We’ve passed a key mile marker this week and are now less than 100 days from the summer’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. We know who the favorites are, and we know the primary questions each favorite will need to answer. And if you’re a casual women’s soccer fan, we know you’ll recognize plenty of veteran faces.
Alex Morgan (six goals and three assists in the 2019 World Cup) will likely start up front for the U.S., and 2019 Golden Boot winner Megan Rapinoe (six and two) should certainly still command a role. Silver Ball winner Lucy Bronze is still heavily involved for England, and Australia’s Sam Kerr (five goals) is still doing Sam Kerr Things.
Injury has taken away the Netherlands’ Vivianne Miedema (definitely) and England’s Beth Mead (probably), among others, and two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alexia Putellas is still trying to work her way back into form after last summer’s ACL tear. But each Women’s World Cup seems to pack in more known star power than any before it, and that should be the case again this summer.
It should also pack more young star power, too. Generation Z is going to play a massive role in this year’s tournament, and with women’s club soccer easier than ever to find on television or via streaming, you don’t have to wait until July to get to know this crop of up-and-comers.
Here are 15 of the most intriguing 23-and-under players likely to serve key roles for their World Cup squads this summer. Watch them as the NWSL season gets underway and/or their European club reaches the homestretch of its given season, then watch them thrive Down Under.
15. HAITI: Melchie Dumornay, Reims (19)
She played the full 90 minutes in an Olympic qualifier against the U.S. at age 16. She joined Reims at 17. She has scored 13 goals with seven assists in parts of two seasons in France, and she’s fourth in the Division 1 Feminine in combined non-penalty xG and xA, a nice approximation of scoring contribution. (The three players ahead of her are 25, 28 and 33 years old.)
When Haiti upset Chile 2-1 to qualify for the World Cup, who did the scoring? Dumornay, who put them ahead right after halftime and then put the match away with a second in the 98th minute. Haiti is in a brutal Group D with three FIFA top-15 teams (England, Denmark and China), but Dumornay needs only some half-chances to make things difficult for a favorite or two.
14. NETHERLANDS: Esmee Brugts, PSV Eindhoven (19)
The Dutch have fallen into a rut of late, losing four of nine matches before Tuesday’s friendly win over Poland. The squad has grown a bit old — their top five minutes earners over the past two years are all 28 or older, and Brugts is the only player under 22 to have recorded even 100 minutes in that span — but she certainly has forced her way into new coach Andries Jonker’s plans, playing 391 minutes over seven national team matches and scoring three goals with an assist in that span.
Brugts can play anywhere from left back to right wing, and she recorded a hat-trick against Telstar 1963 in league play last month. If or when a youth movement arrives for the Dutch team, Brugt’s PSV could be a key supplier of more talent: they’re currently fifth in the Eredivisie Vrouwen despite eight of 12 regulars coming in under 24 years of age.
13. BRAZIL: Kerolin, North Carolina Courage (23)
Brazil is one of women’s soccer’s more storied countries, reaching the World Cup finals in 2007, finishing third in 1999 and winning back-to-back Olympic silver medals in 2004 and 2008. Recent results haven’t been as friendly — they were knocked out in the World Cup round of 16 twice in a row — but no one has made better use of recent tuneup matches. They drew with England in front of 83,000 at Wembley on April 6, losing on penalties as part of the UEFA-CONMEBOL Women’s Finalissima, then topped Germany 2-1 in front of 32,000 in Nuremberg, two very positive results.
Kerolin was key in both. She made her penalty against England and served up an assist to Ary Borges on a corner against Germany; this was a continuation of her work with the Courage last season, in which she tied for fifth in the NWSL in assists, 12th in shots on goal and 15th in goals. She has scored in one of her two Courage matches this season, too.
12. ZAMBIA: Racheal Kundananji, Madrid CFF (22)
Tournaments are a lot more fun when the underdogs have certified badasses capable of taking a game over at times, and one of the World Cup’s biggest underdogs boasts one of the most dominant young players in Europe.
¡¿PERO QUÉ TE HAS INVENTADO, @KKundananji!? 🔥
— DAZN España (@DAZN_ES) April 1, 2023
No African team has reached the Women’s World Cup quarterfinals since 1999, when Nigeria nearly upset Brazil to reach the semis. Zambia probably won’t be the ones to end that streak — they’re 77th in FIFA’s world rankings, just lost two friendlies to South Korea by a combined 10-2, and are stuck in Group C with Spain and Japan — but Kundananji is an absolute must-watch.
In her first season with Madrid CFF in Spain’s Liga F, she has scored 17 goals with two assists in 23 matches. Per the stats at FBref.com, Kundananji is second to only Real Madrid’s Athenea del Castillo in progressive carries, third in goals and 10th in shot-creating actions … although she might rank first in absolute audacity.
11. SPAIN: Athenea del Castillo, Real Madrid (22)
Then again, del Castillo might rank first in that category instead.
Del Castillo scored five times last season in her Real Madrid debut, but she has become one of the most dangerous table-setters in Spain this year. She had three goals and four assists in four matches to help qualify for this year’s Champions League, and she has produced another five goals and six assists in league play. She assisted Esther Gonzalez’s goal that put Spain ahead of England in last year’s Euro quarterfinals, and she had a goal and an assist in Tuesday’s 3-0 friendly win over China.
The Madrid star has always had flair and has long been one of the game’s better dribblers (with the YouTube highlight reels to prove it), but she’s quickly becoming one of her country’s most reliable producers as well.
10. JAPAN: Jun Endo, Angel City FC (22)
A dangerous crosser who is capable of playing anywhere along the left touchline (and even in central midfield), Endo has alternated between key sub and starter for a Japan team that could seriously be onto something if it could finish scoring opportunities.
Endo and another youngster, right-sided 19-year-old Aoba Fujino of Tokyo Verdy Beleza, have spent the past couple of years trying to crack the national team rotation; Endo has produced three goals and three assists from 17 chances in just 710 minutes over the past two years, and Fujino was a standout in February’s SheBelieves Cup, creating seven chances in 225 minutes. In five matches in 2023, Japan have turned shots worth 8.5 xG into only five goals and have suffered three 1-0 defeats because of it, but they’ve got a modern and organized 3-5-2 setup and they’ve got creative, young talent on the wings.
— Angel City FC (@weareangelcity) February 22, 2023
Endo scored one of those five 2023 goals, by the way. She should maybe spend more time farther up the pitch.
9. USA: Trinity Rodman, Washington Spirit (20)
Among NWSL attackers, only Sophia Smith had more progressive carries (175) than Rodman last season (144), and in a league full of strong attackers and national team veterans, Rodman also ranked sixth in take-on attempts, 11th in open cross attempts and 17th in chances created. In 57 career NWSL and NWSL Challenge Cup matches, she has scored 17 goals with 14 assists from 102 chances created. She doesn’t turn 21 until next month. She entered the league at 18, known first as Dennis Rodman’s daughter. Now she’s known for just being a world-class winger.
She might soon be known for World Cup exploits, too. Mallory Swanson’s patella injury could mean a lot more playing time for the player from SoCal, and if she can keep adding a bit more polish to her speedy and urgent game, good things could follow.
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8. NORWAY: Frida Maanum, Arsenal (23)
Maanum’s been good for a while — she joined Sweden’s Linkopings FC, a three-time Champions League quarterfinalist, at age 17, scored 22 goals over parts of five seasons and played a small role on Norway’s 2019 World Cup squad — and after a breaking-in season with Arsenal, she has erupted in 2022-23. The Gunners have needed attackers to step up in the absence of injured Miedema and Mead, and Maanum has done so, contributing seven goals and three assists in her past 10 matches, including this game-changing rocket against Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals.
WHAT A STUNNER BY FRIDA MAANUM TO LEVEL THE TIE UP FOR ARSENAL!!!
— DAZN Football (@DAZNFootball) March 29, 2023
Her league form has bled over into national team play — she scored twice in a 3-3 draw with Sweden on Tuesday — and it was an incredibly welcome sight. Norway were one of women’s soccer’s initial powers, winning the World Cup in 1995 and finishing second in 1991, plus winning the Euros in 1987 and 1993. But they’ve gone out in the group stage of the past two Euros and have reached the quarterfinals only once in their past three World Cups.
Just as Maanum was asked to step up for Arsenal, she’ll have to do so to change Norway’s fortunes. And she might!
7. FRANCE: Selma Bacha, Lyon (22)
That a Lyon player leads France’s Division 1 Feminine in assists is not exactly a surprise. That Bacha has done it as a fullback … while playing in 11 of 18 matches is … unique. She’s first in completed crosses, first in shot-creating actions from deadball situations (set pieces and whatnot), third in chances created, fourth in expected assists (xA), and 10th in combined goals and assists, and she has played in only 48% of Lyon’s minutes in league play. She’s also in the top 40 in interceptions despite the lack of minutes and the fact that Lyon always has the ball! That’s just obnoxious.
Bacha missed most of November and all of February with injuries, and she has started only three of six matches since her return — two of four with Lyon and one of two with France. She still managed three assists in 383 minutes in those appearances, of course, and if she can stay on the pitch, she could be a vital piece for an otherwise veteran-laden French team.
6. ENGLAND: Lauren Hemp, Manchester City (22)
It’s wild to realize that (A) England didn’t lose a single match between April 13, 2021, and this past Tuesday, and (B) they seem to be getting younger. Of their 14 minutes leaders over the past two years, only two are over 30 and four are 25 are younger.
It feels as if Hemp should be about 26 by now. She has already been capped 37 times, with 10 goals and 17 assists for country, and she has already made 119 appearances, with 52 goals, in five seasons at City. Her goal-scoring form has been off this season — she has just four goals and three assists in the WSL after averaging eight and seven, respectively, over the past two league seasons.
However, she’s still doing things like this:
Lauren Hemp STOP THAT. 😳 pic.twitter.com/F4x4XeFlT1
— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) October 22, 2022
She’s still creating a high volume of touches in the box with solid shot quality, too. The goals will probably come soon. Perhaps in Australia?
5. SPAIN: Salma Paralluelo, Barcelona (19)
Barcelona is absurdly good again this year. Nigeria’s Asisat Oshoala has 24 goals and five assists in all competitions; Claudia Pina and Fridolina Rolfo each have 13 and 10; and Barca have outscored opponents in an improving Liga F by a combined 101-5 over 24 matches. Champions League? Similar story: eight matches, seven wins and a combined 35-7 scoring margin.
It’s really difficult to barge into this star-laden lineup, but Paralluelo, who turned 19 only about five months ago, has done just that. She has scored 10 goals with three assists in only 728 league minutes and has scored five in 155 minutes in her past three national team matches.
Per minute, she’s as prolific as anyone you’ll ever see, and oh yeah, she’s capable of absolute nonsense like this:
🔴 EN DIRECTE
— Esport3 (@esport3) April 2, 2022
Spain is loaded in the attacking positions, but manager Jorge Vilda might not have a choice but to give Paralluelo a solid number of minutes in New Zealand. And she’ll probably reward him for doing so.
4. ENGLAND: Lauren James, Chelsea (21)
Technically, most of the players on this list have enjoyed better production than James, who has produced just six goals, two assists and 41 shot-creating actions in 18 matches for Chelsea this season.
James is more of a ball progressor than a scorer — at FBref.com, her greatest statistical similarity is shared with American attacking midfielder Rose Lavelle, not a forward or a winger — but hot damn, what a ball progressor she is. She dribbles and draws fouls as well as anyone (she drew a foul to set up the equalizer against Lyon in the Champions League quarterfinals a couple of weeks ago), and no one on this list has inspired more YouTube highlight reels with fun titles like “60+ Players Humiliated by Lauren James” and “Lauren James destroying everyone in 2022!”
In terms of form and function, she’s more like Wolves’ Adama Traore or Newcastle’s Allan Saint-Maximin than like her brother, Chelsea wingback Reece James. But she’s absurdly entertaining, and she’s only going to see her production rise in the coming years.
3. GERMANY: Jule Brand, Wolfsburg (20)
2. GERMANY: Klara Bühl, Bayern Munich (22)
They’re both versatile attackers who are best on the left wing. They play for Germany’s two club powers, and over the past two years they’ve combined for 1,416 minutes, 7 goals and 6 assists from 28 chances in the national team shirt.
It’s hard to talk about one without talking about the other. Buhl is more of a high-volume creator — she has attempted 27 shots to Brand’s 10 in this two-year sample and created 21 chances to Brand’s seven — but Brand is more clinical in front of goal and more dangerous in one-on-one situations.
Brand was mostly ineffective at last summer’s Euros, and after dominating through four matches (1 goal, 1 assist, 14 chances created), Buhl missed the semis and finals after a positive COVID-19 test. The German attack gets plenty of veteran maturity from players such as captain Alexandra Popp (Wolfsburg), Svenja Huth (Wolfsburg) and Lina Magull (Bayern), and they indeed reached the Euro finals without as much help as possible from these two. But if Brand and Buhl click as they have for their respective clubs, and other early-20s stars such as Lena Oberdorf (Wolfsburg) and Sydney Lohmann (Bayern … I told you these two clubs dominate!) are strong, Germany is one of the tournament’s two or three favorites.
1. USA: Sophia Smith, Portland Thorns (22)
Owner of the most famous bubble braid in the sports universe, Smith went from up-and-comer to slam dunk national team starter in the snap of a finger. She scored seven goals in 21 matches for the Portland Thorns during the 2021 NWSL season, then erupted for 14 in 18 in 2022. She has scored 11 national team goals in the past 53 weeks. When she didn’t score in either of the USA’s recent friendly wins over Ireland, it felt as if she was in a slump. Two whole scoreless matches! (She had had four goals in the six matches before that.)
Then again, she offset that terrible funk by combining four goals with an assist in her first two NWSL matches of 2023.
This is just unreal, @sophsssmith 🤯
— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) April 1, 2023
(I like to think that, after outmuscling two Kansas City defenders and outmaneuvering a third, she actually said “Boop!” out loud before dinking that ridiculous goal past the goalkeeper.)
Mallory Swanson’s injury means extra scoring pressure on Smith and Rodman as well as on veterans such as Morgan and Rapinoe. Somehow, the surest thing in that bunch is the 22-year-old, possibly the surest thing in the entire American player pool and a potential star of the next four World Cups.