World Cup: Five teams that could stand in the way of US title hopes

LE HAVRE, France – Now that the U.S. women are through to the World Cup’s knockout stages, things get serious. Win, and you keep playing. Lose, and you go home.

It takes three more wins to get to the July 7 final in Lyon, and a fourth to lift the trophy for a fourth time. So who are the teams that could spoil the U.S. run? Let’s take a look, in order, at who poses the biggest threat:

France: The host has clearly been the strongest team after the Americans, winning all three of its group games. France began the World Cup in impressive fashion, showing poise and control with a 4-0 victory against South Korea and not seeming flustered at all by expectations.

Wendie Renard celebrates after scoring a penalty kick in France's win against Nigeria. (Photo: Franck Fife, AFP/Getty Images)

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Since then, however, Les Bleues have looked a little more vulnerable. They needed help from VAR to beat both Norway and Nigeria, and haven’t had the same ferocity as they did in the first game.

The U.S. and France are on a collision course for a quarterfinal match in Paris, and the expectations on Les Bleues will grow the deeper they go. Handling the pressure has always been their weak spot, and how they respond to a raucous home crowd in Parc des Princes with a trip to the semifinals on the line will be interesting.

England: The 2015 bronze medalist has been a team on the rise, and it’s been quietly solid so far in France. It, too, won all three of its group matches. But the stat that stands out the most is one – as in one goal allowed. It has an effective attack but, as the saying goes, defense wins championships.

Perhaps the most important thing is England’s confidence. When it won the She Believes Cup in the spring, claiming it over the United States, Japan and Brazil, it showed England that it could be every bit the equal of the world’s best teams.

Netherlands: Wait, what? The Netherlands is a powerhouse in women’s soccer?

Snuck up on you, didn’t they?

The Dutch opened some eyes in 2017 when they won the European championship. But the tournament was also in the Netherlands and they caught a break when Denmark upset Germany in the quarterfinals and England took out France.

But the Dutch have shown here that the performance was not a one-off. They finished at the top of Group E and have conceded only two goals. Shanice Van de Sanden is going to be a handful for any team, and the Netherlands has options in the attack.

Netherlands' Shanice Van De Sanden celebrates after beating Canada. (Photo: Francisco Seco, AP)

Not to be overlooked is the fan support. The Netherlands is a quick train ride from France, and the Dutch fans have been showing up en masse. If that continues to grow, a stadium full of orange shirts could be intimidating for any opponent.

Germany: Yes, Germany is a two-time World Cup winner and the reigning Olympic champion. Yes, it emerged at the top of Group B without losing a game or conceding any goals.

And yet, the Germans have not looked like their usual formidable selves. At least not yet. They struggled to break down China, and Spain beat itself as much as Germany did. Germany seemed to find a rhythm only against South Africa, which was making its World Cup debut

Still, Germany is Germany and can never be taken lightly.

Australia: The Matildas had many wondering if they were wrong on that darkhorse pick when they were stunned by Italy in their opening game. But Italy has turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the tournament, and Australia has quickly rounded into form.

Sam Kerr is a nightmare for defenses, and if an opponent does manage to stop her, it will have to contend wity Chloe Logarzo and Caitlin Foord.

Defense remains a trouble spot for the Matildas, who have already conceded five goals.

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