Five things to watch in World Cup
Four years of hard work, multiple tryouts and training camps and various international qualification games are about to come to a real culmination for the best women's soccer teams on the planet. The 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup kicks off Sunday in Germany, marking the start of three weeks of intense play.
Only one of the 16 teams involved can walk away with the coveted gold, silver and marble trophy July 17 in Frankfurt.
Here are five storylines to watch during the World Cup:
1. State of the superpowers
Women's soccer has had some traditional powerhouse teams: Germany, Sweden, Norway and the United States. All four are again in the World Cup field, but the question is: What should be expected of them? Sweden and the U.S. have undergone a changing of the guard, with the stars that led them into the 2000s gradually being replaced by younger talent. The Americans, who have won two World Cups, are still the world's top team. The Germans rank second. Norway -- the only other country besides Germany and the U.S. to win a World Cup -- is somewhat viewed as a cut below, but certainly still respected and capable of making a deep run.
2. Home-country pressure
Germany is placed in a unique position as the two-time defending champion playing on home soil. Women's soccer in Germany has gained respect in the past decade, thanks to the dominating play of the national team. Germany loves winners, especially teams that bring home the World Cup. The problem is, Germans also really, really know their football, meaning the women's team has nowhere to hide if things go wrong. Criticism will be sharp -- and immediate -- since they're playing in front of their countrymen.
3. Rise of the newbies
Know much about Equatorial Guinea's style of play? Can you name some of Team Mexico or England's players? You will soon, as they're part of the World Cup. This is the first trip to the World Cup for Equatorial Guinea, and all eyes will be on that team to see how it responds to the pressure. Mexico and England are making their second appearances in the tournament. Soccer is a big deal in both countries, so it will be interesting to see whether they support their World Cup teams.
4. Injuries lead to question marks
Several teams are facing roster and rotation issues due to pre-World Cup injuries. England faces a dilemma, with coach Hope Powell rolling the dice on the health of captain Faye White and midfielder Fara Williams. White, a defender, has been sidelined since April due to an ankle injury, and Williams recently went down with a knee injury. The English are being coy about how badly the key players are hurt, but it's clear there is a palpable degree of concern over their status. Still, Team England is lucky, as the rosters of the competitors have been altered by ACL tears in recent weeks. Key forward Lindsay Tarpley (U.S.), defender Dzsenifer Marozsan (Germany) and striker Kate Gill (Australia) are out of the World Cup due to ACL injuries incurred in May.
5. Playing fast and loose
Women's soccer was a battle of the technical players exemplified by the Chinese in the early editions of the World Cup. Today's game has evolved with diverse flows and forms of creativity, led by the play of Marta (Brazil), Kelly Smith (England) and Birgit Prinz (Germany). A premium is now placed on working the team system with some style and genius, putting the defense on its heels against quick-strike set-ups. Watch for daily highlights of spectacular, "How'd they do that?" goals to show up on "SportsCenter."