chile, but if you want to back a team with any kind of chance to make the finals, you should pick someone else.