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Women’s World Cup 2023: 15 must-watch players

In almost any discussion of women’s soccer greatness, on almost any list of pioneers or GOATs, the United States stands front and center. It won the inaugural Women’s World Cup, and has won the most since. It gave birth to the first true icons and FIFA’s Player of the 20th Century. It is the sport’s cultural home. And its national team, the vaunted USWNT, will be the center of attention this summer in Australia and New Zealand.

But it no longer boasts the sport’s premier players. In 2022, of the 14 nominees for FIFA’s 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’s top 20, the highest-ranked US star was Catarina Macario — who landed at No. 9, and is currently injured.

And so, any list of players to watch at the 2023 Women’s World Cup must not be USWNT-centric.

We’ll start with a rising American 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 globe.

Sophia Smith, F, United States (Portland Thorns)

Smith is ravaging the National Women’s Soccer League, following up an MVP season with more wizardry at the ripe young age of 22. Of course, as US coach Vlatko Andonovski noted, “doing well in this league is great, and it’s one thing; it’s totally different doing it at the international level or in the World Cup.”

But he and the entire USWNT believe that Smith has the talent, and the mentality, to do it at any level. When a reporter recently suggested that 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 anyone. I’m the first and only Sophia Smith.”

Australia's World Cup title hopes rely on Sam Kerr, the transcendent talent who is coming off a championship-clinching Women's Super League campaign with Chelsea.  (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)
Australia’s World Cup title hopes rely on Sam Kerr, the transcendent talent who is coming off a championship-clinching Women’s Super League campaign with Chelsea. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

Sam Kerr, F, Australia (Chelsea)

Kerr, whether she’s beaming or scowling, will be the face of this World Cup. After setting all sorts of NWSL goalscoring records, she made a big-money move to Chelsea and hasn’t slowed down. She’s a phenomenal athlete with poacher instincts. Now she gets a World Cup on home soil to burnish her legend.

Alexia Putellas, M, Spain (Barcelona)

A silky-smooth midfielder with alien vision and a magic wand of a left foot, Putellas entered the 2022 Euros as the undisputed best player in the world. Then, on the eve of the tournament, she tore her ACL.

She returned to training, and tip-toed back into games, this past spring. She wasn’t quite the Alexia that everyone remembered, and didn’t start a single match for Barca before the season’s end. But peerless talent still lives inside her. Spain will need it Down Under.

Aitana Bonmatí, M, Spain (Barcelona)

Bonmatí, a similarly cultured midfielder bred by the La Masia academy, 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 creator-in-chief if Alexia can’t.

Debinha, F, Brazil (Kansas City Current)

Even at 31, Debinha is as elusive as ever. She’s also clever. And audacious. And clinical in front of goal.

She’ll never be the most famous player in this Brazilian squad — see below — but, when she replicates her NWSL form on the international stage, she’s the most effective.

Brazil's Marta Vieira (C) may be coming off an injury, but she's still widely considered the GOAT of women's soccer.  (AP Photo/Eraldo Perez)

Brazil’s Marta Vieira (C) may be coming off an injury, but she’s still widely considered the GOAT of women’s soccer. (AP Photo/Eraldo Perez)

Marta, F, Brazil (Orlando Pride)

One last dance for the greatest player of her generation. Marta, having recovered from an ACL tear, might not start for Brazil. But, well, she’s Marta, and this is her final World Cup; keep your eyes glued every chance you get.

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

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

Melchie Dumornay, M, Haiti (Lyon)

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

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

Lena Oberdorf, M, Germany (Wolfsburg)

Holding midfield generals tend to be late bloomers, but not Oberdorf. She went to the 2019 World Cup at age 17. Throughout last summer’s Euros, she was arguably Germany’s best player at age 20. Now she’s ready to deliver midfield masterclasses on the biggest stage of all.

Keira Walsh of England was critical to the Lionesses'  championship win over Germany at the 2022 UEFA Women's Euro.  (Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images)
Keira Walsh of England was critical to the Lionesses’ championship win over Germany at the 2022 UEFA Women’s Euro. (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,” US midfielder Rose Lavelle said recently when asked to name her favorite non-American player. “I’ve always enjoyed watching her. Playing with her, I got to see first-hand just how good she is.”

Walsh is England’s lynchpin, an ever-present on the Lionesses’ charge to their 2022 European title, and another expert at the base of the midfield.

Alessia Russo, F, England (Arsenal)

Russo, 24, has barely started for England, but there’s a reason she was subject to a world-record bid this past January. She’s powerful, and feared by center backs across the Women’s Super League. But just when you think her primary trait is physical prowess, she’ll pull off something like this:

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

At age 26, Shaw is already the leading all-time scorer in the history of Jamaica’s national teams — men’s or women’s. She has risen from her homeland to a Florida junior college to the University of Tennessee to European clubs, and dominated every step of the way. Her World Cup debut in 2019 ended goalless, but that should change in 2023. And once you’ve read her story, you’ll be rooting for her.

Selma Bacha, D, France (Lyon)

A delightfully “modern” fullback, the 22-year-old Bacha has owned the left flank at Lyon. She’s an eager runner and excellent crosser. It’s not quite clear how new French coach Herve Renard plans to deploy her, but as long as she’s on the field, she’ll provide the left-footed service that Kadi Diani and Wendie Renard can feast on.

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)
Colombia’s Linda Caicedo earned the best player award at last year’s Copa América Femenina and she’s only 18. (Photo by Gabriel Aponte/Getty Images)

Linda Caicedo, F, Colombia (Real Madrid)

As a kid, Caicedo earned the nickname “La Neymar.” At 15, doctors found a cancerous tumor on her ovaries. She beat it and, at 17, dragged her nation to the Copa America final and the Women’s World Cup. She’s the brightest young star from South America, and the primary reason Colombia could pull off a surprise in Group H.

Caroline Graham Hansen, F, Norway (Barcelona)

Ada Hegerberg is still the Norwegian name that casual fans know, but Graham Hansen might now be the most gifted Norwegian attacker. She returned 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 knockout stages. For a Norway team that flopped at the 2022 Euros, she’ll be key to a World Cup run.