Women’s World Cup 2023: 15 essential players

In almost every discussion of the greatness of women’s football, on almost every list of pioneers or GOATs, the United States is at the forefront. She won the first Women’s World Cup and has had the most victories since. It gave birth to the first true icons and the FIFA player of the 20th century. It is the cultural home of sport. And his national team, the famous USWNT, will be the center of attention this summer in Australia and New Zealand.

But it no longer counts the best players in the sport. In 2022, of the 14 nominees for the FIFA Player of the Year award, only one (Alex Morgan) was American. Of The Guardian’s top 15 players of the calendar year, none were American. In the Ballon d’Or top 20, the highest-ranked American star was Catarina Macario – who landed at No.9 and is currently injured.

So any list of players to watch at the 2023 Women’s World Cup doesn’t have to be centered on the USWNT.

We’ll start with an American rising star – because, after all, we’re writing for an American audience – but below is a non-exhaustive rundown, in no particular order, of 15 players to watch from around the world.

Sophia Smith, F, United States (Portland Thorns)

Smith ravages the National Women’s Soccer League, after an MVP season with more magic at the ripe old age of 22. Of course, as American coach Vlatko Andonovski noted, “Doing well in this league is great, and that’s one thing; it’s totally different to do it at international level or in the World Cup.

But he and the entire USWNT believe Smith has the talent and the mentality to make it on any level. When a reporter recently suggested she could become the next Alex Morgan, or the next Abby Wambach, two of her childhood idols, she clarified, “I mean, I’m not trying to be the next person. I am the first and only Sophia Smith.

FILE - Sam Kerr of Australia celebrates after scoring against England during the Women's International Friendly soccer match between England and Australia at Gtech Community Stadium in London, England on Tuesday April 11, 2023. (AP Photo / Kin Cheung, file)
Australia’s World Cup title hopes hinge on Sam Kerr, the transcendent talent who is fresh off a breakthrough Women’s Super League campaign with Chelsea. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

Sam Kerr, F, Australia (Chelsea)

Whether beaming or frowning, Kerr will be the face of this World Cup. After setting all sorts of goalscoring records in the NWSL, she made a big move to Chelsea and didn’t slow down. She’s a phenomenal athlete with poaching instincts. Now she gets a home World Cup to engrave her legend.

Alexia Putellas, M, Spain (Barcelona)

A silky midfielder with alien vision and a left-footed magic wand, Putellas entered Euro 2022 as the undisputed best player in the world. Then, the day before the tournament, she tore her anterior cruciate ligament.

She returned to training and resumed games on tiptoe last spring. She wasn’t quite the Alexia everyone remembered and didn’t start a single game for Barca until the end of the season. But an unparalleled talent still lives within her. Spain will need it Down Under.

Aitana Bonmatí, M, Spain (Barcelona)

Bonmatí, a similarly cultured midfielder brought up by La Masia, stepped forward in Alexia’s absence and led Barcelona to a Champions League title. She’s the Ballon d’Or favorite and more than capable of serving as Spain’s chief designer if Alexia can’t.

Debinha, F, Brazil (Kansas City Current)

Even at 31, Debinha is more elusive than ever. She is also smart. And bold. And clinical in front of goal.

She will never be the most famous player for this Brazilian team – see below – but, when replicating her NWSL form on the international stage, she is the most effective.

Brazilian soccer player Marta Vieira, center, holds a ball during a group photo before the start of a training session at the Mane Garrincha stadium, in Brasilia, Brazil, Saturday July 1, 2023. The Brazilian women's soccer team is scheduled to play a friendly match against Chile on Sunday, before their trip to the FIFA Women's World Cup.  (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Brazil’s Marta Vieira (C) may have just picked up an injury but she is still widely regarded as the GOAT of women’s football. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Marta, F, Brazil (Orlando Pride)

One last dance for the greatest player of her generation. Marta, who has recovered from a torn ACL, may not leave for Brazil. But hey, she’s Martha, and this is his last World Cup; keep your eyes peeled whenever you get the chance.

Kerolin, M/F, Brazil (North Carolina Courage)

Kerolin plays more of a supporting role for the national team, but her recent exploits in the NWSL have proven that at 23 she has breakout potential.

Melchie Dumornay, M, Haiti (Lyon)

One of the fastest rising stars in the sport, Dumornay is Haiti’s leader and early catalyst. She drives her team forward with the ball at her feet, on a string, to the beat. She can launch attacks and/or finish them. She can whip out a nasty free kick. She’s been known to lob a keeper from long range.

Oh, and she is part of one of the most remarkable stories of this tournament. That Haiti, one of the poorest nations on the planet, was able to qualify for its first Women’s World Cup is, in part, a testament to her genius.

Lena Oberdorf, M, Germany (Wolfsburg)

Midfield generals tend to be laggards, but not Oberdorf. She went to the 2019 World Cup aged 17. Throughout last summer’s Euros, she was arguably Germany’s best player aged 20. She is now ready to give midfield masterclasses on the biggest stage of all.

MILTON KEYNES, ENGLAND - JULY 01: Keira Walsh of England on the pitch during the Women's International Friendly match between England and Portugal at MK Stadium on July 01, 2023 in Milton Keynes, England.  (Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)
England’s Keira Walsh was instrumental in the Lionesses’ victory over Germany at UEFA Women’s Euro 2022. (Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)

Keira Walsh, M, England (Barcelona)

“When I was at [Manchester] City, I loved playing with Keira Walsh,” American midfielder Rose Lavelle said recently when asked to name her favorite non-American player. “I’ve always loved watching her. By playing with her, I could see how good she is.

Walsh is England’s kingpin, ever-present in the Lionesses’ charge for their 2022 European title, and another expert at the midfield base.

Alessia Russo, F, England (free agent)

Russo, 24, has barely started for England but there’s a reason she’s potentially set to become the highest-paid player in women’s football history. She is powerful and feared by central defenders in the Women’s Super League. But just when you think her main trait is physical prowess, she’ll pull off something like this:

Khadija “Bunny” Shaw, F, Jamaica (Manchester City)

At 26, Shaw is already the all-time top scorer in the history of the Jamaican national teams, whether men or women. She went from her native country to a junior college in Florida, the University of Tennessee and European clubs, and dominated every step of the way. Her World Cup debut in 2019 ended goalless, but that’s set to change in 2023. And once you read her story, you’ll support her.

Selma Bacha, D, France (Lyon)

A deliciously “modern” rear, Bacha, 22, occupied the left flank in Lyon. She is an avid runner and an excellent crosser. It’s unclear how new France coach Hervé Renard plans to deploy her, but while she’s on the pitch, she’ll provide the left-footed serve that Kadi Diani and Wendie Renard can relish.

CALI, COLOMBIA - JUNE 21: Linda Caicedo of Colombia controls the ball during a friendly match between Colombia and Panama at Estadio Pascual Guerrero on June 21, 2023 in Cali, Colombia.  (Photo by Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images)
Colombian Linda Caicedo won the best player award at last year’s Copa América Femenina and she is only 18 years old. (Photo by Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images)

Linda Caicedo, F, Colombia (Real Madrid)

As a child, Caicedo earned the nickname “La Neymar”. At age 15, doctors discovered a cancerous tumor on her ovaries. She beat him and, at 17, coached her country to the Copa America final and the Women’s World Cup. He’s South America’s brightest young star, and the main reason Colombia could surprise in Group H.

Caroline Graham Hansen, F, Norway (Barcelona)

Ada Hegerberg is still the Norwegian name casual fans know, but Graham Hansen might now be Norway’s most gifted striker. She came back from injury to finish 2022-23 on a tear at Barca, with seven goals and seven assists in her last eight games – including four in the Champions League round of 16. For a Norway side that failed at Euro 2022, they will be key to a World Cup run.

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