Five foreign players to watch
When the FIFA Women's World Cup trophy is awarded July 17, it will celebrate a team achievement, and all the work, determination, and cohesion that entails. But the efforts of the collective aren't the only diamond that will shine during this World Cup. The tournament also thrives on the flair and brilliance of the individual players on display. And while U.S. fans are already familiar with the likes of goalkeeper Hope Solo, forward Abby Wambach and Olympic heroine Carli Lloyd, there will be plenty of other stellar players showing the best that women's soccer has to offer.
Some, like Brazilian Marta, are already household names, while others, like Sweden's Lotta Schelin, still have some work to do before reaching that status. Either way, here are five players, besides their own, whom U.S. fans should keep an eye on.
1. Marta, F, Brazil
What more can be said about the Brazilian? After winning the past five FIFA World Player of the Year awards, the native of Dois Riachos is clearly the most breathtaking attacking player in the women's game. With the possible exception of heading ability, there is nothing she can't do on the attacking end.
"She has every quality that you need to be exceptional at this level," said University of North Carolina women's head coach Anson Dorrance, who led the U.S. to the inaugural World Cup crown in 1991. "She can beat defenses on her own. She can run past people, she has creativity and deception, her energy is off the wall and she can be a defensive presence when she wants to be."
Yet there is one item missing from Marta's glittering career: a championship at the international level. Brazil has certainly come close in the past, having lost in three Olympic and World Cup finals, but now Marta will be even more determined to help her side make its long-awaited breakthrough.
2. Birgit Prinz, F, Germany
Before Marta's rise, it was Prinz who was hailed as the best female player on the planet, with her strength and power enabling her to score a record 14 goals over the course of four World Cups. Yet unlike Marta, Prinz has been able to parlay that individual success into leading Germany to two World Cup titles, and she remains one of the team's driving forces in its bid to win a trio of championships.
"Prinz is just a physical presence, and she has great instincts around the goal," said ESPN television analyst Julie Foudy, a member of the U.S. side that won the World Cup in 1999. "She's lost a step, so she's not going to fly by defenders, but she makes smart decisions and is a good, solid finisher."
Now 33, Prinz has indicated that this World Cup will be her last, and an ankle injury suffered in training two weeks ago has raised concerns about her fitness. But if Die Nationalelf are to be successful, Prinz will need to be at her predatory best. The fact that the final will be held in her hometown of Frankfurt should provide an extra boost of adrenaline.
3. Christine Sinclair, F, Canada
Sinclair's exploits have long been obscured by more well-known powerful forwards like Prinz and Wambach. Part of this is due to the fact that Canada has struggled in recent World Cups to build on its fourth-place finish at the 2003 edition. But the 2011 World Cup could be the moment when player and team alike move into the elite. Sinclair looks to be in the best shape of her life, and to have the supporting cast needed to light up the tournament.
"Christine is one of the best players in the world right now," said World Cup-winning head coach Tony DiCicco, who currently coaches in WPS with the Boston Breakers. "She's always been a special forward in my opinion. She's gotten better in [WPS]. She's faster than she's ever been, and you just can't give her opportunities in front of goal. She doesn't squander them. I think she's just fantastic."
4. Kelly Smith, M, England
Smith is an inspirational player for a multitude of reasons. Not only is she England's all-time leading scorer with 43 goals, but her ability to overcome alcoholism and depression-related issues gives fans, players and coaches another reason to cheer her on.
She currently operates as an attacking midfielder in manager Hope Powell's 4-5-1, and aside from her goal scoring, her ability to run at defenders as well as her decision-making make her one of the more dynamic attacking forces in the tournament.
"Smith is just so efficient with her touches," Foudy said. "She's so creative, and everything she does has a purpose. She can play people in, and she rarely loses possession, even when she's surrounded by five defenders. She reads the game on a whole different level."
Is there anything that can stop Smith? Her chronically sore knees have required pain-killing injections in the past, and there is concern that they might flare up again. But England is clearly counting on her to repeat her four-goal effort in the 2007 World Cup and lead the Three Lionesses deep into the tournament.
5. Lotta Schelin, F, Sweden
No player on this list has more to prove than Schelin. While she has been prolific at club level and in lesser international tournaments, she's often failed to deliver when the lights have been brightest. While she scored twice in the 2007 edition of the tournament, Sweden was eliminated in the group stage, leaving a sour taste. This has led the Swedish press to compare Schelin to male counterpart Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another talented forward who tends to misfire at international level.
But Schelin, 27, is in the prime of her career, and the time is now for her to deliver. Her 5-foot-10 frame and solid technique make her a threat both in the air and on the ground, and with Sweden once again grouped with the U.S. and North Korea, she'll be counted on to will her side into the knockout rounds.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN.com. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.