VANCOUVER, British Colombia (AP) — The United States’ bid for a third Women’s World Cup title remains very much alive, as do the championship hopes of all five of the top-ranked teams in the world.
The knockout stage begins this weekend with all the powers still in place, although some that have shown vulnerabilities during a group-stage round that included its share of upsets and blowouts.
Some story lines to consider as the remaining 16 nations continue their trek toward the July 5 title game in Vancouver:
BUMPY ROAD: Sweden’s path was already tough. It’s about to get tougher.
The fifth-ranked team led by former U.S. coach Pia Sundhage will face top-ranked Germany in one of the early marquee matchups of the elimination stage.
Sweden drew Group D, the so-called Group of Death, to start the World Cup, joining No. 10 Australia, the second-ranked United States and perennial African champion Nigeria.
Sweden was surprised by Nigeria with a 3-3 draw in the opening match before playing to a scoreless tie with the U.S. The Swedes wrapped up the group stage with a 1-1 draw with Australia, concluding the group in third place.
Then the players had to wait until all the matches were done Wednesday to see if they had eked into the elimination round.
“I said before the matches we have four very good teams and that proved to be the case,” Sundhage said. “We had the hardest group and didn’t lose, but at the end of the day we didn’t play well enough to win the group.”
Whereas the match between the United States and Sweden was considered the premier game of the group stage, now the match Saturday between Germany and Sweden in Ottawa will be among the biggest of the knockout stage. The winner moves on to the quarterfinals to face the winner of third-ranked France’s match Saturday against South Korea in Montreal.
Germany finished atop its group, opening with a 10-0 rout of the Ivory Coast, before a 1-1 draw with Norway and a 4-0 victory over Thailand.
GROUP D SURVIVORS: With its first-place finish in the Group of Death, the United States headed to Edmonton to face No. 28 Colombia, the surprise of the opening round after a 2-0 upset of France. Colombia, however, will be without its starting goalkeeper in the Monday match because of accumulated yellow cards.
Second-place Australia has a challenging opponent in No. 7 Brazil, which won all of its group-stage matches. The two teams meet on Sunday in Moncton.
CAMEROON ADVANCES: Cameroon is the lowest-ranked team left.
As just the second African nation to advance out the group stage after Nigeria in 1999, Cameroon will face No. 16 China on Saturday in Edmonton.
China finished second in its group after a 2-2 draw with New Zealand. The match was courted controversy when coach Hao Wei was sent off the field after the ref ruled he had interfered with Ria Percival on the sideline. The replay was inconclusive whether Hao had stumbled.
Cameroon, ranked No. 53, secured its spot in the knockout round with a second-place finish in Group C after a 2-1 victory over Switzerland.
“We are still learning, we come here to learn,” coach Enow Ngachu said.
The winner of the match between China and Cameroon advances to face the winner of match between the United States and Colombia.
HAPPY HOSTS: Canada scored just two goals in the opening stage at the World Cup, but it was enough to send the team through as the top finisher in its group.
The eighth-ranked Canadians opened the tournament in Edmonton in dramatic style after a gala opening ceremony: A 1-0 victory over China on a penalty kick in second-half stoppage time by star forward Christine Sinclair.
Canada played to a 0-0 draw with coach John Herdman’s former team, New Zealand, before wrapping up the stage with a 1-all draw with the Netherlands.
Now it’s on to No. 19 Switzerland in Vancouver on Sunday. Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt, who left the group finale in the 81st minute with an undisclosed injury, is expected to play.
“The tournament is a progression. You’re seeing this with a lot of teams. The big players tend to step up in these rounds. That’s the way to win, for it to happen,” Herdman said Thursday.
ANOTHER UNDERDOG: Along with Cameroon and Colombia, South Korea drew a tough elimination-round opponent in France.
Les Bleues have been considered among the favorites at the Women’s World Cup, but they showed vulnerability with a surprising 2-0 loss to Colombia. It was widely considered one of the greatest upsets in World Cup history.
South Korea, tied for eighth in the world with Canada, is making its second World Cup appearance and first trip to the knockout round.