Five teams have a solid chance to win the third Women's World Cup, but the favorite is the U.S., which hopes to regain the title it won in 1991 after finishing third in '95. The Americans boast the world's best scorer (striker Mia Hamm), the top all-around player (midfielder Kristine Lilly) and two of the best central midfielders ( Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy). What if opponents try to bottle up Hamm with two or three defenders? She'll set up fellow forward Tiffeny Milbrett for the goals. Any team hoping to beat the U.S. has two options: 1) move nearly all of its players into the defensive zone and hope to counterattack, or; 2) use speed to take advantage of the Americans' sometimes dodgy defense. China, the hottest side in the world, went to the second option in handing the U.S. its first home loss in 50 games, a 2-1 defeat at Giants Stadium on April 25. In that match, midfield magician Sun Wen scored a marvelous goal after beating the American defense, evidence that China has more speed than any other team in the tournament. "She's playing the best soccer of her life," American coach Tony DiCicco says, but with Sun comes shadows. Will mercurial goalkeeper Gao Hong be a great wall or crumble under pressure? Could China, one of the tournament's oldest teams (average age: 25), lack stamina in the summer heat? "The older you are," frets China coach Ma Yuanan, "the longer it takes to recover."
Defending World Cup champion Norway is the only team that has a winning (11-10-1) record against the U.S. and the only one that might be tougher. Led by defender (and former cop) Linda Medalen, the Norwegians aren't your typical polite Scandinavians—"There's always a lot of punching and thrown elbows with Norway," says Akers—but they can be smooth attackers, too. Midfielder Hege Riise was voted the outstanding player of World Cup '95, and striker Marianne Pettersen, Europe's answer to Hamm, has averaged nearly a goal per game in international play. Norway's biggest weakness is inexperience: Only six players played on the 1995 champs.
The women's team of Germany, like that country's men's side, is an enigma, playing world-class soccer one day and looking old and tired the next. The Germans finished second at World Cup '95, slipped to fifth at the '96 Olympics but won the '97 European title. A lack of chemistry has been their shortcoming, but they still have topflight talent, including central defenders Doris Fitschen and Steffi Jones (the daughter of an American serviceman), and Bettina Wiegmann, a relentless attacking midfielder.
The best game of the first round will most likely take place in Washington, D.C., on June 27 when Germany meets Brazil, the world's most improved team. Despite the loss of top striker Roseli to a knee injury, the Brazilians have plenty of mononymic star power. Forward Pretinha scored four spectacular goals in World Cup tune-ups earlier this month against Australia and Canada, and midfielders Katia and Sissi are ball artists in the grand Brazilian style. However, Maravilha exemplifies another national tradition: shaky goalkeeping.
Which of these five teams will raise the new Women's World Cup trophy on July 10 at the Rose Bowl? In the semis look for the U.S. to eliminate Brazil and China to race past Norway. Then expect the Yanks to bring the Cup back to America.